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Husein Gradaščević

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Husein-kapetan Gradaščević ( August 31 1802 August 17, 1834) was a Bosniak general who fought for Bosnian autonomy in the Ottoman Empire. He is often referred to as "Zmaj od Bosne", meaning "Dragon of Bosnia". Gradaščević was born in Gradačac in 1802 --hence his nickname Gradaščević, meaning "son of Gradačac"-- and grew up surrounded by a political climate of turmoil in the western reaches of the Ottoman Empire. When his brother Murat was poisoned by a rival in 1821, Gradaščević rose to the head of the Gradačac military captaincy. The young Husein developed a reputation for wise rule and tolerance and soon became one of the most popular figures in Bosnia.

In 1831 Gradaščević was called upon to lead the movement for a Bosnian autonomy. He overthrew the loyalist, vizier, and other anti-rebellion figures, becoming the de facto ruler of the Ottoman Bosnia Province ( eyalet) in the process. On July 18 of the same year, Gradaščević met a large force commanded by the grand vizier himself near Štimlje (Shtimje) in Kosovo and dealt a heavy defeat to the imperial army (this is sometimes referred to as the "Third battle of Kosovo"). At that point, he decided to turn back from further campaigns and returned to Bosnia where he was proclaimed the new vizier by his soldiers on September 12. By 1832, however, the tide of the rebellion had turned. After a series of smaller clashes, the decisive battle occurred on the 17th and 18th of May outside Sarajevo. Initially successful, the rebels were eventually defeated when Herzegovinian reinforcements arrived and sided with the Sultan.

Although the Bosniak uprising would not be completely quelled for another 18 years, Gradaščević was forced to flee to the Austrian Empire on May 31. From there he negotiated for his return with the Sultan and was ultimately allowed back but barred from ever entering Bosnia again. He moved to Belgrade and then to Istanbul, where he died under mysterious circumstances on August 17, 1834. A legend in his own time, Gradaščević is considered a Bosniak national hero and one of the most revered figures in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Background and youth

Location of Gradačac in modern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The most widely accepted theory about the origin of the Gradaščević family is that they came to Bosnia from Buda. There they were said to be high-ranking Ottoman officials and soldiers, and even upon their arrival they were already known as wealthy aristocrats. They settled in Bosnian Posavina, as evidenced by an imperial decree that gave them land and military responsibilities in the region. The local peasantry knew them as beys and sipahis, and eventually forged a feudal relationship with them. Private family tradition holds that the Gradaščevićs were actually descendants of feudal Bosnian nobility, but historical sources suggest otherwise.

The first known captain of the Gradaščević captaincy in Gradačac is Mehmed-kapetan, whose rule lasted until 1169 A.H. (1755–1756). The name of his successor is unknown, although this next captain was eventually succeeded by Mehmed-kapetan in 1765. (It was a common tradition among Bosniaks for children to be named after their paternal grandfathers). Mehmed-kapetan was in turn succeeded by Osman-kapetan, who was known to be one of the most powerful Bosnian captains of the period. Osman-kapetan had six male heirs. In order of birth, they were Hamza, Murat, Osman, Muharem, Husein, and H. Bećir. As Hamza died in 1212 A.H. (1797–1798) it was Murat-beg who succeeded him to the captaincy.

19th century medal featuring Husein Gradaščević.

Husein was born to Osman and his wife Melek-hanuma in 1802 in the Gradaščević family house in Gradačac. Outside of family tradition and folklore invented much later, little is known of his childhood. It is said that he spent much time around the family fort while it was undergoing renovations. He grew up during turbulent times and taking into account his father's military experience and brother Osman's services during the 1813 war against Serbia, young Husein surely heard many first hand accounts that shaped his personality.

Osman senior died in 1812 when Husein was merely ten years old. Certain scholars have argued that his mother was also dead by then, although some family traditions claim otherwise. By all accounts, his mother had a strong influence on Husein's upbringing. Upon his father's death, Husein deferred to his eldest brother Murat because of his age and status as successor to the Gradačac captaincy.

As his status implied, Husein was well educated, learning to read and write at an early age. At sixteen he was taught Arabic calligraphy by Murat's personal scribe Mullah Mustevica, who praised his brightness and called him a "gifted child". In addition to this, Husein was taught by two dervishes. It is not known for certain whether Husein belonged to a dervish order but, based on his great piety and the modest lifestyle that he would demonstrate in the future, it is often assumed that he did.

Husein married Hanifa, sister of Mahmud-kapetan of Derventa, at an early age. Although the exact date is unknown, his son Muhamed-beg was probably born no later than 1822 when Husein himself was twenty years old. The pair would also have a daughter, Šefika, born in 1833. Neither Muhamed nor Šefika were known to have had children themselves.

