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In several parts of Europe, there once lived groups of pirates of Slavic descent. Covering a wide array of countries and backgrounds these pirates lived along the coasts of the Adriatic, Black and Baltic Seas dating as far back as three-hundred B.C up to the early 17th century.

Contents

Illyrian Pirates

The earliest Slavic pirates on record, the Illyrians, resided along the Balkan Mountains in what is now called Herzegovina and Montenegro. There is not a great deal of information on this group available, but they can be traced back to third century B.C.E. and what is known sets the pattern for later pirate activity. At the earliest point of the Illyrians’ existence, their reputation was that of raiders and brigands on land, as compared to the well-known version of high-seas piracy.[1]

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From Trade to Raids

Since the area was underdeveloped and scarce in food due to the mountain barriers, it was necessary for the Illyrians to travel to surrounding areas, originally trying to establish trade. This attempt at trade turned into continuous raids, being their only means of survival, on the people of Macedonia, who posed no threat at the time. By 231 B.C.E. the Illyrians discovered that their location on the Adriatic Sea was ideal for piratical activity, equipped with straits and inlets ideal for escape, thus beginning the sea-bound piracy period.[2] At a location that was commonly passed by prospective merchants searching for trade possibilities, it was an ideal place to carry on pillaging without having to travel far out to sea. They began attacking ships that sailed from Italy, luring men and women to their ships under the pretense of trading, then proceeding to kidnap them.

Roman Interference

In 230 B.C.E. their leader, Queen Teuta, provoked the Romans to attempt to carry out disciplinary action upon the Illyria, at a time when these pirates were capable of sending out a fleet of one hundred vessels complete with the strength of five thousand men.[3] This marked the first Roman interference in the Balkan Peninsula area, certainly not being the last, with Roman power attempting to spread to areas closer to the homeland of the Illyria such as Greece and Macedonia. Illyrian pirates continued to wreak havoc until their involvement in the Macedonian war against the Romans where their activity began to slow, since the Romans finally found that only they had the resources to keep the Illyrian off of the eastern shores.[4]

The End of The Illyrians

The power struggle between the Romans and Illyrian pirates continued to wage up until the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C.E. where the fleet was captured and driven inland, back to the mountain valleys where they had come from. This was necessary since the Romans felt that the Illyrians had become more than the enemy of one group of people, but the enemy of all who came in contact with them.[4] The original Illyrian population began to dwindle and was soon replaced by what are now the Serbians and Croatians. Remaining Illyrians taught these people the traditional trade of the coast, becoming the only experts in navigation and buccaneering that the Slavic people have turned out.[5]

Baltic Slavs

Centuries later in the early 800s, Baltic Slavs were in dire need of resources. Their agriculture was not highly developed, since the dry islets were the only ones capable of cultivation and cattle were scarce.[6] Flax was able to be grown, which was turned into linen or canvas for clothes and used as a form of currency. At this time the Baltic Slavs were also known for bee-keeping, trading their honey and wax to the Germans for church candles and the sealing of documents.[7] Once trade began, the German form of currency circulated amongst the group. After this point information on specifics of the trade between Germans and Slavs is unknown throughout the ninth century.

Attempt to Control Wendish Trade

During this time period it is known that the Slavs crossed paths with the Danes, leading to a series of fateful events. The Slavs of the Baltic had engaged in piratical activity before, while the Danes felt that trade and piracy went hand in hand, making for an interesting attempt at commercial relations.[8] Baltic Slavs soon became interested in expanding, attempting to get a hold of the rivers in Denmark in order to control the Wendish trade. The Danes would not stand for this, causing war to arise between the two groups. Since both were accustomed to the savagery that came with the pirate lifestyle, the battle waged on with more than enough bloodshed and cut-throats who stopped at nothing.[9] The decline of Danish power after the death of their leader in 1035 fueled the Saxon Germans to fight for the possession of the rivers the Baltic Slavs were originally fighting for. Slavs continuously conquered the Germans, their piratical attitudes reflecting this. It was not until the Wendish Crusade of 1147 that sent the Slavs beyond the point of recovery, therefore fixing German domination over the Baltic rivers and Wendish trade.[10]

Queen Margaret

Denmark and Mecklenburg

Between the years of 1375 through 1398, Queen Margaret of Denmark and the various dukes of Mecklenburg attempted to bring their countries together. This attempt instigated piratical activity since the countries would not always agree with one another. Both countries used the piracy that was present to their advantage, enabling the pirates to attack the opposing country. Pirates took this use to their advantage also, encouraging them to pillage the targeted country without the worry of possible consequence. Little did the queen and dukes know that once piracy was provoked, there was no easy way of stopping it.

