The 1804 First Serbian Uprising: Black George

(Note – This is an update to my History of Serbia page. You can read my working draft on Bill’s History of Serbia page.) 

In the early 1800’s, Serbia was on the edge of the Ottoman Empire, a long way from the capitol of the Ottomans, Istanbul. So far away in fact, that the Sultan Selim III in Istanbul did not have full control of the Belgrade province, or pashalik in Turkish. The province was run by four dahi who brutally repressed the Serbian peasants. The dahi’s soldiers, called janissaries, lived in the Belgrade fortress and periodically patrolled the sparsely populated land of Serbia. 

The Serbian Uprising of 1804 began with the execution of Serbian peasant leaders in the town of Ljubenino Polje, about 30 miles south of Belgrade. The dahis had reports that Aleksandar Nenodovic was importing arms from the Hapsburg Empire from across the Danube River, just north of Belgrade. The dahis took a George Bush, proactive approach and wanted to crush a rebellion before it started. The janissaries beheaded many of the Serbian leaders. These be headings sparked, as Misha Glenny writes, “the beginning of modern history on the Balkan peninsula” as the Serbs began to get rid of the Ottoman Turks and their Eastern culture. This was the seća knezova or the massacre of the leaders. The word Knez you see today all over Serbia, and it is translated as “village headman”, “prince, or “duke”.  

A French Artist Portraying a Janissary Patrol in Izmir, Turkey (1831)

The janissaries were a sign that the Ottoman Empire was in decline. They originally were an elite guard for the Sultan, but eventually turned into autonomous dictators, and in Serbia, they basically made the Serbs, serfs of the themselves as feudal overlords. This was in direct opposition to the some wealthy Serb pig merchants, who had a rich trade with the Austro-Hungarians in Vojvodina. 

They eliminated around 100 knezes, but some escaped to become hajduks (guerilla insurgents) in the forests of Serbia. One in particular, became the leader and eventually would lead the Serbs not only to down the janissaries, but also to take on the entire Ottoman Empire. 

Đorđe Petrović was a peasant from central Serbia. In Serb the Đ (đ) is pronounced like the English J, so his name is translated in English as George. He was called Karađorđe, which means Black George. George organized thousands of Serbs and they easily defeated the janissaries. They became so powerful, that they also defeated the Sultan’s army in 1805 in a battle close to the southern Serb city of Niš. 


Georges Black Hair Gave Him His Nickname
George's Black Hair Gave Him His Nickname

They were close to cutting a deal with the Sultan when greater events intervened. The Russians, French, and Turks were battling for supremacy of the region. Black George aligned with the fellow Christian Orthodox Russians. The Russian army came and occupied Belgrade, which was under siege by the Ottomans. Black George was in trouble when the Russian Tsar Alexander I, withdrew his troops from Belgrade to fight against Napoleon. The Ottomans quickly moved three of their armies to take control of Belgrade, and Black George fled to Austria on October 3rd, 1813.

In 1817, Black George secretly returned to Serbia. The Serb leadership assassinated him, not only because he was a threat to them, but he also during his exile, aligned himself with the Greek revolution. The Serbs wanted an independent Serbia, not one under the more populous Greeks.

In looking at the legacy of George Petrović, he may have been considered a failure. His movement ultimately did not give Serbia independence. He also died a violent death at age 47.

But looking at it from a different perspective, his accomplishments were great. He rose from being an illiterate cattle and pig farmer, to leading the largest Christian army inside the Islamic Ottoman Empire. One of his rivals succeeded a few years later in gaining Serbian autonomy, but learned from the mistakes of George. Black George’s descendants however, became a Serb monarchical dynasty. The House of Karađorđević, or House of Black George ruled Yugoslavia from 1903 – 1941. Today, Crown Prince Aleksandar, a descendant of Black George, is living in the Royal Palace, near my home in suburb of Dedinje. He doesn’t have any formal political power, but is a figurehead and there is some talk of Serbia returning to a constitutional monarchy. 

The Crown Prince Alexander’s second wife, Katherine Batis, called me earlier this year to help her with a charity fashion show for breast cancer she was holding at the palace.  




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