A Brief History of the Serbian Insurrections 1804-1817
By Dale Pappas
The Serbs are descended from Slavic tribes that settled in the Balkans in the sixth century A.D. In medieval times, a powerful Serbian kingdom emerged under Tsar Stephen Dushan. The Serbian state under Dushan extended from the Danube to central Greece. However, Dushan’s empire slowly crumbled after his death in 1355. The once powerful Serbian kingdom was dealt a fatal blow at the hands of the Turks at Kosovo in 1389. From that moment on, the Serbian people awaited the day when they could cast off Turkish authority and rebuild their state.
Although Serbs lived in many areas of the Balkans, the majority inhabited Serbia proper. The area is located south of the Danube between Montenegro and Bosnia in the west, and Bulgaria in the east. Serbia proper had fallen to the Ottomans in the fourteenth century and became one of the empire’s key European possessions. However, by the late 18th century, the Turkish administration had become corrupt and ineffective. One of the significant causes of the insurrection would be the government’s inefficiency.
Ottoman power in Serbia was concentrated in the Belgrade pashalik. The province was located between the Danube and Sava Rivers to the north, the Drina River in the west, and Bulgaria in the east. The sultan was represented by a pasha, who governed the province. The elite military force, the Janissaries garrisoned the province’s defenses. Another aspect of Turkish rule was the feudal system controlled by the Sipahis, or landowners. The livestock trade, most importantly of pigs was successful in the area and became a common profession. George Petrovich, the future revolutionary leader, was one who chose the occupation. The pig trade also created a class of prosperous men, who took an active part in their local governments and were elected knezes, or chieftains of their respected villages. Each district in the province was represented by an oborknez, or grand knez, who dealt directly with Ottoman officials.
The Belgrade pashalik was the battlefield of several Ottoman-Hapsburg conflicts between 1683 and 1791. The conflicts led many Serbs to flee to Hapsburg territory in Hungary, and allowed a different culture and society to develop. However, the Serbs of Hungary remained close with those in Ottoman Serbia and would later contribute money and supplies during the insurrection. While many fled the pashalik, other Serbs, mainly mountaineers from neighboring provinces chose to settle there. These Serbs were known for their militancy, which would be a valuable resource during the insurrection.
Causes of the Insurrection
Serbian Orthodox Church
In the mid-fifteenth century, when the Ottomans crushed the remnants of the medieval Serbian kingdom, the Serbian patriarchate at Ipek (Pec) was abolished. However, in 1557 the patriarchate was restored through the work of the notable Ottoman Grand Vizier of Serbian ancestry, Sokolli. The patriarchate served as the main reminder of a Serbian state until the early the 18th century, when it was once again abolished on the sultan’s order and replaced with Greek influence, at the urging of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The church was key in maintaining old traditions of the medieval Serbian empire, which was crucial to the rise of nationalism and the protection of national unity.
Epic Poetry and the Intellectual and Literary Renaissance
Another factor in the preservation of Serbian culture during Ottoman rule was epic poetry. Most of the works were composed by unknown individuals, but passed on through the generations, which ensured their survival. These works mainly focused on the history of Serbia from the days of its medieval empire, which was a source of inspiration to many Serbs who awaited the return of their state’s powerful status.
Two of the leaders of the intellectual awakening of the late 18th century were Dimitrije Obradovich and Vuk Karajich. Obradovich was a former monk who traveled extensively through Europe in the mid 18th century and embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment. His European travels led him to seek the westernization of Serbia. In addition, Obradovich was disappointed that there was nothing written in his language besides works in Church Slavonic. In response, Obradovich set out to create a Serbian literary language that represented that of his countrymen. He eventually wrote of his own experiences, as well as on issues effecting Serbs, and even translated works from other languages.
