Skip to main content

Dušan T. Bataković: The 1804 Serbian Uprising: A Balkan-size French Revolution

Dušan T. Bataković

The 1804 Serbian Uprising: A Balkan-size French Revolution

The first Balkan revolution at the beginning of the era of nationalism occurred in Serbia. In this northern province of the Ottoman Empire, bordering Habsburg Empire on Danube and Sava rivers, central authority was the weakest and foreign influence stronger than anywhere else in the Ottoman provinces in Europe. Frequent wars, forced migration and resettlement campaigns on the shifting borderland between the Habsburg and the Ottoman Empire made ties among the Orthodox Serbs more intensive, in spite of the varied social and political statuses they enjoyed under different imperial realms.[1]

Although the Serbian uprising was initially a peasant rebellion against local janissaries, its national character can be gradually identified from 1805 onwards. The insurgents used the medieval coat of arms of the Nemanjićs, while the Praviteljtvujušči sovjet in 1805 held its sessions in Smederevo – ‘the capital of our despots and emperors’ – and rallied under the image of Emperor Stefan Dušan (1331-1355).  The official letters and acts send by the leader of the Serbian revolution, Karageorge to local insurgent commanders and his proclamations and correspondence with representatives of the Great Powers were usually signed ‘in the name of the whole Serbian nation’.[2]

Belgrade at the end of the 18th Century.

Serbian insurgents were encouraged by a series of victories against regular Ottoman troops (at Ivankovac in 1805; at Mišar and at Deligrad in 1806), but also by the capture of Belgrade, the most important fortress in the region (January 1807). In a petition sent to the Russian Emperor in 1806, they claimed that if Russia decided to send its troops to the Balkans, then ‘all Serbs from Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Dalmatia and Albania would joyfully unite and would, within a brief space of time create a new army of 200,000-strong troops.’[3]These political claims, nevertheless, were based on continuous cooperation with similar anti-Ottoman revolts organized among Serbian clans both in Herzegovina and Montenegro. Since the very beginning, the insurgents coordinated their military actions with the ruler of Montenegro, Prince-Bishop Petar I Petrović-Njegoš, who considered his subjects as ‘a part of a Serb nation’.[4] After the Montenegrin troops defeated the Ottoman army in 1796 (the battles in Krusi and Martinići), their semi-independent status was additionally strengthened, paving the way for a more significant role in future anti-Ottoman movements.

In spite of the fact that tiny Montenegro, mostly due to the interference of the Russian emissaries, remained inactive in the early stage of insurrection in Serbia, a series of local rebellions spread to the districts of the Sanjak of Novi Bazar, a small territory that separated the Belgrade pashalik from the Montenegrin mountains; the neighboring Serbian clans of Herzegovina (the Drobnjaci, Nikšići, Bjelopavlići  and Moračani), also rose to arms, while other Montenegrin clans (the Kuči and Piperi), while Albanian highlanders (the Klimenti or Kelmendi tribe) rebelled in order to achieve more autonomy from central government. In Kosovo, ruled with the iron hand of local Albanian pashas, unrest was recorded among the Serbs, some of whom eventually managed to join the units of Karageorge.[5]

As early as 1804, the Drobnjaci clan of Herzegovina clan launched attacks against  Ottoman-held Podgorica; in 1805, they instigated a year-long rebellion against local Ottoman authorities that was pacified only after the Ottomans took hostages from their families.[6] In a proclamation sent to the rebelled Serbian clans of Herzegovina in 1806, Karageorge invited them to join forces against the Ottomans ‘for our holy churches and monasteries, for the freedom of our fatherland’, while in a letter to Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar I Petrović-Njegoš in 1806, he invited Montenegrins to build a common Serbian state, based on the same Orthodox faith and common Serbian blood, and to ‘become one body, one heart, one soul and dear citizens.’[7]

Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar I Petrović-Njegoš (1748-1830).

In response, the Montenegrin troops waged several military campaigns against neighboring Ottoman fortresses in Herzegovina. Nevertheless, the planned unification of Montenegrins with the Serbian forces during the breakthrough of Karageorge in the sanjak of Novi Bazar did not take place in 1809 due to the sudden Ottoman offensive in the southern front and the withdrawal of Serbian troops.

