Empire of Liberty: The Serbian Revolution

Excerpt from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s “The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Vol. II”, Harvard University Press, 1934.

The Austrians entered the conflict a few weeks too late. By invading, in support of the Sultan, on the day of Serbian independence, they inadvertently placed themselves right in the diplomatic situation they sought to avoid. Now Austria was supporting a crumbling empire. The domain of the rebel janissary Osman Pazvantoğlu was more desperate than ever. Russia loomed large to the east. Lastly, Napoleon immediately recognized the infant Serbian Republic.

Suddenly, a War of the Third Coalition appeared imminent.

Now the power brokers of the region had a decision to make. Wider events shrouded those decisions. The recent Partition of Spain, French successes in the Italies and along the Rhine, French victories in Egypt and the Levant, and the complicated mess in the Balkans all threatened the status quo of Europe. Considerations that are more practical also needed contemplation. The Serbian Revolution was a republican revolution, which offended the sensibilities of the autocratic Russians and Austrians. An Austrian army stood on Ottoman soil, heavily reliant on Turkish allies and supplies under the command of Bekir Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Bosnia. An Austrian military push south would deplete troops from the frontier with Napoleonic France. For the French, a renewed war could drag in Britain and threaten the open sea-lanes between Toulon and Alexandria. Powers like Prussia, Sweden and Naples remained wildcard players that could open new fronts in a larger war and tip the balance. This says nothing of general exhaustion as most of these powers had just concluded peace treaties with each other ending a near-decade of war stemming from the initial French Revolution itself.

It is no wonder that the great powers remained reluctant to enthusiastically go to war over Serbia.

Even more complex was the situation on the ground in the Balkans. Ottoman Sultan Selim III was waging war on all fronts, with the bulk of his best armies arrayed in Syria against the French Armee d’Orient under the command of General Louis Desaix. The anger of the revolting Serbs remained largely focused on the corrupt and cruel janissaries, who themselves created their own rebel regime, the dahije, which aligned with the domains of Pazvantoğlu. The janissaries and the Sultan, technically allies, stood opposed to each other over modernization reforms and the general disarray of the empire due to the ongoing crises of the Huzursuzluk, “the unrest”. The dahije opposed the Serbian revolutionaries, as did the Ottoman army under Bekir’s command. Both Bekir and his Austrian allies opposed the janissaries but the Austrians historically supported the Serbs. The Serbs themselves were divided into political factions. Some supported a restoration of the autonomy Selim previously granted them and only sought the expulsion of the dahije. Others sought a reformed province within the empire, perhaps with the Sultan as a constitutional monarch or in the manner of Montenegro (which attained quasi-independence from the Turks after two surprising victories in the 1790’s). The more radical revolutionaries of the group tended to see Serbia as the next progression of the United States and France in the great wave of republicanism spreading across the globe. Fatefully, this republican faction counted Krom Buđevac and Nikola Grbović in their ranks. Buđevac sent exaggerated word from Paris regarding Napoleon’s intentions to ally with Serbia when records indicate that Napoleon only ever offered vague propositions of friendship and passive support. Grbović, the drafter of the Belgrade Proclamation, would shortly after send a letter to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson seeking military partnership against the Ottomans (thanks to the Americans own war against the nominally Ottoman Barbary Coast) and expressing hope that one day an independent Serbia might send its own delegates to Washington to participate in the “worldwide republican congress”. In addition to showing some ignorance regarding the structure of the American political system, the letter demonstrates the Serbians fervor and certainly how some revolutionaries viewed their own “Spirit of ‘02” in the same light as the “Spirit of ‘76”.

The hastily drafted Belgrade Proclamation and impromptu declaration of independence polarized Serbian society. Revolutionaries celebrated while traditionalists feared an Austro-Turkish-Janissary alliance would crush the region in the name of autocracy. Many of the republican’s rebel allies could only grumble at the diplomatic disaster and adjust to a much more difficult situation. Calls for foreign intervention immediately began; often with quiet assurances that republican fervor could easily be replaced later with a new monarchy, (whether that monarchy be Hapsburg or Romanov depended on the listened of course). Several early Serbian victories over poorly organized janissary forces emboldened the rebels who urgently called on the Tsar to send Slavic reinforcements. If the Tsar would only invade, “all Serbs from Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Dalmatia and Albania would joyfully unite and, in a short space of time, create a new 200,000-strong army. [1]”