The modern Serbian literary language was improved by Vuk Karajich, who served in the First Insurrection as a secretary to his illiterate commander. Karajich’s work with Serbian literature included his Serbian dictionary as well as a collection of popular poems that eventually gained recognition in Europe. Although both Obradovich and Karajich had an impact on Serbian culture, they had quite different beliefs. Obradovich was a rationalist whose views reflected the Age of Enlightenment. He sought to modernize Serbia and connect the Serbs to the West. Karajich, on the other hand was a romantic who sought to preserve Serbian folk traditions. Although different, both men and their work were crucial to the development of modern Serbia.
Janissary Power in Belgrade
The Janissaries were arguably the most successful and feared troops of the medieval period. In those years, the force was comprised of select young Christian boys who were converted to Islam and molded into fierce warriors. Eventually, these young men would terrorize their own people in the Balkans, as soldiers of the Ottoman sultan. The Janissaries were crucial to the success of the Ottoman Empire during its expansion into Europe. However, the Janissaries of the 18th century had become rebellious mercenaries with their own agenda. They deposed several sultans, after which they were dispersed throughout the empire.
The Janissaries of the Belgrade pashalik were particularly brutal and corrupt. They refused to bow to the local Ottoman administration and abused the Serb populace. The Janissaries’ power in the pashalik was contested in 1791, when the sultan, Selim III ordered them to leave Belgrade. The Janissaries though refused to comply, which led the pasha, Hadji Mustafa to call on the Serbian knezes for military support. At first, the Serbs were reluctant to join the pasha, as they feared the response from Constantinople if the sultan did not approve of their actions. However, by 1794 Selim III had encouraged the Serbians to aid Hadji Mustafa Pasha by expanding the power of local governments and minimizing Ottoman interference. Unfortunately for both the Serbs and the sultan, the reforms were short-lived, as they could not be guaranteed due to the firm position of the Janissaries in the pashalik.
The Janissaries further angered the sultan’s government, known as the Sublime Porte, when they joined the rebellious pasha, Pasvanoglu Osman. Pasvanoglu was the Pasha of Vidin, in Bulgaria who constantly opposed the Porte’s authority and often raided the Belgrade pashalik. In 1797, he rebelled against the Ottomans, which prompted Hadji Mustafa to organize his Serbian Christians into a militia for defensive purposes. The decision to arm the Christians of the pashalik shocked the Porte and contributed to the peace agreement with Pasvanoglu. The organization of the Serbian militia as well as Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 led the Porte to fear a Christian insurrection.
The perceived threat of a Christian revolt prompted the Porte to take several measures, including raising taxes in Serbia, which caused many to seek refuge in Hungary. Another action taken against the Serbs was the execution of several knezes, including veterans of the war of 1788-91 with Austria. In addition, Turkish officials apprehended the noted Greek revolutionary known as Rigas Feriaos, and ordered his execution in Belgrade.
In late 1801, the Janissaries took possession of the Belgrade pashalik when they executed Hadji Mustafa Pasha. His murder upset many in the pashalik, as he was affectionately known as the “Mother of the Serbs.” By the following year, four Janissary leaders, known as the Dahis emerged as the rulers of the province. The Dahis assumed supreme authority, forcing Serbian leaders to relinquish what powers they possessed. They also challenged the authority of the Sipahis, which sparked a revolt among that group. Few Serbs though joined this movement, but the harsh rule of the Dahis led several knezes to meet in the Valjevo district to declare their intentions to initiate an insurrection.
The man known to history as Kara George, or Black George was born George Petrovich in circa 1768. As previously noted, Petrovich was a pig dealer who earned the name Kara George from his dark complexion and temper. However, by the end of his life, the name could have also been applied to his revolutionary activity against the Turks.
A giant in stature, with a long black moustache and battle-scarred cheek, Kara George was an awe-inspiring figure. He was renown for his temper, which was evident through the brutal beatings he unleashed on those who disobeyed his commands. Although feared for his ruthlessness, Kara George was the ideal candidate to keep the prospect of a successful uprising alive as he had the respect of most military leaders and the population.
