“May god preserve us from the hands of the Senj”
With the current wargaming interest in pirates a discussion in Ren-List inspired me to take a closer look at some European ‘pirates’ who in the 16th and early 17th century had a reputation just as terrible as the Buccaneers of the West Indies – the Uskoks.
The name Uskok comes from a verb meaning ‘to leap over’ and originally referred to men who rejected Ottoman rule and crossed over to Christian lands. They originated in the fortress of Klis which guarded the pass above the port of Split around 1532. After an heroic defence, the death of their leader Petar Kruzic caused them to capitulate to the Ottoman besiegers. They were allowed to withdraw and moved north settling in the Dalmatian port of Senj around 1537. Then in Hapsburg hands since 1526.
The Uskoks at War
Despite having no seafaring tradition they soon became skilled seamen and continued to harass the Ottomans on sea and land. They controlled the Kvarner Gulf and raided as far south as Dubrovnik. Allies on the islands informed them of ship movements. They were so effective that the Ottomans retaliated by raiding over the Sava River leading to the Hapsburg-Ottoman war of 1593-1606.
Uskok heroic ballads recount forays against the Ottomans, mostly on land, although it is their reputation as ‘pirates’ primarily from Venetian sources which is best known today. The first recorded attack on a Christian ship was in 1566. After the Venetians made peace with the Ottomans in 1573, the Uskoks felt they had been betrayed and Venetian shipping became a regular target. As ever with Venice, trade with the Ottomans was more important than crusading fervour. Before this date the Venetians often aided the Uskoks and prize ships were bought in Venice. Pope Gregory XIII had even given the Uskoks a large subsidy.
The most famous Uskok success at sea was in 1597 when 17 ships and 500 men attacked a fleet of Venetian and Ottoman merchant ships at Rovinj in Istria. The booty exceeded a million Austrian crowns including the Venetian governor’s baggage.
The Uskok boats (braceras) were smaller than the Venetian galleys enabling them to take advantage of shoals and the unpredictable winds of the Dalmatian coast. This is illustrated when the Venetian admiral (and future Doge) Giovanni Bembo trapped an Uskok fleet with 700 men in the port of Rogiznica, north of Split. No escape was possible by land as the Turks controlled the mountain passes. Then a strong Sirocco wind came at night which caused the Venetians to spread out to avoid collisions. The Uskoks set sail passing through the fleet undetected. By daylight they were clear and beyond reach.
Venice’s frequent complaints to the Austrian’s resulted in diplomatic sympathy but little action. The Hapsburg’s regarded the Uskoks as a useful tool to pressure Venice. Not to mention the liberal distribution of Uskok bribes. Occasional Austrian attempts to govern the Uskoks met with equal problems. The Hapsburg governor Rabatta imprisoned a popular Uskok leader Jurisa and hanged a few others. The Uskoks rebelled and cut his head off. His corpse was hung in the church where the women “to show that they were not less savage than their husbands, lapped up with their tongues the blood which issued from its gaping wounds”.
The capture and beheading of the Venetian admiral Christoforo Veniero (other Venetians were made to walk the plank) led to the Uskok War 1615-17. The war on land between Venice and Austria was a desultory affair. However, the Uskoks had several major successes raiding as far as Venice itself. Unfortunately for the Uskoks they were abandoned by Austria in the Treaty of Madrid 1617. Their boats were burned and the remaining population transported inland to the district of Otocac where they remained as frontier troops, gradually losing their distinct identity.
Uskoks in Battle
The following two engagements illustrate the type of battle the Uskoks participated in.
The Uskoks often allied with Dalmatian nobles in attempts to liberate areas of Dalmatia from Ottoman rule, despite opposition from Venice and Dubrovnik. The most famous action took place on 7April 1596 when a force of 380 Uskoks supported the Split nobleman Ivan Alberti in the recapture of the Ottoman fortress of Klis. Forty Dalmatians from Split and Trogir with eighty Uskoks gained entry to the fortress by bribery. Before sunrise they admitted 300 Uskoks who overwhelmed the Ottoman garrison. A joint Uskok/Dalmatian garrison held the fortress while others sought to encourage a wider uprising.
The Ottomans responded promptly and within a month 10,000 troops were besieging Klis. Far from supporting the Christian uprising Venice closed the borders and stopped any support or supplies reaching the Uskoks and their allies in Klis. Habsburg border troops from Karlovac with Uskok support commanded by General Lenkovic attempted an overland relief. However, the relief column was destroyed by a superior Ottoman force in Bosnia and the uprising collapsed. By 29 May the garrison abandoned Klis and fled back to Senj. This further reinforced the Uskok sense of Venetian betrayal.
A typical large scale raiding action took place in December 1604 when a force of 400 Uskoks sailed south for some ‘Christmas shopping’ at Ottoman expense! After forcing their way past a Venetian fleet in the Velebit Channel they landed at Trogir. Half the Uskoks then crossed Venetian territory to raid the neighbouring Ottoman district. They captured 15000 cattle, ransoming some back to their owners and slaughtering the rest before returning with their booty to the boats.
The Venetian commander with mainly Albanian troops cornered the Uskoks in a bay on the island of Iz. The Uskoks built a barricade on a hill above the beach and the Venetian fleet held off the beach until reinforcements arrived. On Christmas day a storm blew up and the following day the Venetians stormed ashore. When they reached the barricade the Uskoks had gone. During the night some Uskoks had tended fires, played musical instruments and built dummy guns. They rest had cut rollers greased with cattle fat and hauled their boats over the crest of the island to safety. To add insult to injury they captured a Venetian Fregata, taking the cargo and six merchants as captives. As they left they shouted “Go back and tell the Provveditore General from us that we’ve been paid for the meat he took”.