Attacks on Merchant Ships

During this time the merchants of the Hanseatic League (also known as the German Hansa) objected to the practice of using piracy, where fleets of pirate ships would attack and cause their trade to suffer irreparable losses from that point on.[11] On March 14, 1377 it was reported that 200 pirates were in the area, while a month later this number rose to 400.[12] After this time measures were taken as an attempt to reduce the amount of piracy, resorting to equipping peace ships and making them patrol the seas from the beginning of sailing season until November 11 of that year. Trading vessels were also warned to not sail unless it was done in groups.

To prevent people from harboring a pirate it was made known that those who did harbor a pirate or any stolen good would be treated the same as the pirates themselves. Duke Albert of Mecklenburg felt that he would not be accused of doing such a thing, seeing that he believed the pirates were supporters of his and would refrain from releasing his name. The Duke was never caught while Queen Margaret was not so lucky, accused of frequently protecting and enabling the pirates. In response to the accusations against Margaret, a truce was drawn to last from September 1381 through November 11, 1383, listing the names of pirate chiefs which included Danish nobles, knights, squires, bailiffs, councilors, and vassals of the queen.[13] These efforts proved to be useless and piracy continued, leaving the merchant Hansa to patrol the seas at a great risk.

Queen Margaret Demands Skane

In 1384 Queen Margaret demanded that the Hansa providence, the island of Skane, would be put under her control. The Hansa wrote a list of demands in return for the providence, asking for compensation due to their great suffering at the hands of the pirates, but Queen Margaret made no commitments to these demands. Upon meeting with the Hansa in 1385 she was informed of their refusal to surrender the providence, so she took formal possession of the providence against the Hansa will.[14] The Hansa were soon informed of this, unable to object to her actions. If they were to revolt the Hansa would be facing a war against Queen Margaret, and they were in no shape for such extreme actions. Through their cooperation the queen had no need to use her piratical partners, leading to the eventual end of piracy for that time.

Vitalienbrüder

War on Denmark

The inevitable reappearance of pirates occurred in 1389 once Mecklenburg declared war upon Denmark, where the pirates were now fully under Mecklenburg’s control. It was made known that Mecklenburg would equip war ships and issue letters of marque to freebooters, placing the pirates under full legal protection.[15] The pirates began to carry their stolen goods to Stockholm where they became known as Vitalienbrüder, which translates to “victual brothers”.[16] After Stockholm they captured the islands Bornholm and Gotland as their headquarters due to the location. Here the pirates recognized that all members of a crew should be treated equally, diving shares fairly, calling themselves Likendeeler or “equal dividers”. Their motto was “Godes vrende unde al der werlt vyande” which translates to “God’s friends and the foe of all the world”.[17] Despite being friend or foe of the Likendeeler, ships traveling through the Baltic were attacked where the crew was thrown overboard or murdered. Merchants in Strausland who claimed to have captured the pirates treated them in like manner, forcing the pirates into barrels with their heads sticking out at one end, storing them on deck as human cargo to be brought to the gallows.[18] Piratical activity continued until the Hansa became an intermediate for Denmark and Mecklenburg where, this time, Queen Margaret had felt the effects of piracy. Her ships were captured and destroyed, Danish towns had been burnt to the ground, and a bishop on journey for her service was imprisoned in Stockholm.

Piracy Outlawed

By 1395 piracy was officially outlawed as an attempt to create peace in the Baltic once more, which ended up being more of a form of “paper peace”. Piracy had proved to be so profitable that pirates continued their activity, using the island of Gotland as headquarters and Duke Eric of Mecklenburg as the pirate chief.[19] From there the pirates preyed on Russia and Livonia while continuing to raid the Hansa, then pressed on to assault the Grand Master of Prussia in 1398. The Grand Master did not stand for this, equipping a large fleet and sailing to Gotland, where castles were burned and the pirates soon evacuated.[20]