Kara George enlisted in the Austrian Freikorps during the war of 1788-91, and fought primarily as a Haiduk (outlaw) in the mountains. After the war, he settled in Hungary but returned to his native Serbia during the rule of Hadji Mustafa Pasha. During Pasvanoglu’s revolt, the pig dealer joined the Serbian militia as an officer. When the Dahis seized power, Kara George was one of the original opposition leaders and was chosen as commander of the Shumadia district during the revolt and remained in a position of power.
Slaughter of the Knezes
In February of 1804, one of the Dahis, Abdullah-aga Fočić escorted a party to the Valjevo district to meet with several knezes. The Dahi though, knew something the knezes did not, they were to be executed for conspiring against the Janissary regime. The ill-fated knezes in the district were beheaded, and shortly afterwards scores of others were murdered at the Dahis’ order. The Dahis felt that the executions of troublesome knezes would prevent a mass uprising in the pashalik, however it did just the opposite.
Opposition to the Dahis: 1804
Although at least 70 were murdered in what became known as the “Slaughter of the Knezes”, Kara George had managed to escape. In response to the brutal measure, Haiduk bands attacked the Janissaries throughout the province. The rapid and effective Haiduk attacks exposed the weaknesses of the Janissaries in the province, as they were ill equipped and outnumbered. The Dahis recognized their fragile position and attempted to sue for peace, however several negotiations broke down without a settlement.
Both the Dahis and the Serbs sought the Porte’s favor. The Dahis sent word to Constantinople, declaring the Serbs to be in revolt. Unfortunately for the Janissary leaders, the Porte had lost patience with their disloyal troops in Belgrade and refused to take action against the Serb population. However, Constantinople did not send aid to their Serbian subjects to defeat the despotic Dahis. The Serbs though, also reached out to the Austrians, who invited Serbian and Turkish officials to Semlin in May of 1804. The Serbians confirmed their loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, but demanded the removal of the Janissaries from the Belgrade pashalik and even proposed autonomy through the appointment of a grand knez. The Porte rejected the proposal because protection from the Janissaries could not be guaranteed.
The Russian Empire, as it was a Slavic and Orthodox power, became an attractive ally for the Serbs as dealings with the Ottomans and the Austrians proved inconclusive. A delegation was sent to St. Petersburg in September of 1804 to seek aid from Tsar Alexander. However, the Serbs found the tsar focused on dealing with Napoleon. Fortunately for the Serbs, the Porte sent the Vizier of Bosnia, Bekir Pasha to negotiate with the Dahis. Bekir Pasha was the former governor of Belgrade and was respected by the Serbs.
In July 1804, an army under Bekir Pasha arrived outside of Belgrade, which led the Dahis to flee to the safety of a fortified island. Serbian leaders, including Kara George demanded that Bekir order the Dahis’ surrender. Negotiations between Bekir and the Dahis dragged on for nearly a month when finally, a party of Serbs under Milenko Stojkovich attacked and killed the four Janissary leaders. The severed heads of the Dahis were sent to Sultan Selim III, it was to be the last gift he would receive from his Serbian subjects.
The War Against the Sultan 1805-1813
The Serbs emerged from the Janissary revolt stronger than ever, as there was a massive number under arms and a capable group of commanders. Even so, there were still knezes that wished for peace. Kara George though, was not among them and pushed for war against the Ottoman Empire itself. He advocated for a mass revolt of all Serbs within the Ottoman Empire as well as those who resided in Hungary and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Serbs sent another petition to Constantinople, which dealt with autonomy. However, the Porte was through negotiating and decided to label the Serbs as rebels.
Hafiz Pasha of Niş (Nish) was dispatched to crush the Serbian Insurrection in August of 1805. Unfortunately for the sultan, Hafiz’s army was routed at Ivankovac on 18 August, and the pasha was killed. Following the battle, Serbian leaders met and created a government, known as a Soviet, or council. Some preferred to call it the Skuptshina, or national assembly. Kara George called for general elections, which were carried out. A Governing Council of mainly elders who were loyal to the former pig dealer was created. This established Kara George as both the military and political leader of the insurrection, but he was not without opposition.
