Pirates Of The Adriatic
Let’s see… take a sliver of water like the Adriatic Sea, combine it with high value maritime shipping, hiding places in lawless lands, and friendly communities with goodies for sale and you have a recipe for… pirates!
From Viking days to the present, these ingredients have ensured an active nest of pirates along the Adriatic’s Dalmatian Coast. From the Croatian island of Rab in the north to the Gulf of Kotor in the south, this area ranks alongside other pirate hangouts often celebrated in story and song—the Caribbean’s Port Royal and Tortuga, the Barbary Coast, and Madagascar. From the 10th century until the 18th, this stretch of water harbored ne’er-do-wells of every stripe who preyed on merchantmen as savagely as any of their better-known brethren.
The Dalmatian Coast is a crazy-quilt of coves, channels and over one thousand islands. The topographic characteristics making it ideal for today’s sailors, cruisers and island hoppers also made it a perfect haven for yesterday’s pirates. From ancient times the area came variously under the control of the Romans, the Byzantines, even the Mongols. In more recent centuries, it was claimed by the Ottomans and Austrians. But the one constant during those centuries was the Venetian Republic. The merchants of Venice were the Olympic-level traders of their day. Unfortunately, their most lucrative markets were in the farthest corners of the Mediterranean and, to reach them, Venetians had to traverse the entire length of the Adriatic. Nearly 500 miles long and only 90 miles wide it was a perfect hunting ground.
The Omis Corsairs
Well, who wouldn’t want to be called a “Corsair”? It sounds so romantic, so swashbuckling, so… datable! These privateering guys were amazing sailors and even better shipbuilders. They piloted a special ship called a Sagitta (the Arrow), designed to strike quickly then retreat into the safety of nearby river channels where larger vessels were unable to pursue them.
The Corsairs ruled the sea lanes of the Adriatic for more than three centuries, right under the noses of the occupying Turks and the more powerful Venetian naval forces. They were supported and protected by a family of ousted but outlaw Balkan dukes. Completely unrepentant, the pirates from the Croatian port of Omis attacked ships from Venice, Dubrovnik and Kotor. They seized the Pope’s galleys and even had the temerity to attack vessels carrying Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. So effective and elusive were they that their favorite targets eventually agreed to pay a tribute for each and every vessel passing through Omis territory. And the modern tollbooth was born.
After a couple of centuries growing fat and happy with this easy money, the Omis Corsairs were finally cut off by the Venetian navy in 1420. Even so, it took 24 more years for them to be forever silenced.
As the Ottoman Empire spread throughout the Balkans, remnants of subjugated communities were forced west to the shores of the Adriatic. Christian Serbs and Croats developed into excellent guerilla fighters and were soon “hired” by the Austrian Empire to provide a paramilitary buffer between themselves and the expanding Muslim invaders. The guerillas adopted the name Uskok, meaning “turncoat” or “ambusher”, which pretty much described their tactics. They preyed on Ottoman settlements but when their Austrian “salary” began to dry up, they turned to piracy.
For the rest of the 16th and 17th centuries, Uskok pirates had free rein up and down the Dalmatian Coast stealing from Turks, Austrians, Venetians, just about anybody who happened to cross their path. But these pirates were more like the Vikings than the Johnny Depp sort. They continued to raid ashore as well as at sea, using the quick hitting strikes they’d learned against the Turks.
Eventually, the Venetians, Ottomans and Austrians united against this common nuisance. Once again, it was left to Venice, the dominant sea power in the Adriatic, to clean things up. They soon rooted out the pirate dens and, in an unusually humanitarian solution, resettled the pirate communities far inland and far from their old stomping grounds.
Every island and port city along the Croatian coastline has its pirate heritage and tales. And Trogir is no different. Situated on a small island only 27 miles west of the capital city of Split, a stroll through the historic center of Trogir—a UNESCO World Heritage Site--will thrust you back to the time of the Venetians, Ottomans and Habsburgs. The walled medieval city shows beautifully preserved Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque buildings and is described as the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex in Central Europe.
Look closely at these ancient walls for you may find evidence of a long ago pirate attack.
Karyn L. Planett