Walking down Stradun, the main street of Dubrovnik, it’s easy to picture it as a pirate haven with rum-soaked marauders staggering from the many alleys supported by exotic wenches out to part the buccaneers from their doubloons and pieces of eight. The image owes much to the climate and the pale stone of all the buildings which echoes the Spanish Colonial look of parts of the Caribbean.
Not content with milking their connection to Game of Thrones and Star Wars, the savvy traders of Dubrovnik are keen to maximise any profits that Johnny Depp may bring their way too. One swarthy individual dressed very tenuously in a piratical style (loose-fitting white shirt open to the waist, medallion, leather trousers) has a small collection of parrots for tourists to photographed supporting, and there are at least two confectionary outlets that play on the theme by displaying their wares on top of replica barrels.
I wasn’t convinced.
There was another opportunity to partake of a bit of the freebooter experience. Sea wolves with sea legs can board one of two galleons that sail the waters around the three main tourist islands of the area.
So is there any truth behind these commercial operations?
Well yes, some… but mostly no.
The Croatian coastline with its hundreds of islands provides the perfect context in which pirates could operate with innumerable hiding places in the bays and caves that the islands and cliffs provide. The few miles of similar topography where I used to live supported a smuggling operation, so with a coastline that stretches for well over 2000 miles of course pirates operated here. The fact is that at different times in history there were three different pirate groups operating here.
The first group to menace these waters were the Narentines, a Serbian tribal group whose name derives from the Neretva river, the largest on this side of the Adriatic and a natural thoroughfare for raiding parties, much like the fjords to the Norse. They attacked Venetian traders in the 9th and 10th centuries until their eventual defeat by Doge Pietro II, a victory that has been celebrated ever since in the ceremony where Venice “marries” the sea each year. (Can’t believe I didn’t include that festival amongst all of my Venetian posts.)
Enter the corsairs of Omis, albeit two centuries later. As their name suggests they originated from Omis, 200km further up the coast from Dubrovnik. Described by the local tourist board as “one of the most powerful and fearsome” pirate groups of the entire Mediterranean. Well they would wouldn’t they? They did have some chutzpah, not content with emulating the Narentines and helping themselves to Venetian cargoes they also harried the Pope’s crusaders en route to Palestine. The Pope declared ware on them. And lost. Once again it took concerted Venetian naval might to end the Omis era in 1331.
Neither of these groups sailed in galleons – this was still the era of warships powered by rowers in the Mediterranean. So what about the final group, the evocatively named Uskoks, a word meaning “those who ambushed”? Also operating from rowed boats these were groups of soldiers who turned to piracy as a means of survival. In contrast to their predecessors their targets were Ottoman rather than Venetian, so much so that their actions helped to trigger a war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. In fact they allied themselves with the Papal fleet that crushed the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto. Seeing themselves more as holy warriors they were disbanded as part of a peace treaty between Venice and Austria in 17th Century.
So no galleons. No rum. No parrots. But pirates aplenty.