Interestingly, this was not mere posturing. The ongoing Huzursuzluk had stoked anti-Ottoman resentment across the region. Serbian clans in Sarajevo and Skopje had already rioted against Turkish overlords. Prince-Bishop Petar I Petrović-Njegoš of Montenegro, the only Christian Balkan principality in the region, quietly supported these regional revolts. The Klimenti tribe in the Albanian highlands also revolted. Records also demonstrate unrest in Kosovo, Wallachia and Bosnia. From a nationalist standpoint, these widespread Serbian riots and revolts began to coalesce around a revitalized Serbian state based on its medieval predecessor. The revolutionaries even adopted the symbols and coat of arms of the 1100’s-1300’s Nemanjić Dynasty, the last Serbian kingdom of note before Ottoman hegemony in the Balkans. Just as their republican counterparts in America and France tended to wax poetic about bygone national heroes and crises, the Serbs rallied around the memory of the ancient Emperor Stefan Dušan who created a 14th century Serbian Empire at the expense of Bosnia and Bulgaria. Dušan’s empire, despite the fact that its core centered on Kosovo and Skopje, was an ideal cherished and expounded upon by the 18th century Serbian historian Jovan Rajić. Just prior the Belgrade Uprising, Rajić finished a four-volume History of Various Slavic Nations, Notably Bulgars, Croats and Serbs. The History deeply influenced Serbian nation-hood during this critical juncture. Unlike their American and French counterparts, the Serbian revolutionaries lacked a core of highly intellectual and prosperous enlightenment leaders with roots in such trades as shipping and law. Most of their intellectual and financial support came from enthused Serbs in the Hapsburg realms. The knezes tended to be from ancient Serbian noble families, many of whom were more comfortable on a battlefield than in a book. In fact many of the republican revolutionaries tended to be among the few Serbian lawyers and merchants and Serbian Republicanism was perhaps more prevalent within the Hapsburg Domains than in Serbia itself (worrying to Austrian authorities). Austro-Serbians would routinely interfere in regional events for years to come. These interferences ranged in scope and innocence. Count Sava Tekelija, the wealthiest Serbian noble in Hungary, published the Geographic Map of Serbia, Bosnia, Dubrovnik, Montenegro and Neighbouring Regions, which annoyed Hapsburg and Ottoman officials alike by highlighting such national elements as the geographic boundary of the Serbian language or the regional divisions of Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic faith. Many more Austro-Serbians housed rebels crossing the border, purchased and trafficked in munitions and weapons or sent financing into rebel territories. Perhaps most annoyingly to the Hapsburgs was the tendency for Austro-Serbian petitions, letters and memos on behalf of their cousins to find their way to Vienna while duplicate petitions astonishingly turned up in Paris and St. Petersburg [2].

For the great powers, the spiraling situation in Serbia required a response.

One thing the Hapsburg Emperor and the First Consul could agree on was there should be no Partition of the Ottoman Empire (it is likely Napoleon could have pressed for one with the Tsar and forced the Austrians into a deal but it would have led to renewed war with Britain). To ensure the integrity of the Empire, the Europeans had to ensure the integrity of the Sultan. This meant subduing the janissaries. It also placed France in the humorous situation that it now needed to fight for its enemy. His supply lines stretched, Desaix gladly halted the Armee d’Orient at the Al Kabir River [3]. Simultaneously, the French envoy to Constantinople, Horace François Bastien Sébastiani de La Porta, began discussing peace terms and a solution. To his credit, Napoleon seemed more than willing to grant a dignified peace to Selim. The proposal would have seen the Sultan cede all of North Africa, sell Cyprus and Jaffa to France, and give the French exclusive trading access to the Levant. France would renew the 1536 Franco-Ottoman Alliance and assist the Sultan in bringing Pazvantoğlu to justice. There seems to be no record of what would become of the Serbian rebels. Regardless, the Sultan never heard the proposal. The ship carrying Napoleon’s secret orders to de La Porta entered the Dardanelles two days after the Tsar declared for the Serbians and invaded Moldavia.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1802 had begun.