Even though they were a mixture of modern national and romantic historic rights, the political claims of Serbian insurgents were dominated by the demand of restoring the medieval Serbian state, gradually lost after the Battle of Kosovo of 1389. Jovan Rajić, the main representative of Serbian monastic historicism, cherished the Empire of Emperor Stefan Dušan, as the his state model, although its center was far more southward (in Kosovo and Skoplje area). Jovan Rajić’s four-volume History of Different Slavic Nations, Especially Bulgars, Croats and Serbs, published in Vienna in 1794-1795, became a pillar of Serbian national ideology in early nineteenth century. As an Ottoman official, captive in a Serbian prison during 1806, related, the insurgents‘ aims were the following: ‘as once King [Prince] Lazar went to Kosovo [in 1389 to confront Ottomans] they will all again come to Kosovo. They are holding all the time the books on history [History by Jovan Rajić] on abovementioned King [Prince Lazar], and he is a great instigator of rebellion in their minds’.[8]

Jovan Rajić (1726-1801).

The absence of the strong intellectual leadership among the peasant rebels, whose main ideologist was the priest Matija Nenadović, who relied on Serbian medieval traditions, was compensated by political support coming from the enlightened Serbian elite from the neighboring provinces of Habsburg Empire. Since the Temesvar Diet in 1790, they had considered themselves destined to provide political and intellectual leadership for the whole Serb national movement offering natural rights as a model for the struggle for independent Serbia. In parallel, throughout Serb-inhabited lands within   Habsburg Empire, in particular in southern Hungary (today’s Vojvodina) enthusiasm for the insurrection was running among both urban and rural Serbs so high that it provoked serious concern for local Austrian authorities. Secret relations were established between the insurgents and prospering Serbian merchants and church dignitaries in neighboring provinces of Habsburg Empire while purchases of weapons and ammunition was negotiated. As stressed by local Habsburg officials, the Serbs of Southern Hungary bordering Serbia had not only welcomed the insurrection but started to link their own future to a possible restoration of a Serbia as a sovereign state.[9]

The ‘Serbian Voltaire’, as thez called  Dositej Obradović,  wrote a solemn ode that, in time, became the war anthem of the insurgents: “Rise Serbia / our dear mother / to be again what you’ve once been / Serbian children are weeping for you /they are courageously fighting for you now”.[10] In the same poem, Obradović also stresses that Serbian insurrection revived hopes for the liberation of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro and other neighboring lands, seas and islands.

While referring to the restoration of the medieval Serbian Empire of Stefan Dušan Serbian intellectuals were, also drafting fresh territorial claims, based on ideas of modern national identity that involved common language and shared cultural, religious and historical traditions. Nevertheless, D. Obradović, the first considered language as the key factor in defining the modern national identity, one that transcended religious affiliation. As Obradović stressed: ‘the part of the world in which the Serbian language is employed is no smaller than the French or the English territory, if we disregard very small differences that occur in the pronunciation – and similar differences are found in all other languages. […] When I write of peoples who live in these kingdoms and provinces, I mean the members both of the Greek and of the Latin Church and do not exclude even the Turks [Bosnian Muslims] of Bosnia and Herzegovina, inasmuch as religion and faith can be changed, but race and language can never be.’[11]

Dositej Obradović (1739-1811)

Following these assumptions and  in order to define the potential national claims of Serbs, Count Sava Tekelija, a rich Serb notable from Hungary,  published 2,000 copies of the ‘Geographic Map of Serbia, Bosnia, Dubrovnik, Montenegro and Bordering Regions’ in Vienna (1805). The first 500 copies were sent to the insurgent leadership in Serbia. Although Russia was traditionally considered the main Serbian ally, some influential Habsburg Serbs like Count Sava Tekelija, were also addressing the French and Austrian rulers to support the restoration of Serbian state that would be a pole of a larger political entity.  In a memorandum sent to the then newly-crowned Emperor Napoleon I in June 1804, Sava Tekelija proposed the creation of a vast Illyran Kingdom, i. e. a large South Slav state that would, under the auspices of France, encompass the most of the Serb and Slav-inhabited Balkan regions. A year later, Tekelija sent a similar, slightly revised project to the Habsburg Emperor Francis I. [12]

