Perhaps no other leader embodies the spirit of Bosnian resistance and the nation’s will to survive than Husein-Kapetan Gradascevic, the Dragon of Bosnia. Many years after his death, a popular sentiment among the Bosnian people, Muslims, and Christians alike (particularly in the Posavina region) was that his name could not be mentioned without shedding a tear. The tragedy of his life is in many ways a quintessential embodiment of the dual nature of the Bosnian national spirit.
Following the Russo-Turkish War and the Treaty of Adrianople on September 14, 1829, the Ottoman Empire granted autonomy to the state of Serbia, ceding six of Bosnia’s districts to the country. This infuriated the Bosnian leadership and the general populace in the territory. Rumors of a possible invasion by Serbia, coupled with reforms in the late 1820s and early 1830s weakened the position of the country’s leadership and raised tensions even further. Sultan Mahmud II instituted a series of reforms including new taxes, an expansion of the centrally controlled army, and an increase in Ottoman bureaucracy.
Feeling betrayed and downcast by the empire, despite years of loyal military and civic servitude, Gradascevic issued a decree for the gathering of Bosnian noble leaders. Between December 20 and 31, the young captain hosted a set of meetings in his native Gradacac, which was attended by Bosnian nobles throughout the country. Their demands were relatively straightforward; an autonomous Bosnian homeland, a direct cessation of the nizam military reforms, and a return of the six Bosnian districts granted to Serbia.
Prior to the years of rebellion, Gradascevic had built a name for himself as a tolerant civic ruler and talented military strategist. Born to a wealthy Bosniak noble family in 1802, the young Gradascevic came of age during a time of turmoil and friction on the western reaches of the Ottoman Empire. Even from an early age, Husein was considered by his teachers as a gifted child and even received religious training from the Bektashi Order of dervishes. His mother had a great influence on his life, as did the experience of his older brothers who spent much of their lives in military servitude to the Ottomans. Upon reaching the status of captaincy, Husein focused much of his attention on internal affairs.
He went to work on several construction projects, most notably the reconstruction of the Gradacac Castle, a clocktower, Cardak Castle, the Husejnija Mosque, and numerous other public works. Husein garnered a reputation as a wise and tolerant ruler, approving several non-Muslim construction projects for his Christian subjects, both Catholic and Orthodox alike. This went against Ottoman policy, as Gradascevic did not ask for official approval to have numerous churches and Christian religious schools constructed. His subjects revered him for his tolerance, and he is famous for saying, “In Bosnia, the sound of church bells never bothered the call to prayer of the muezzin.”
In 1827, Gradascevic was charged with organizing a military force in support of the Ottoman military offensive during the Russo-Turkish War (1828-1829), as well as the defense of the Bosnian territory. By 1830, Husein’s skill and dexterity in navigating the complex political situation at the time strengthened his position as the chief captain in Bosnia. Between January 20 and February 5 of 1831, Gradasevic held another round of meetings, this time in Tuzla, to prepare for Bosnia’s revolt against the Ottomans. Selected as the unofficial leader of the rebellion, Gradascevic assembled a force of 4,000 men and began a march on the city of Travnik, the seat of the Bosnia Eyalet and of the vizier.
Namik Pasha called on the Sulejmanpasic brothers to orchestrate a defense of the city by drafting loyalist troops in the response to the sudden attack. The two sides met at Pirot, on the outskirts of Travnik, where Husein had sent Memis-aga of Srebrenica with a detachment of his forces to engage with the 2,000 strong loyalist army. The Sulejmanpasic brothers were swiftly defeated, and in May, following a short siege on Travnik, Namik Pasha fled to Herzegovina, as Gradascevic was proclaimed the “commander of Bosnia, chosen by the will of the people.”
Following the declaration, Gradascevic called on all of the Bosnian captains, as well as the people of Bosnia to join his cause. Thousands responded, including numerous Christians which made up a third of his total forces. Husein understood he had to leave some of the troops to defend the country, while he set out to meet the Grand Vizier on the battlefield in Kosovo. With a force of some 25,000, Gradasevic captured the city of Pec en route to Pristina. On July 18, the march culminated with a head-on meeting with the Ottoman forces, who were roughly equal in size, but much better equipped and trained. Gradascevic’s troops, led by Ali Pasha Fidahic feigned a retreat early on in the skirmish. Convinced that his army had dealt a crushing defeat to Husein, Grand Vizier Resid Mehmed Pasha sent the bulk of his cavalry and artillery into difficult and forested terrain to chase down the rebel army. Husein took advantage of this gross tactical error and almost annihilated the entirety of the Ottoman army, including dealing an injury to the Grand Vizier, who barely escaped with his life.
With promises that the Sultan would yield to Bosnian demands if his army would turn back, Gradasevic returned to Bosnia with his forces. He was declared the Vizier of Bosnia, becoming the country’s leading civilian leader. At a ceremony in front of the Tsar’s Mosque in Sarajevo, his supporters swore allegiance to Gradascevic. Husein established a Bosnian Congress, levied taxes, and set up a functioning government of a de facto independent country. When asked if he was scared of fighting the Ottoman Empire, he simply replied, “God I fear slightly, the Sultan not at all, and the Grand Vizier no more than my own horse.”
Despite a lull in the fighting which enabled him to focus on civic matters, the Ottomans launched a counteroffensive to ensnare the state back into the fold. Suppressing local loyalist uprisings culminated with a major battle in Sarajevo in 1832. The Ottoman forces were initially successful in forcing a retreat of the Bosnian army over several rounds of intense fighting. The tide quickly turned, and with victory within his grasp, Husein was defeated when Serbian rebels and Ottoman reinforcements arrived and came to the aid of his enemies. In June of that year, in the final battle of the campaign, Gradascevic was once again successful, however, he was foiled by loyalists, this time by Herzegovinian troops led by Ali-pasa Rizvanbegovic and Smail-aga Cengic who attacked his forces from behind.
Gradascevic understood that if he was to remain in Bosnia, his family would be in immediate danger of death. He fled to Habsburg lands over the Sava river, living in exile. He returned to Ottoman lands to receive a pardon from the Sultan, however, the conditions were incredibly harsh. He was never again to set foot in his beloved Bosnia. Initially living in Belgrade, his health deteriorated and he arrived in Istanbul to live out his life in exile. In 1834, he died, most likely due to cholera, although some scholars suspect he might have been poisoned, especially after he turned down an offer by the Sultan to become a high-ranking pasha in the Nizami Army.
Gradasevic wasn’t just an ordinary rebel. An honorary title like “Dragon of Bosnia,” isn’t bestowed on a simple insurrection leader. His movement represented a will for independence, something unseen in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the days of the old Medieval kingdom, and not to be seen again until the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. No matter its brevity, Husein’s benevolent and inclusionary rule represented the spirit of Bosnian freedom, tolerance, and unity.