You don’t get a nickname like ‘The Dragon of Bosnia’ by chance, and the life of this dragon was an eventful one, full of fire-breathing, village plundering and flying dramatically over lush wilderness whilst orchestral music roars in the background. That might all sound a bit over-the-top, but I’m quite sure it is true with the possible exception of the dramatic music part. But I’m quite sure it’s all entirely true.
Our story begins on August 31, 1802 in the town of Gradačac in north-east Bosnia. The Gradaščević family ruled the roost in these parts, and young Husein would go on to become the most important Gradaščević of them all, and arguably the most important Bosnian figure of the Ottoman years, but then you can ostensibly put the word ‘arguably’ before anything and it works.
The 19th century would come to be defined as a century of incredible political turmoil in the western Ottoman Empire. It was the time of nations, the century in which national consciousness developed within Europe and her decaying empires tried to keep it stymied. The Ottoman Empire was arguably (see) the weakest of the empires settled in Europe at the time, and by the 1830s this had become so apparent that Sultan Mehmed II decided he needed reform; re-centralising the empire to prolong Turkish rule in its various provinces, of which, Bosnia was the most western.
10 years prior, at the beginning of the 1820s, Husein Gradaščević was a 19-year-old leader of the local Kapetanija (administrative border district), making him a respected military voice of the town. There was something different about Husein though. While strong military figures before him had generally carried an air of untouchable standing, Husein almost came across as a man of the people. He was wealthy, yes, but he treated his serfs extremely well and with respect, which believe it or not was still rare in early 19th Century Bosnia. This might not make up for the fact that he had serfs in the first place, but there we go. Our dragon commissioned the erecting of many a landmark whilst in charge, including a particularly elegant white mosque in Gradačac.
By the time the 1830’s came around our dear Husein was making something of a splash throughout Bosnia, picking up support here, there and everywhere. Except Herzegovina, which might be important later in the story (just to clarify, this will be important later in the story). The Bosnians were getting a little tetchy regardless of Mehmed’s reforms. They had been loyal soldiers to the Ottoman Empire, defending its western borders against whoever tried to invade, as well as contributing heavily to the Sultan’s campaigns against Russia and Serbia, and now they felt they had deserved a little something. Jealous glares were cast towards neighbouring Serbia, and her precious autonomy, and then cast further still towards Greece and her sweet independence. What had Bosnia received for all the blood, the sweat, the tears and the čevap? As we say in the writing industry, Bosnia got nowt.
Husein made a plan to resist the reforms. He implored the Sultan to abolish the post of Governor of Bosnia, recognise the autonomy of the country and furthermore permit the election of a Bosniak leader. In exchange they would pay 4,000 bags in tribute every year. Whilst my research for this book has been extensive I do not know what a ‘bag’ is. I know what a bag is in modern terms, but I’m not sure about it in 19th century Ottoman Bosnia, possibly a bag of old boots, or opiate laced fortune cookies, perhaps the Sultan simply had a thing for well tailored bags.
Ideas conceived by the French Revolution were very prevalent throughout Bosnia, and among all three religions a strong national consciousness had begun to develop in response to Ottoman rule. On the contrary, despite the talk of a developed national consciousness, the Bosniaks still stressed their Bosniak identity, as opposed to Bosnian. Tomato, tomato. It turns out that doesn’t work when written.
One of the great quandaries regarding Bosnia is the Bosnian national consciousness, and many point to Gradaščević and his uprising as the first pulling together of Bosnian inhabitants from all social strata and confessions. This isn’t entirely true however. As we’ve hinted at previously, many noble folk (not good, but rich) in Herzegovina certainly weren’t in favour of this whole shebang. What he lacked in Herzegovinian support, Husein made up for with Muslim support in Serbia, as their situation was deteriorating. Muslims had been leaving the volatile Serbian state in droves, with Belgrade’s Muslim population dropping by 50% between 1820 and 1834. Many headed towards Bosnia.
It was this popularity among the Muslims of both Serbia and Bosnia that leave many to posit that Husein planted the seed that would eventually blossom into Muslim Bosniakdom. He did after all mobilise Muslim serfs for his cause on the pretext of protecting them, as well as their cultures and tradition. On the contrary however, Husein’s crusade (I was hoping that would rhyme) also involved Christians, and by no means did the Muslims of Bosnia join him en masse.
One reason for the conformity of the Christians in this instance is the good treatment they received from Husein. Husein was responsible for the building of the first Catholic elementary school in the area, as well as a church for 1,500 folk and a large parish rectory. All this without the Sultan’s permission too, which was rather brave, as that is kinda a breach of Islamic law. Naturally, this made many Muslims in high positions suspicious of old mate Husein. Add this to the Herzegovinian’s ambivalence to him, as well as some Catholic suspicion, and you begin to wonder who exactly made up the 25,000 men who marched with Mr Gradaščević to Kosovo in 1831. A similar rebellion was taking place with the Albanians of Kosovo at the time, which was a boon for our dragon.
Well, they were men of all salts and starts, and they primarily joined the revolt because Husein Gradaščević was one of those irritating bastards who had a genuine charisma that many found completely irresistible. To quote someone, the guy was ace. And I quote…
‘I have little fear of God, of the Sultan nothing at all, and of the Vizier I am afraid as much as of my own horse’.
The words of a confident man, I’m sure you’ll agree. It was for these reasons that the Turks were understandably a little bit afraid of our man Husein. He marched his 25,000 men to Kosovo where they were successful, and for three years Husein Gradaščević had a Bosnia free of any real Turkish dominion, although by the sounds of things it was rather barbarous.
Our darling Husein wouldn’t be in charge for all three of these years however, and all because of those Herzegovinians. Two Herzegovinian (that’s such an irritation to type) noblemen, namely Smail Aga Čergić and Ali Aga Rizvanbegović, decided to side with the Sultan and helped to repel the darling of (some of) the Bosnian nation. They succeeded, and in 1832 Husein’s final defeat was handed to him in Sarajevo. Rizvanbegović took over as vizier (basically a high-ranking administrative officer) of Bosnia, until he himself was executed in 1851. Our dragon found refuge in Hapsburg lands, but the lure of the Ottoman world was too strong and he eventually returned. He wasn’t allowed in Bosnia and so had to make do with Constantinople, where he died under fairly cloudy circumstances in 1834. Possibly from one fiery jaunt across a village too many, although many believe he was poisoned by imperial authorities. In all likelihood, it was cholera. It is always cholera. They say that for years after his death, no Bosnian could hear his name without shedding a tear.
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