The Illyrian Kingdom, consisting mostly of Serbs, as the largest Slav nation in the Balkans, would be, according to Tekelija, a major contribution to the long-term stability of the region. Stretching from the Adriatic to the Black Sea, this kingdom would be a solid barrier against both Russia and Austria.  Europe should, therefore, guarantee ‘the distinguished position and successful continuity’ of a nation that could provide this kind of stability: ‘Right now’, Tekelija would mention in his memorandum to Napoleon I, ‘such a nation is rising its head and rejecting the yoke never to accept it again for any other domestic or foreign influence. It is a Serbian nation, or Serbians, if we take into account only those who live in Serbia […] When they, supported by Europe, unite into a large Illyrian kingdom that would join together Bosnia, Bulgaria, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Dubrovnik and Serb-inhabited areas of Hungary with Serbia, this kingdom will be a powerful barrier against those powers, namely Austria and Russia, that would try to establish their domination in the Balkans. However, in a similar memorandum submitted to Emperor Franz I in 1805, Count Tekelija mentioned only Russia as a potential threat to the Balkans.[13]  Although highly unrealistic, these political aspirations were not only artificial projects with strong historic references. They were soon justified by political upheaval among Serbs in both Ottoman and Habsburg Empire. According to French reports, songs about Karageorge as héros libérateur were sung as early as 1805 in Dalmatia, where the very notion of freedom was linked to his name. The Serbian uprising strongly echoed throughout the Balkans, reaching far beyond the borders of the pashalik of Belgrade. Important turmoil was noticed in the Habsburg Empire – among the Serbs in the Srem and Banat regions of southern Hungary (today’s Vojvodina) and the Serb soldiers from the Military Border (Vojna Krajina, Vojna Granica) surrounding the European possessions of the Ottoman Empire like a belt stretching along the Sava River, around Bosnia and Dalmatia.

The Austrian authorities registered that many Serbs from the Habsburg areas of Southern Hungary – from peasants and army officers, to priests, teachers and lawyers – were massively crossing into Serbia to join the insurgents. The leadership of the uprising got not only capable and highly motivated volunteers from their ranks, but also their first diplomats, ministers and school professors. The first Minister of Education of insurgent Serbia was Dositej Obradović, a central figure of the Serbian Enlightenment. With a tacit consent of the local authorities during the initial phase of the insurrection, Serbian traders from the southernmost region of the Habsburg Empire bordering Serbia (Srem, Banat, Bačka) supplied the insurgents with weapons and ammunition. Metropolitan Stevan Stratimirović, a spiritual leader of Serbs in Habsburg Monarchy was the main coordinator of all these efforts aimed to support financially and supply militarily the troops of Karageorge, the supreme leader (vrhovni vožd) of the Serbian revolution. After the first victories of the insurgents, a considerable number of experienced Serbian officers and soldiers arrived in Serbia as volunteers from the predominantly Serbian-inhabited regions of the Austrian Military Border (Slavonia-Srem military district).

Orašac – a village best known as the starting point of the First Serbian Uprising in 1804.

In April 1807, the Habsburg military commander of Zagreb  was highly concerned with the fact that Orthodox Christians (i.e. Serbs) were spreading the about great victories achieved by Karageorge and his army news all over the Military Border and reported  that the whole population was attracted by the advantages of freedom won by the insurgents in Serbia.[14] The growing number of volunteers from the Military Border in the Serbian troops rose to 515 men in 1807, including 188 coming from regular Habsburg regiments. As reported by Austrian officials concerned with the growing support of the Serbs of the Military Border for Karageorge,  many others came to Serbia, even from Dalmatia.[15]

The direct consequences of the Serbian uprising were two short-lived agrarian rebellions of Serbs in what is today Vojvodina (1807 in Srem and 1808 in Banat), both striving for national and social liberation. Prior to the uprising, Serbs in Srem sent a memorandum to the Russian Emperor, stressing that, together with their compatriots in Banat ,they had planned to liberate themselves ‘from the German [Habsburg] yoke’. In their headquarters, there was a map of Count Sava Tekelija, comprising the lands that should be liberated and united with Serbia.

The Serbian uprising also had a strong impact on Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the number of Orthodox Serbs was probably even higher than in rebelled Serbia itself, according to some statistics.[16] Already in 1803, secret talks were conducted in Sarajevo on a possible joint uprising of the Serbs in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia. In the summer of 1804, songs were sung in Bosnia about the heroic deeds of Karageorge, while numerous volunteers constantly kept crossing into Serbia. The resounding victory of 12,000 Serbians against the powerful 20,000 men strong  army of Bosnian beys at the Battle of Mišar in 1806, inspired hopes among Serbian peasants in Bosnia that the Ottoman rule might be replaced by that of Karageorge’s Serbia. A Serbian Orthodox priest from Prijedor in 1806 wrote the following: “I was patiently bearing the Turkish yoke, as all other Orthodox Christians, hoping that Karageorge will liberate us and put us under his protection.”[17] The Serbian insurrection was, as noted by a French traveler, the main reason for a resolute and more effective defense of Serbian peasants from Muslim violence.[18]

Battle of Mišar (1806), painting by Afanasij Šeloumov.