Excerpt from Dr. Mark Gonzalez’ “The Great Transition of Europe”, University of Chicago Press, 1921

The December 1801 assassination of Hadži Mustafa Pasha by Kučuk-Alija placed Alexander under tremendous diplomatic pressure. The new Tsar needed to demonstrate strength but also needed time to consolidate his rule especially given the recent demise of his predecessor. As traditional ally of the Balkan Slavs (including the Serbs), Alexander watched the situation in Serbia unfold with great interest. Yet, as the events unfolded, the Tsar became more disgusted with what he saw. Divided against themselves and beaten by France, the Turk was weak. The Holy Land lie in the hands of republican atheists. Republicans were championing Serbian independence and it appeared that Austria and France were forming a tentative alliance to bring Turkey under their sway and liberate Serbia, either as a republic or yet another dominion of the German Hapsburgs. Indeed an Austrian army had crossed the border at the invitation of the Sultan to quell the janissary revolt, but possibly position itself for a takeover of Bosnia and Serbia. His mind made up that fall; the Tsar ordered an invasion and declared war on the Sultan. On December 1, Russian troops entered Ottoman Moldavia.

In this move alone, Alexander actually achieved his goals. The nascent friendship between France and Austria crumbled, the proposed peace between France and Turkey collapsed as well (Alexander could not have known that France was willing to sacrifice the Holy Land) and more conservative elements joined the revolutionary cause. This meant the Serbian Revolution began to evolve away from a Franco-American republican type revolt and towards a revolution that tended to promote the defense of Orthodox Christianity. There were still many national elements to this revolution but the factions became more complicated. We must note that securing of Russian assistance did finally end lingering calls for Serbia to remain within the Ottoman Empire. By 1803, it was independence or bust. When the Sultan desperately called on Serbian militia to help repulse the Russian invaders, the prominent kneze Sima Marković, president of the Praviteljstvujušči Sovjet, declared:

“Serbia considers herself as an independent state, she does not accept to pay any tribute nor will she raise arms against her brothers in faith and allies. [4]”

We must also note that Buđevac, Marković, and Nikola Grbović began peppering French contacts, including Napoleon, with correspondence in early 1803 imploring them for assistance. It appears that independence became the sole unifying Serbian goal while deep factionalism divided Serbian revolutionaries into a conservative pro-Russia camp and a republican pro-French camp. The dithering Austrians, even already involved, remained stuck in the middle, seemingly content to play diplomacy and utilize General Karl Mack von Leiberich’s army to attack Pazvantoğlu’s janissaries and patrol the Austro-Turkish border. The Hapsburg Emperor’s indecisiveness is even more surprising given his awareness of the situation on the ground. Von Leiberich routinely sent the Emperor three to five reports per day, often with alarmist language. For example, von Leiberich sent this message to Vienna on March 6, 1803, shortly before the Battle of Mišar:

“The army is now [40 kilometers] separated from the forces of the Pasha. We are positioned at a crossroads village called Ub and will continue to push southeast towards the town of Aranđelovac. No casualties to report thus far as rebel Turks flee east at our approach. The region does not lay quiet however. The Pasha has taken his forces away from our march to position his troops on the Sava River. Rumor abounds that some ten thousand Slavic rebels have come down from the [Dinaric Alps] to give battle. A rebel victory would destroy the last loyal army the Sultan possesses north of Albania, strand our forces between Slavic rebels and Turkish rebels and expose us to raids and harassment on all sides. A Turkish victory would secure Belgrade but attract the attention of the armies of the Tsar. As I mentioned two days ago the Russians are 150 leagues from Belgrade but they have the support of the Orthodox princes along the Black Sea and Danube. The rebel Turks routinely raid and pillage Christian villages in Wallachia. Any further progress towards Vidin risks stranding us in the midst of loyal and rebel Turks, rebel Slavs and Russian armies. Currently and historically, none of these peoples are our allies. [5]”

Von Leiberich was correct in his estimates regarding a pending battle. The March 8, 1803 victory of 12,000 Serbs over Bekir’s 20,000 Bosnian Turks at the Battle of Mišar became an anthem call to revolution in the region. He was also correct in his assessment of how unstable and dangerous the regional situation was becoming. The victory at Mišar led to wider calls for revolution. Envoys to Wallachia, Albania, Greece and across Rumelia attempted to stoke a massed Balkan revolt against the Sultan and the janissaries. Rioting and revolts plagued Bosnia, Wallachia and Kosovo that spring. The collapse of peace talks between France and the Ottomans and the Russian invasion caused Napoleon to gamble that summer. Fearing a Russian or Austrian client state so close to Northern Italy and the Adriatic shipping lanes, the French intervened in their own right [6]. Cobbling together an army of veterans from past Italian, Spanish and Egyptian campaigns, and utilizing a mostly Italian fleet gathered in Corfu, the French organized an amphibious invasion via the Roman Republic’s Adriatic port at Pescara. On May 11, 1803, Jean Victor Marie Moreau landed this force at Patras, on the western Peloponnese. The Armée d’Grèce opened a new front in the war and provided an access point for French supplies and influence.