Following the disaster at Ivankovac, the Porte decided to demonstrate its military might by declaring a Holy War and preparing armies throughout the empire to strike at the Serbs. Ibrahim Pasha of Scutari was appointed the commander of the Turkish forces. Fortunately for the Serbs, volunteers from other pashaliks joined them. The Serbs were able to withstand Turkish forces, but desperately sought foreign assistance.
Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805 and the subsequent Peace of Pressburg brought France into Balkan affairs, which troubled the eastern powers, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, and Austria. Naturally, the three empires feared the extension of French authority throughout the Balkans. The Serbs felt that French presence in the region could have developed into military aid in support of the insurrection against Ottoman rule. Unfortunately for the Serbs, Napoleon had no interest in aiding their uprising or waging war against the Ottomans. In fact, he sought to bring the Turks to his side against their common Russian foe. The Porte was comforted by Napoleon’s position as well as their status with both Russia and Austria. As a result, the Ottomans prepared a massive campaign against the Serbs in 1806.
The Ottomans though, underestimated the military prowess of the Serbs and Kara George would make them pay. The Serbs won several battles early in the year, including an engagement against their old nemesis, Pasvanoglu. In August, Kara George smashed a Turkish army at Mišar. Shortly after, one of Kara George’s officers defeated the Turks at Deligrad. By the end of the year, Belgrade had fallen to the Serbs and only a few Turkish fortresses remained.
In 1806, Selim III sided with Napoleon, which led to tension with Russia that culminated a year later with the outbreak of another Russo-Turkish war. In December of 1806, while on the verge of war with Russia, the Ottomans negotiated with the Serbs. The Serbians proposed autonomy within the Ottoman empire, which was initially accepted by the sultan, who wanted to make sure that the Serbs would not join the Russians in the impending conflict. An agreement was reached between the Serbs and the Ottomans that would have ended the insurrection, but the Russo-Turkish war broke out in early 1807. Kara George, as the military and political leader of the Serbs, was forced to make a choice between Russia and the Ottomans; he cast his lot with the tsar. Thus, the Serbian Insurrection was transformed from a war for autonomy to an independence movement.
In July 1807, Russia and Serbia formerly concluded an alliance in which Serbian troops would join the Russian army in return for money, arms, and other necessities. At this moment, it appeared that the Serbs finally had made an ally that would aid them in their new fight for independence. Unfortunately for the Serbs, Tsar Alexander rapidly changed his policies by signing the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon. Russia also reached an agreement with the Turks, and could no longer guarantee protection for the Serb rebels. Kara George was placed in a difficult situation, as the Serbs were once more cast aside by the European powers. The Serbs turned to Emperor Francis in Vienna yet again, and proposed incorporating the Belgrade pashalik into the Austrian Empire, but were rejected. Kara George also approached France for the “powerful protection of the Great Napoleon.” Unfortunately for the Serbs, the Napoleonic Wars forced the powers to focus on their own interests. Russia’s abandonment essentially quashed the Serb’s hopes of obtaining independence. It would not be long before the Ottoman Empire overwhelmed its rebellious Serbian subjects.
Over the next several years, the Serbs were left to fend for themselves against Turkish forces. Under Kara George’s leadership, the Serbs won tremendous victories against incredible odds. However, the Turks refused to accept defeat and repeatedly sent troops to crush the insurrection. Although Russia and Turkey did not formally reach a peace agreement until the Bucharest Treaty of 1812, the Russians could be of no assistance to the Serbs. In addition, Serbian leaders began to organize a revolt against Kara George himself.
Although Kara George was the leader of the insurrection both militarily and politically, other commanders operated in different areas of Serbia and resisted his authority. These military leaders, or Vojvodas commanded the respect of their men because they came from the same districts. Kara George was not opposed as a military leader, but as a political figure. He had rivals throughout Serbia, who sought his position of power. These Vojvodas included Milenko Stojkovich from eastern Serbia, and Jakov Nenadovich in the west. Stojkovich was a powerful commander, who was known to operate an extensive harem in addition to his political and military influence. Nenadovich’s brother had been a powerful knez until his murder during the Dahi regime. Following his brother’s murder, Nenadovich assumed a position of leadership in his district. Between Stojkovich, Nenadovich, and other Serbian leaders, several revolts against Kara George broke out in 1810. Although Kara George was able to fend off attacks from his rivals as well as the Turks, the damage to the Serbian leader had been done.