The Uskoks were divided into three groups. The Casalini who had fixed residence in Senj. The Stipendiati also based in Senj organised into four companies of 50 each commanded by a Voivodas. This title was also used for military leaders who had some limited military authority over the Uskoks as a whole.
Lastly the more numerous Venturini, minor chieftains and boat owners. Whilst these were mostly Slavs, adventurers from far and wide joined the Uskoks. The French ambassador to Venice reported that “of the Uskoks hanged on 14 August 1618 nine were Englishmen, five of whom were gentlemen and another belonged to one of the noblest families of Britain”. The totality of Uskoks probably did not exceed 2-3000 in addition to the local inhabitants.
Raiding companies consisted of between ten and thirty Uskoks on a boat led by a Harambasa (Turkish for leader of robbers). In the 1590’s records mention twenty-five to thirty harambasas or leaders of barks. A harambasa led by example and to attract investment he had to demonstrate military prowess and a proven track record of successful raids. Attempts by the Military Frontier authorities to impose harambasas almost always failed as they could not recruit and retain a following.
Expeditions would be financed by the community and even the church gained a tithe on the spoils. Friars preached sermons on the need to intensify raiding and the whole community were trained for war. The Venetians claimed that women encouraged their husbands in violent activity and exchanged partners “so that for the most part the obsequies of one husband and marriage to another are celebrated on the same day.”
A variety of weapons were used although arquebus/muskets, pistols and axes were commonplace. The ballads talk of horses and in land warfare at least some troops would have been mounted. Uskok dress is more problematical. The townspeople would probably have been armed and dressed like Venetian Dalmatian Scapoli. The dress of the Venturini would have been more varied reflecting the wider origins of these men. Ottoman and Bosnian styles can be identified from the limited records. Venetian observers refer to a distinctive Uskok identity which is reflected in contemporary traditional dress. This includes a partly shaven head with a single long lock of hair. A shirt with wide short sleeves, under a short colourful waistcoat. Baggy breeches to the calf with cloth gaiters and leather sandals.
Uskoks from the Old Glory range (from the editor's collection)
Uskok boats were a type of light galley known as a Bracera. These mostly had eight oars and a crew of 24 to 36. The larger Bracere were twice this size. They could cover 100 sea miles in a night and were more manoeuvrable and of lighter draught than their Venetian opponents. They could be transported overland for short distances and had a sea-cock which enabled scuttling and later recovery. They usually operated in squadrons from six to eight.
Senj was a former Illyrian, Roman and then Croat settlement. The town was walled and heavily fortified in the shape of a pentagon. In 1558 the fortress of Nehaj was built by the Uskok ‘Captain’ General Ivan Lenkovic. This fortress dominated the countryside, as it does to this day. The small harbour was protected by the famous local north-easterly wind, the senjska bura, as much as by fortification. To the landward the Dinaric Alps tower above the town with, in the 16th century, the only route through being the Vratnik pass (698m).
An army list for DBR is set out below. Figures can be recruited from Venetian and Austrian ranges with a small number of other figures to represent western adventurers. Bosnian and Ottoman figures are probably closest to the classic Uskok identity. Old Glory now produce an excellent bag of Uskok foot and Croat horse from the same period.
Croat horse from the Old Glory range (Editor's collection)
Warm. Ag.1 WW, Rv, H(S), H(G), O, RGo, Wd, BUA Max N300
CinC Ln(F) @ 31 AP or Bd(S) @ 29 AP if embarked 1
Horse LH(S) @ 5 AP 0-1
Casalini Bd(F) @ 5 AP 0-1
Stipendiati Sh(I) @ 4 AP 0-2
Venturini Wb(O) @ 4 AP 5-15
Sharpshooters Sk(S) @ 4 AP 1-4
Townsmen Hd(S) @ 2 AP 5-25
Heavy Guns Art(S) @ 25 AP 0-1
Light Guns Art(I) @ 5 AP 0-2
Grande Bracere Bt(S) @ 3 AP [Bd,Wb,Sk(S),Art(I)] 2-5
Bracere Bt(O) @ 2 AP [Wb] 4-10
Small petaches, pinks, tartanes and feluccas
Shp(I) @ 3 AP [Bd, Wb,Sk(S),Art(I)] 0-6
Regrade townsmen to include wider introduction of firearms Hd(F) @ 1 AP ½-all
Austrian - List: Austrian Imperial (not against Venice except 1615-17)
Venice – List: Venetian Colonial (only before 1566)
Other Uskok – List: Uskok (representing other Dalmatian towns. No townsmen if enough vessels to fully embark)
Spanish – After 1615 (representing Ribera’s Adriatic squadron)
Allied General Bd(S) @ 29 AP 1
Tercio Foot ½ Bd(F) or Sh(I) @ 4 AP rest Sh(O) @ 6 AP 2-8
Gallease Gal(S) @ 5 AP [Bd or Sh] 1
Galleys Gal(O) @ 4AP [Bd or Sh] 1 per Tercio Foot
Transports Sh(I) @ 3 AP [Bd, Sh, Bg] 0-4
Only Spaniards can serve in this command and the minima only apply if used.
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