By all appearances, the great powers’ unspoken decision to not partition the Ottoman Empire was leading to its partition. And no one was more aware of that the Turks themselves. Despite his good intentions and his reform efforts, Selim III could not plug the countless leaks. His support crumbled throughout 1802 and 1803 until it reached a breaking point on July 1, 1803 when Moreau’s Franco-Greek force defeated a large Ottoman army at the Battle of Elateia. This secured an independent Greek Republic as a client state of France and caused Pazvantoğlu to take action. With Russians, French and Austrian armies coming from all directions, and the empire collapsing, Pazvantoğlu opted to solve the problem and do what janissaries do best: overthrow the Sultan.

Declaring a fatwa against Selim for “introduce[ing] among the Moslems the manners of infidels and show[ing] an intention to suppress the Janissaries”, the janissaries moved out [7].

July 26, 1803 marks the beginning of the War of the Janissaries when Pazvantoğlu’s force of gathered its strength and converged on Constantinople.

After over a year of constant war, both sides were ill supplied and undermanned in their battle for the capital. In a historic irony for the Turks who had famously, “arrived on the scene” by being the first to use artillery to breach the impenetrable walls of Constantinople, the attackers largely lacked the weapons to successfully assault the walled city. Most of Pazvantoğlu’s force remained on the outside of the city, closing the roads and laying siege in a traditional sense. The janissaries crudely assembled ladders and siege towers but most of these impromptu siege engines failed. A covert force of janissaries did sneak into the city on a disguised merchant ship and secured Selim’s cousin Mustafa who they (easily) pressed into service as a usurper sultan. Narrowly escaping the city before dawn, the siege continued for several more days until the night of July 31 when a powerful fleet silently slipped into the distracted Bosporus. The tense city literally exploded into activity shortly after two in the morning as 32-pounder cannons blasted the ancient sea walls near the Topkapi Palace. The cloudy night obscured any moonlight and only the flashes of the cannon’s muzzles exposed the new threat: a red, white and blue horizontal tricolor.

Crude rowboats deposited hundreds of janissaries and their new Russian allies ashore. Battalions rushed north to secure the Palace and capture Selim. Others rushed west to throw open the gates. Loyal soldiers held the streets as best they could but the powerful enemy fleet rained shot all across the city creating chaos. By dawn, the great city of Constantine lay silent, captured by the janissaries and their Russian allies. Frustratingly for Pazvantoğlu and Mustafa, the palace lay empty and Selim could not be found anywhere. Thorough searches of dark catacombs, dusty attics, piles of dead bodies and even the waters of the Bosporus resulted in nothing. Fearing his escape but assuming Selim had died and sunk into the impenetrable depths of the strait, Mustafa IV took the throne on August 3 [8].

Only a handful of people in the entire world knew where Selim had truly vanished. The silent Russian fleet was not as silent as Admiral Dmitry Senyavin hoped and a loyal guard spotted the Russians near Yoros Castle. With his own fleet combatting the French in the Aegean Sea, Selim knew he had been outflanked. The Sultan quietly rounded his advisors, his trusted family, and what valuables could be carried, and called the British ambassador. Until this point, Britain had been vocally concerned about the events in the region but not to the point of conflict. For about two years both France and Britain quietly fought a “cold war” with neither side in a great position to counter the other with both sides enveloped with adventures in other locations (Britain in India and Asia; France in the Mediterranean). Diplomacy and the tacit understanding that war would come “soon enough” seemed to prevent a War of the Third Coalition from breaking out but both sides pushed their boundaries (indicated by the controversial Partition of Spain failing a Parliamentary war vote by a mere two MPs).

However, Britain had no understanding with Russia nor was a war likely to be overly costly or destructive as it would mainly be a naval affair. Moreover, French adventures always curiously accounted for British interests (whether it be the integrity of Portugal or gifting London the former Dutch Empire) but even those paled in comparison to unilaterally carving the Ottoman Empire and placing Russian troops in Constantinople.