Two minor Serbian rebellions broke out in Bosnia, both crushed by the Bosnian Muslim forces and the regular Ottoman army. The first rebellion broke out in 1807, in eastern Bosnia, along the Drina River bordering Serbia, after the Serbian insurgents crossed into Eastern Bosnia, while the second, one of a larger scope, took place in the north-western region of Bosnian Krajina in 1809.[19]

Deprived of external military support after the Treaty of Presburg, Serbian leaders decided at their Assembly in Smederevo, to invite not only Serbs, but other Balkan Christians as well to join them in a struggle against the Ottomans. Important turmoil occurred in different regions of Slavic Macedonia, while in Bulgaria, particularly in the regions of Vidin and Belogradčik, bordering Serbia on Danube, Serbian proposals stimulated movements and occasional revolts of passive agrarian masses. In 1805, the Greek armatol leader Nikotsaras prepared his units to support Karageorge, crossing almost the whole of the Balkans from Mount Olympus in mainland Greece to the Danube, while in Salonica, as early as 1806, the French consul reported to Paris that, due to the Serbian revolution, many Slav peasants and Greek merchants were arrested upon suspicions of supporting the Serbian insurgents. [20]

At the same time, during 1806, the Serbian supreme leader armed 5,000 Bulgarians, willing to join forces against Ottomans. In 1807, out of 4,000 Bulgarians that crossed into Serbia, 800 immediately joined the Serbian troops. The insurgents’ units also included a certain number of Greeks, Bulgarians, Wallachians and Tzintzars (Hellenized Vlachs), who mostly fought in the ranks of the Russian army during the Russo-Ottoman War. Bulgarian envoys from Romania requested, on several occasions, Serbian assistance for their plans to against the Ottomans, while the Serbian example inspired the forthcoming Greek insurgency in many ways. The first historian of Serbian revolution was a Greek author, Triandaphylos Doukas, who published his History of Slavo-Serbs in Budapest, in 1807.

Disappointed by Austrian hesitation and Russian attempts to fully control Serbian insurrection to their own ends, Karageorge’s highest hopes turned to a  possible alliance with France. After entering Dalmatia and getting established in Illyrian provinces that stretched from Ljubljana to Dubrovnik, the French were considering Bosnia the key Ottoman province for transportation of their goods towards Asia Minor during the continental blockade, while Serbia, seen under Russian influence, was considered a possible threat to global French interests.  However, it was in 1809, after Serbian insurgents experienced heavy defeats on several fronts, Karageorge offered Emperor Napoleon to enter Šabac (a Serbian town on the border with Bosnia) with his troops and help them negotiate with the Sublime Porte.

Karađorđe Petrović (1762-1817).

In 1810, through Captain Rade Vučinić from Karlovac (Karlstadt) in the Military Border, special envoy in Paris, Karageorge proposed to Napoleon the unification of Serbia with Bosnia, Herzegovina, the Illyrian provinces stretching from Ljubljana to Dubrovnik (including Dalmatia with Dubrovnik, parts Croatia and Slovenia) and the Serbian-inhabited lands under Habsburg rule (Banat, Srem, Slavonia), and if possible, also with the kindred Bulgarians, into a large state under the French protectorate. Napoleon could not accept this offer that would endanger the unity of allied Ottoman Empire, but suggested to French consul in Bucharest to cooperate with the Serbs. This proposal, although with no viable result, clearly showed that French support for Karageorge was probably the only way out of his confinement to Russian and Austrian influence. It is, however, probable that Napoleon reorganized French possessions in Dalmatia, Krajina and Slovenia into Illyrian provinces (1809-1814) in order to counterpart the Serbian insurrection, which was seen in Paris as the instrument of Russian influence in the Balkans.[21]

Disappointed with French reluctance, Serbs were obliged to turn again to Russia, while Karageorge’s other option that of a possible alliance with Austria, vanished, since Serbia, remained attached to Russian campaigns in the Balkans for mostly military reasons. Abandoned by Russia after the Treaty of Bucharest of 1812, the Serbs, while expressing readiness to accept a semi-independent status similar to those of Danubian Principalities (Wallachia and Moldavia), rejected the proposed, more limited, autonomy: “We do not recognize clauses of the [Ottoman] treaty with Russia [in Bucharest Treaty]. We demand our independent state and we do not accept any other solution.”[22]

The Serbian revolution, deprived of foreign support, was savagely crushed in autumn 1813, by the regular Ottoman troops. Nevertheless, its historical importance, despite attracting little interest in Europe and remaining overshadowed by Napoleon’s wars, was multifold: for the Balkan nations, from Greeks to other South Slavs it was a Balkan-size French revolution adapted to local conditions: the principle of the sovereignty of nations was opposed to the principle of legitimism; a new society was created where, due to the lack of the aristocracy and a developed middle class, agrarian egalitarianism of free peasants was combined with the emerging aspirations of a modern nation. For its long-term effects on the political and social landscape of the whole region, the eminent German historian Leopold von Ranke described the 1804-1813 Serbian insurrection, in comparison to the French example, as the Serbian Revolution.[23]