Following these revolts, the course of the insurrection took a downward spiral, especially for Kara George. The Bucharest Treaty allowed the Turks to concentrate on the Serbian rebels, and several massive armies were once again formed. Although the Serbs won several more victories, including the defeat of another substantial force under Khurshid Pasha on the Bosnian frontier, the rebels were growing weaker.
In 1813, the Ottomans launched a campaign that crushed the First Serb Insurrection and lead to Kara George’s downfall. Three formidable Turkish armies converged on Serbia, one from Niş, another from Vidin, and a third from the Drina. The armies rapidly pressed forward and routed Serbian forces with little resistance. The defeats prompted Kara George to bring reinforcements to engage Khurshid Pasha’s army, which neared Belgrade. Suddenly, Kara George took leave of his army and withdrew to Belgrade. By the end of the year, Kara George had fled across the Danube into Hungary and the insurrection had been crushed. Unfortunately for the Ottomans, the respite would be brief.
Milosh Obrenovich and the Second Insurrection 1815-1817
With the insurrection quelled, the new governor of the Belgrade pashalik, Süleyman Pasha, looked to rebuild the province. Originally, Süleyman had favored pardoning the large majority of Serbians, which brought about the return of many refugees. However, his policy quickly turned to one of revenge as countless corpses littered Belgrade by early 1814. Süleyman though did appoint Milosh Obrenovich oborknez of several districts in order to stabilize the territory.
Süleyman favored Obrenovich for several reasons, including the fact that the two were old rivals on the battlefield. He had earned Süleyman’s respect during the first insurrection, which of course also spared him from the new governor’s harsh reprisals. Another reason why Obrenovich earned the appointment was that he was not a major figure in the insurrection, although his half-brother had been. Obrenovich resented Kara George, whom he blamed for his half-brother’s murder. His hatred of the leader of the First Serbian Insurrection comforted Süleyman as well. Unfortunately for the pasha, Obrenovich shared Kara George’s desire for supreme authority in Serbia.
With the exception of ambition, Obrenovich was nearly the complete opposite of Kara George. While Kara George was a fierce warrior, Obrenovich preferred diplomacy. Although he was far more diplomatic than Kara George, Obrenovich was also capable as serving as a commander in the field. Obrenovich and the Serbs were tested when the Turks unleashed a series of massacres and property seizures. Many Serbs rose in revolt, but were quickly crushed. Although the defeated Serbs were promised amnesty, most of them were slaughtered. The brutal executions of the supposedly pardoned Serbs led Obrenovich to initiate another revolt in 1815.
The revolt began in similar fashion to the first as the Serbs achieved several quick victories. This time though, the Serbs had better timing concerning Western European affairs. Following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, Russia was able to intervene on behalf of the Serbs. Recognizing this Sultan Mahmud II, who reigned from 1808, looked to reach an agreement with the restless Serbs in order to avoid another war with Russia.
In December 1815, Milosh Obrenovich was recognized by the sultan as the supreme knez of the Belgrade pashalik. In addition, the Serbs were granted the right to hold their own national assembly. However, Ottoman officials, garrisons, and Sipahis were to remain in their positions and taxes were to be collected. The agreement was only a minor victory for Obrenovich, as it only began a nearly two decades long battle for autonomy.
Obrenovich solidified his position in 1817 when Kara George was murdered. The leader of the initial revolt returned to Serbia in hopes of obtaining support for another insurrection, this time along with the Greeks, who also remained under Turkish authority. Obrenovich though feared losing his status if he supported another revolt against the Ottomans, so he was greatly relieved when his old nemesis was murdered. He may have even ordered his rival’s death. The head of the legendary Kara George was sent to Sultan Mahmud. Although the noted revolutionary was dead, the struggle between Serbia and the Ottomans continued until the empire’s collapse. Serbia though, was granted autonomy in 1830 and Milosh was declared hereditary prince. Unfortunately for Serbia, long after Milosh’s death, the Obrenovich and Karageorgevitch families fought for control until the early 20th century.