The Uskoks

More than a century ahead between 1520 and 1618, the Adriatic coast was home to pirates of Christianity. Called Uskoks, derived from the Croatian word uskočiti (to jump in), the name implies that its members were refugees from across a border, more specifically from areas surrounding Senj, Croatia.[21] Large portions of the population began to travel to Senj in 1520 when the Ottoman Empire invaded the Balkan Peninsula with raids and destruction, bringing Senj natives together with those from the lands of Habsburg, other Croatians from Dalmatia and Dubrovnik, Albanians from southern Venetian territories, and Italians from the western shores of the Adriatic.[22]

Religion-based Formation

Battle of Mohāchs, 1526

In 1522 the border territory of Senj was taken over by the Habsburgs under the authority of Archduke Ferdinand, forming a state-controlled Militärgrenze, or Military Frontier.[23] Numerous refugees from Ottoman areas began settling along this territory, crossing the border to escape the terror of Ottoman attacks. Reasons for fleeing Ottoman areas changed after the Battle of Mohāchs in 1526 when Ottoman authorities, the Turks, put a limit on the privileges that Christians were given, unless these Christians were to convert to the Muslim faith. Christian guerilla resistance in Turk-occupied areas of Dalmatia and Bosnia caused these people to flee and settle down, first at the fortress of Klis along the Military Frontier, then at Senj.[24]

Initial Acts of Piracy

After the war of the Holy League in 1537 against the Ottoman Empire, a truce between Venice and the Ottomans was created in 1539.[25] This led to the evacuation of all Uskoks in Dalmatia in 1541 where they had been defending a Christian enclave in the mountains during the war.[26] Throughout the following years the Habsburgs were up in arms with the Turks, giving the Uskoks the opportunity to repeatedly raid Bosnia and Dalmatia. The Uskoks were able to continue doing so up until 1547 when peace was established between the two, forcing the Uskoks to find other ways of making ends meet. As with other Slavic pirates, the Uskok territory was not suitable for any form of agriculture, forcing them to turn to piracy once more.

Uskok Code

As a group whose central reason for being brought together was Christianity, the Uskoks’ explanation for piracy and warfare rested in their religion. These people felt they were fighting a holy war against the Muslim enemy in defense of the boundaries of Christendom.[27] Seeing that these people were once refugees from Ottoman nations, they were given no choice but to leave in order to continue following the religion they had been their entire lives. The Uskok people established a code to follow, holding Senj honor and its values in a central place of that code. Honor is what they believed to be the most important quality that a hero could have, which all Uskoks strived to be. Other important aspects of the Uskok heroic honor are:

loyalty to their city, army, and band; honorable attention to every knight and obligation; readiness to lay down their lives or spill their blood in time of war; experience in warfare; ability to benefit their city; success and glory in duels with the Turks and other enemies of the Christian faith; and severity in punishing those who were disobedient or rebellious.[28]

It was also made known the Uskok qualities that would cancel out one’s honor:

reluctance to shed one’s own blood; failure to engage the enemy in battle; groundless boasting; avoidance of risks on the frontier; failure to take prisoners, trophies, or booty; meanness in rewards to comrades or spies; the absence of any general recognition of one’s manliness; and the lack of battle scars or wounds.[28]

From these principles it is clear that the Uskoks admired the strength and arrogance of a hero and despised the weakness displayed by a coward. The importance of these principles was instilled in boys at a young age. Taught to take part in competitions, they would test their strength and dexterity though racing, fighting, and throwing stones at one another until blood ran.[28] Over time, this code would be broken, ignored, and overlooked as the Uskok attitude and motives would change.

Building a Reputation

Beginning as inland pirates, they shortly turned to the seas once realizing the full potential of the geography of Senj. The land was protected by thick forests and mountains while the jagged cliffs near the seas prevented warships from entering. The seas in the Gulf of Quarnero were quite rough, which posed navigational hazards as further protection from their enemies.[29 ] Uskoks began their attacks upon Turkish ships with boats large enough to hold thirty to fifty men. After 1561 they attacked Christian shipping in Dubrovnik with numbers never exceeding 2000 men.[29 ] By 1573 the Uskoks caused considerable concern in Venice with frequent attacks once Venetian attempts of protection had proven to be ineffective. The following years led the reputation of the Uskoks to spread, becoming the resort of refugees and outlaws of all kinds from all nations.[30]

Senj, Croatia

Count Rabatta

Between 1600 and the end of 1601 Count Joseph de Rabatta was appointed to act as commissioner to those in Senj as well as the chief negotiator with the Venetians. His time ruling over the Uskoks was brutal where many Uskoks were hung or sent to fight in the Turkish war[31], revealing his favor over the Venetian side. He soon lost all military support, giving the Uskoks the opportunity to overthrow his rule and was ultimately killed in January of 1602, enabling Senj to return to its usual state.