In the year 1820 Murat was invited to Travnik by his rival Dželaludin- pasha amidst political turmoil in Bosnia. Upon his arrival, he was poisoned by Dželaludin and died. As Osman and Muharem had already died by then, Husein thus ascended to the head of the Gradačac captaincy at the age of eighteen.

Gradačac captaincy

Gradačac castle. The administrative headquarters of the Gradačac captains.

When Husein took over the Gradačac captaincy, he focused most of his attention on administration of internal affairs. It is notable that all of Husein's construction projects were related to the city of Gradačac and its immediate area. During his rule, Gradačac further expanded its status as one of the most prosperous captaincies in Bosnia.

The first and most notable construction was that of the Gradaščević family castle. The fort had existed for decades and was subject to extensive renovations since the time of Mehmed-kapetan in 1765. Husein's father Osman and brother Murat had done some work as well, in 1808 and 1818 to 1819 respectively. However, the exact nature of Husein's contribution to the complex is unknown. The castle's tower has long been associated with Husein but architectural evidence points to the tower existing alongside the rest of the complex from earlier times. It seems likely that Husein was merely responsible for a significant renovation of the tower that lingered in the people's memory.

Husein was certainly responsible for a completely new castle built during his rule. By all accounts, this was a large project, which included the construction of an artificial island surrounded by a moat up to 100 meters wide and of a great depth. The castle was named Čardak and the surrounding village quickly derived its name from it. The walls were of an oval shape, the entire structure being seventeen meters long and eight meters wide. The complex and area also included a mosque, wells, a fishery, and hunting grounds.

Within the Gradačac city walls Husein's most significant contribution to the city was the clock tower ( Bosnian: sahat-kula) which was built in 1824. The object's base is 5.5 by 5.5 meters, while the height is 21.50 meters. It was the last object of this type to be built in Bosnia.

Some 40 to 50 meters outside the city walls lies Husein's greatest architectural contribution to Gradačac: the Husejnija mosque. Built in 1826, it features an octagonal dome roof and a particularly high minaret of twenty-five meters. Three smaller octagonal domes are found above the verandah. Islamic decorations and artistry are seen on the door and surrounding wall as well as the interior. The entire complex is surrounded by a small stone wall and gate.

Husein's rule in Gradačac was also notable because of his tolerance towards the Christian populace under his jurisdiction; both Catholic and Orthodox. Though social norms of the time dictated that the Ottoman sultan's official approval was necessary for the construction of any non-Islamic religious buildings, Husein approved the construction of several such buildings without it. A Catholic school was built in the village of Tolisa in 1823, followed by a large church that could hold 1,500 people. Another two Catholic churches were built in the villages of Dubrave and Garevac, while an Orthodox church was built in the hamlet of Obudovac. During Husein's captaincy, the Christians in Gradačac were known to be the most satisfied in Bosnia.

The year 1827 marked Husein's entrance into the greater Bosnian political scene. This was largely due to the impending Russo-Turkish War and his role in preparing the defense of the boundaries of the Province of Bosnia. Upon receiving orders from the Bosnian vizier Abdurahim- paša, Husein mobilized the Gradačac populace and strengthened his defenses. During talks held in Sarajevo between the vizier and the country's captains, it is said that Husein stayed the longest to discuss strategy. He was appointed commander of an army that he was to mobilize from the lands between the Drina to the Vrbas. By all accounts, he did a satisfactory job. However, in mid-June 1828, Husein had to rush to Sarajevo with a small accompanying force to get the vizier to safety following a revolt among the troops.

By 1830, Husein had risen to new political heights as he was able to speak on behalf of all (or at least most of) the captains of Bosnia. At that time, he was coordinating the defense of Bosnia against a possible invasion by Serbia, as well as taking it upon himself to address Austrian authorities and warn them against any incursion across the Sava. The authority he wielded in the later years of his captaincy in Gradačac explains the great role he was to have in the years to follow.

Movement for Bosnian autonomy

The road to rebellion

Sultan Mahmud II's actions were the catalyst for the Bosnian autonomy movement.

In the late 1820s, Sultan Mahmud II reintroduced an set of reforms that called for further expansion of the centrally controlled army (nizam), new taxes and more Ottoman bureaucracy. These reforms weakened the special status and privileges Bosnia had historically enjoyed under the Ottoman Empire and coupled with the growing power and position of other European people under Ottoman control caused much anger and alarm. Contrary to popular belief, however, Gradaščević was not greatly opposed to these reforms.

