The Pirates of the Adriatic

View of the Adriatic from Fortress Nehaj, Senj. Photo by: Joadl CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Countless films have been made about the pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the countless books written, both fictitious and factual. But how many of you knew that there used to be pirates on the Adriatic too? Or who they were or where was their lair? (Anybody who doesn’t know where the Adriatic is is probably reading the wrong blog by the way.)

The Uskok pirates are presumably well-known in their own country but otherwise they’re not all that famous. I first read of them in a Hungarian children’s book which was set in the merchant’s navy school of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in Fiume (nowadays called Rijeka) in the autumn of 1918. Not a book you’re ever going to lay your hands on.

The Uskoks lived in Dalmatia in Croatia; their stronghold was a small harbour at the foot of the Velebit mountains: Senj. They were Christian refugees from lands overrun by the Ottoman army and fought the Turks intermittently in the service of the Habsburgs for about a hundred years during the 16th and 17th century – a sort of irregular border troops in the marches of the Habsburg empire.

The chief problem with this was that the Habsburgs seldom paid their troops. (This was the case for centuries in all the territories the family controlled – from the Spanish meseta to the Hungarian plains.)

Hardly surprising then that the Uskoks ended resorting to piracy to make a living. They started with attacking Ottoman shipping but soon moved on to the rich Venetian merchants. Ultimately, the activities of the Uskoks led to open war between Venice and Austria – the so called Uskok War between 1615 and 1618 – which ended with the Austrians expelling the Uskoks from Senj and installing their own garrison instead.

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