Final Years: 1611-1618

Up until 1611 the Uskoks were relatively undisturbed. Piracy was strictly forbidden at this point but it was tolerated in order to avoid payment of subsides owed to those of Senj.[32] A Venetian squadron intercepted an Uskok fleet in the spring of 1613 in response to the complaints regarding Uskok activity and, as reported, sixty Uskoks were beheaded with their heads then displayed in St. Mark’s Square.[32] In response to this offense the Uskok captured a galley of Venetians, slaughtered the crew, and used the blood of the victims to flavor their bread.[33] An agreement between the Habsburg and Venetians in 1618 expelled the Uskoks from Senj[34], sending them more inland into Croatia with very few families who were proven to be peaceful remaining in Senj, bringing their reign to its end.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Dell, Harry J. "The Origin and Nature of Illyrian Piracy." Historia, 1967: 349
  2. ^ Semple, Ellen Churchill. "Pirate Coasts of the Mediterranean." Geographical Review, 1916: 141, 143
  3. ^ Semple, Ellen Churchill. "Pirate Coasts of the Mediterranean." Geographical Review, 1916: 143
  4. ^ a b Dell, Harry J. "The Origin and Nature of Illyrian Piracy." Historia, 1967: 358
  5. ^ Semple, Ellen Churchill. "Pirate Coasts of the Mediterranean." Geographical Review, 1916: 145
  6. ^ Thompson, James Westfall. "Early Trade Relations Between the Germans and the Slavs." The Journal of Political Economy, 1922: 546
  7. ^ Thompson, James Westfall. "Early Trade Relations Between the Germans and the Slavs." The Journal of Political Economy, 1922: 547
  8. ^ Thompson, James Westfall. "Early Trade Relations Between the Germans and the Slavs." The Journal of Political Economy, 1922: 548
  9. ^ Thompson, James Westfall. "Early Trade Relations Between the Germans and the Slavs." The Journal of Political Economy, 1922: 550
  10. ^ Thompson, James Westfall. "Early Trade Relations Between the Germans and the Slavs." The Journal of Political Economy, 1922: 550-551
  11. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 39
  12. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 45
  13. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 49
  14. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 51
  15. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 57
  16. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 59
  17. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 60
  18. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 61
  19. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 66
  20. ^ Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 67-68
  21. ^ Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 3
  22. ^ Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 51
  23. ^ Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 40
  24. ^ Longworth, Philip. "The Senj Oskoks Reconsidered." Slavonic and East European Review, 1979: 148
  25. ^ Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 305
  26. ^ Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Venice and The Uskoks of Senj: 1537-1618." The Journal of Modern History, 1961: 148
  27. ^ Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 155
  28. ^ a b c Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 163
  29. ^ a b Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Venice and The Uskoks of Senj: 1537-1618." The Journal of Modern History, 1961: 149
  30. ^ Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Venice and The Uskoks of Senj: 1537-1618." The Journal of Modern History, 1961: 150
  31. ^ Longworth, Philip. "The Senj Oskoks Reconsidered." Slavonic and East European Review, 1979: 152
  32. ^ a b Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Venice and The Uskoks of Senj: 1537-1618." The Journal of Modern History, 1961: 153
  33. ^ Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Venice and The Uskoks of Senj: 1537-1618." The Journal of Modern History, 1961: 154
  34. ^ Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992: 306

References

  • Bjork, David K. "Piracy In The Baltic, 1375-1398." Speculum, 1943: 39-68.
  • Bracewell, Catherine Wendy. The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992.
  • Dell, Harry J. "The Origin and Nature of Illyrian Piracy." Historia, 1967: 344-358.
  • Longworth, Philip. "The Senj Oskoks Reconsidered." Slavonic and East European Review, 1979: 348-368.
  • Rothenberg, Gunther E. "Venice and The Uskoks of Senj: 1537-1618." The Journal of Modern History, 1961: 148-156.
  • Semple, Ellen Churchill. "Pirate Coasts of the Mediterranean." Geographical Review, 1916: 134-151.
  • Thompson, James Westfall. "Early Trade Relations Between the Germans and the Slavs." The Journal of Political Economy, 1922: 543-558.

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