The Serbian Insurrections were the first in a series of challenges to Ottoman rule in the Balkans in the 19th century. They exposed the inability of the decrepit Ottoman Empire to swiftly suppress disturbances within its borders. As a result, the movements permitted the empire’s traditional foes, such as Russia, to pose a serious threat by simply negotiating with the Serb rebels. The European powers made Balkan affairs a top priority following the Serbian Uprisings, and played a key role in Greece’s revolution, which followed several years later. Their influence in the region remained as a result, which contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of nations in the Balkans.
Creasy, Edward Shepherd. History of the Ottoman Turks. London: H. Holt and Company, 1878.
Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. New York: Penguin, 2001.
Hore, Alexander Hugh. Eighteen Centuries of the Orthodox Greek Church. London: J. Parker and Company, 1899.
Jelavich, Barbara. The Balkans. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Lazarovich-Hrebelianovich, Stephen Lazar Eugene, Prince. The Servian People. London: T.W. Laurie, 1911.
Mĭjatović, Elodie Lawton. History of Modern Serbia. London: W. Tweedie, 1872.
Miller, William. The Balkans. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
Petrovich, Michael Boro. A History of Modern Serbia 1804-1918 vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Ranke, Leopold von. A History of Servia and the Servian Revolution, Translated by Louisa Hay Kerr. London: J. Murray, 1847.
Schevill, Ferdinand. The History of the Balkan Peninsula. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1922.
Seton-Watson, Robert William. The Rise of Nationality in the Balkans. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1918.
Singleton, Frederick Bernard. A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Stavrianos, L.S. The Balkans Since 1453. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.
Temperley, H. W. V. History of Serbia. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1919.
 Petrovich, Michael Boro. A History of Modern Serbia 1804-1918 vol. 1. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976. Pg. 3.
 Stavrianos, L.S. The Balkans Since 1453. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961. Pgs. 237-238.
 Ibid; Pg. 238.
 Schevill, Ferdinand. The History of the Balkan Peninsula. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1922. Pg. 317.
 Hore, Alexander Hugh. Eighteen Centuries of the Orthodox Greek Church. London: J. Parker and Company, 1899. Pg. 482.
 Petrovich; Pg. 13.
 Temperley, H.W.V. History of Serbia. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1919. Pg. 171.
 Ranke, Leopold von. History of Servia and the Servian Revolution. London: J. Murray, 1847. Pgs. 111-112.
 Petrovich; Pg. 25.
 Miller, William. The Balkans. London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896. Pg. 309.
 Temperley; Pg. 182.
 Petrovich; Pg. 31.
 Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. New York: Penguin, 2001. Pgs. 1-2.
 Temperley; Pgs. 179-180.
Singleton, Frederick Bernard. A Short History of the Yugoslav Peoples. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Pg. 78.
 Creasy, Edward Shepherd. History of the Ottoman Turks. London: H. Holt and Company, 1878. Pg. 472.
 Petrovich; Pg. 51.
 Lazarovich-Hrebelianovich, Stephen Lazar Eugene, Prince. The Servian People. London: T.W. Laurie, 1911. Pg. 638.
 Petrovich; Pg. 40.
 Hore; Pg. 625.
 Mĭjatović, Elodie Lawton. History of Modern Serbia. London: W. Tweedie, 1872. Pg. 34.
 Stavrianos; Pg. 248.
 Glenny; Pg. 16.
 Temperley; Pg. 194.
 Glenny; Pgs. 18-19.
 Stavrianos; Pg. 248.
 Jelavich, Barbara. The Balkans. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Pg. 203.
 Stavrianos; Pg. 249.
 Seton-Watson, Robert William. The Rise of Nationality in the Balkans. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1918. Pg. 39.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2009