Understanding this, Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, packed as much of Selim’s court onto British merchant ships and quietly slipped past the Dardanelles [9].

Only on August 10, just as the janissaries were concluding a peace treaty with their Russian benefactors, and Mustafa began to feel comfortable, did news arrive in Constantinople that Selim III was in Antalya in southern Anatolia, under the protection of the Royal Navy.

The chaotic start to the War of the Janissaries created a complex legal situation as there were now two Ottoman Sultans, one very much de jure and one very much de facto. Whereas the Ottomans had attempted to rectify their increasingly untenable situation, the janissaries had done little but make a mess of things. The Russo-Janissary alliance, struck in secret at the port town of Odesa, netted immediately results for the Tsar. Mustafa ceded Moldavia and Wallachia to Russia and granted Serbia its independence, albeit as the “Duchy of Belgrade” under the command of the Romanov with Alexander’s brother, Konstantin, acting as its duke.

Nobles across Russia raised their glasses in toast to the young Tsar. In a bloodless coup, Alexander had finally defeated the Turk, put Russians in Constantinople, expanded the empire into the Balkans, and continued its crusade against the atheists and the republicans. However, the Tsar’s youth showed in his diplomacy. Nowhere did the Ottoman Empire make accommodations for the entrenched French in Egypt and the Levant, account for the Austrians still in Serbia, or remember that Greece was an orthodox Christian land in revolt along with its orthodox brothers across the region. By supporting Pazvantoğlu, and deposing Selim, the young Tsar had greatly offended the powerful Phanariote Greeks who dominated merchant activity in Constantinople, played a powerful role in Orthodox life within the empire and nominally ruled Wallachia and Moldavia, the very provinces Russia had just won. Whereas before, Napoleon was the great disruptor of Europe, Alexander now appeared to be such himself. Lastly, in failing to secure Selim, the Russians left the door open for legal nullification of Mustafa’s treaties and, more importantly, a Turkish Civil War.

Most importantly, Alexander had forgotten about (or simply underestimated) London. British interests were never a thing to be trifled with. Indeed, Napoleon seemed to bend over backwards to appease British interests and buy his (still young) reign more time. Alexander simply marched a Russian army along the Black Sea, supported janissary forces that operated outside of European ideas of order and legalism, and lastly brazenly captured Constantinople in a surprise attack by sea. If the young Tsar expected the other great powers to stand idly by then he was gravely mistaken. As Anatolia divided, into janissary and sultan controlled spheres a flurry of messages and orders sailed across the waters of the Mediterranean and North Seas.

On September 23, Britain’s ambassador to St. Petersburg, Charles Whitworth, requested his passports from the Tsar (the second time he had to do such in three years) and left Russia two days later. On October 3, the briefly pacifist British would hold back no longer and the Portland Government declared war on the Tsar.

————– Author’s Notes ————-

[1]: This is a quote from our timeline in a similar dispatch to Russia encouraging them to intervene.

[2]: Most of this paragraph is based on historic fact from the First Serbian Uprising, which occurred in our timeline a few years after this timeline’s version.

[3]: This river marks the northern border of our timeline’s modern Lebanon.

[4]: This quote is also from our timeline, repurposed for this timeline.

[5]: Obviously, this quote is fiction. In our timeline in 1803, General Mack was surrendering a massive Austrian army to Napoleon at the Battle of Ulm, a key event to Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz.

[6]: French intervention is not as farfetched as you would think. Revolutionary unrest in the Balkans in 1803 combined with the prospect of a Russian client state and threats to these shipping lanes were key reasons for Napoleon demanding Austrian Dalmatia in the post-Austerlitz peace. This became the directly controlled French Illyrian Provinces, which, to this day, seem like a bit of a head scratcher when looking at a map of the extent of Napoleon’s empire.

[7]: Also a quote from our timeline made by the janissaries in response to Selim’s reform attempts.

[8]: Mustafa overthrew Selim in our timeline as well under less intense but similar circumstances.

[9]: Bruce was the same British ambassador at this time as in our timeline and is famous for moving the “Elgin Marbles” from the Parthenon in Athens to London for preservation.

Source Materials

Bataković, Dušan T. “A Balkan-Style French Revolution? The 1804 Serbian Uprising in European Perspective.” Balcanica: Annual Of The Institute For Balkan Studies XXXVI (2006): 113.

Kinross, Lord. “The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire”. Perennial. 1977: p. 437

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