Paper presented at  the AAASS, Boston, December 2004


[1] Cf. G. Yakchitch, L’ Europe et la resurrection de la Serbie (1804-1834), Paris: Hachette 1917, pp. 7-35; D. Djordjevic, Les revolutions nationals des peoples balkaniques 1804-1914, Belgrade, Institut d’histoire  1965, pp. 23-38, W. S. Vucinich (ed.), The First Serbian Uprising 1804-1813, Boulder-New York: Columbia University Press 1982.

[2]  R. Perović, Prvi srpski ustanak; Akta i pisma na srpskom jeziku, vol. I, (1804-1808), Beograd: Narodna knjiga 1978, pp. 124, 125, 149.

[3]   M.  Djordjević, Oslobodilački rat srpskih ustanika 1804-1806, Beograd: Vojnoizdavački zavod 1967

[4]   J. M. Milović, “Titule vladike Petrovića’, Istorijski zapisi, vol. LX  (1), Titograd 1987, p. 57.

[5]  D. T. Bataković, The Kosovo Chronicles, Belgrade: Plato 1992, pp.42-45.

[6]  A. Aličić, « Ustanak u Drobnjacima 1805. godine »,  Godišnjak društva istoričara BiH,  vol. XIX, Sarajevo 1973, pp. 51-54.

[7]  R. Perović, Prvi srpski ustanak. Akta i pisma na srpskom jeziku, vol. I, 1804-1808, pp. 175-177.

[8]  R. Tričković, “Pismo travničkog vezira iz 1806. godine”, Politika, Beograd,  21. 02.  1965.

[9]  A. Ivić, Spisi bečkih arhiva o Prvom srpskom ustanku, vol. III, BeogradČ Srpska kraljevska akademija 1937, p 349.

[10]  J. Mitrović,  Istorija Srba, Beograd: Privatno izdanje 1993

[11]  D. Obradovic, “Letter to Haralampije.” The Life and Adventures of Dimitrije Obradovic. Ed. and transl. G. R. Noyes. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1953, p. 135.

[12]  S. Tekelija, Opisanije života, Beograd: Prosveta 1966, pp. 171-187, 379-396.

[13]  S. Gavrilović, Vojvodina i Srbija u vreme prvog srpskog ustanka,  Novi Sad: Institut za istoriju 1974 pp.20-24.

[14] F. Šišić, “Karadjordje, Južni Sloveni i Napoleonova Ilirija”, in: Karadjordje, Beograd: Geca Kon 1923, pp. 55-56.

[15] Ibid.

[16]  M. Ekmečić quotes a certain statistic that estimated the overall population in Bosnia and Herzegovina as high as 1, 3 million inhabitants. (M. Ekmečić, Stvaranje Jugoslavije 1790-1918, vol. I, Beograd: Prosveta 1989,  p. 77. )

[17] J. Tošković, Odnosi izmedju Bosne i Srbije 1804-1806 i boj na Mišaru, Subotica 1927, p. 72.

[18] M. Šamić, Francuski putnici o Bosni na pragu XIX stoljeća i njihovi utisci o njoj, Sarajevo: Svjetlost 1966,  p. 206.

[19]  V. Čubrilović, Prvi srpski ustanak i bosanski Srbi, Beograd: Geca Kon 1939, pp. 115-125. 

[20]  C. A. Vacalopoulos, La Macédoine vue  en début du XIX siècle par les consuls Européens de Thessalonique, Thessalonique: Institut des eétudes balkaniques 1980, p. 65.

[21]  Cf. D. Roksandić, Vojna Hrvatska La Croatie militaire. Krajiško društvo u Francuskom carstvu (1809-1813), vol. I, Zagreb : Školska knjiga 1988, pp 151-153.

[22]  S. Hadžihuseinović-Muvvekit, Tarih-i Bosna, quoted in : M. Ekmečić, Stvaranje Jugoslavije 1790-1918, vol. I, p. 157.

[23] Leopold von Ranke, A history of Servia and the Servian Revolution. Translated by Mrs. Alexander Kerr.New York, Da Capo Press, 1973.

Prof. Dušan T. Bataković (1957 – 2017) was a Serbian historian, diplomat and the director of the Institute for Balkan Studies of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.