In 1826, when the Sultan issued a decree abolishing the janissaries in Bosnia, Gradaščević's immediate reaction was not unlike that of the rest of the Bosnian aristocracy. Gradaščević threatened that he would use military force to subdue anybody opposed to the Sarajevo janissaries. When the janissaries killed nakibul-ešraf Nurudin effendi Šerifović, however, his tone shifted and he rapidly distanced himself from their cause.

For the rest of the 1820s, Gradaščević generally maintained good relations with imperial authorities in Bosnia. When Abdurahim-paša became vizier in 1827, Gradaščević was said to have become one of his more trusted advisors. This culminated in Gradaščević's large role in the Bosnian mobilization for the Russo-Ottoman war. Following a riot in the Sarajevo camp during these preparations, Gradaščević even provided shelter for the ousted Abdurahim-paša in Gradačac before assisting him in his escape from the country. Gradaščević was also relatively loyal to Abdurahim's successor, Namik-paša, reinforcing Ottoman garrisons in Šabac upon his orders.

The turning point for Gradaščević came with the end of the Russo-Ottoman War and the Treaty of Adrianople on September 14, 1829. According to the provisions of the treaty, the Ottoman Empire had to grant autonomy to Serbia. In a move that outraged Bosniaks and launched numerous protests, newly autonomous Serbia was also given six districts (Bosnian: nahijas) that had traditionally belonged to Bosnia. Following this confiscation of historically Bosnian lands the Bosnian autonomy movement was born.

Between the December 20 and December 31, 1830, Gradaščević hosted a gathering of Bosniak aristocrats in Gradačac. A month later, from January 20 to February 5, another meeting was held in Tuzla to prepare for the revolt. From there, a call was issued to the Bosnian populace asking them to rise up to the defense of Bosnia. It was then that the popular Husein-kapetan was unofficially chosen to head the movement. Further details of this meeting are murky and disputable. According to certain contemporary sources, the Bosniaks demanded that Istanbul:

  • Repeal the privileges granted to Serbia and, in particular, return the six old Bosnian districts.
  • Cease the implementation of the nizam military reforms.
  • End the governorship of Bosnia and accept the implementation of an autonomous Bosnian government headed by a local leader. In return, Bosnia would pay a yearly tribute.

The fight for autonomy

Another outcome of the Tuzla meeting was an agreement that another general meeting should be held in Travnik. Since Travnik was the seat of the Ottoman Province of Bosnia and of the vizier, the planned meeting was in effect a direct confrontation with Ottoman authority. Gradaščević thus asked all involved to help assemble an army beforehand. On March 29, 1831, Gradaščević set out towards Travnik with some 4,000 men.

1. Travnik, 2. Peć, 3. Priština, 4. Štimlje, 5. Sarajevo.

Upon hearing word of the oncoming force, Namik-paša is said to have gone to the Travnik fort and called the Sulejmanpašić brothers to his aid. When the rebel army arrived in Travnik they fired several warning shots at the castle, warning the vizier that they were prepared for a military encounter. Meanwhile, Gradaščević sent a detachment of his forces, under the command of Memiš- aga of Srebrenica, to meet Sulejmanpašić's reinforcements. The two sides met at Pirot, on the outskirts of Travnik, on April 7. There, Memiš-aga defeated the Sulejmanpašić brothers and their 2,000-man army, forcing them to retreat and destroying the possessions of the Sulejmanpašić family. On May 21, Namik-paša fled to Stolac following a short siege. Soon afterwards, Gradaščević proclaimed himself the Commander of Bosnia, chosen by the will of the people.

Wasting no time, Gradaščević made a call on May 31 demanding that all aristocrats immediately join his army, along with all from the general populace who wished to do so. Thousands rushed to join him, among them being numerous Christians, who were said to comprise up to a third of his total forces. Gradaščević split his army in two, leaving one part of it in Zvornik to defend against a possible Serbian incursion. With the bulk of the troops he set out towards Kosovo to meet the grand vizier, who had been sent with a large army to quell the rebellion. Along the way, he took the city of Peć with a 52,000 strong Army and proceeded to Priština, where he set up his main camp.

The encounter with Grand Vizier Mehmed Rashid-paša happened on July 18 near Štimlje. Although both armies were of roughly equal size, the Grand Vizier's troops had superior arms. Gradaščević sent a part of his army under the command of Ali-beg Fidahić ahead to meet Rashid-paša 's forces. Following a small skirmish, Fihadić feigned a retreat. Thinking that victory was within reach, the Grand Vizier sent his cavalry and artillery into forested terrain. Gradaščević immediately took advantage of this tactical error and executed a punishing counterattack with the bulk of his forces, almost completely annihilating the Ottoman forces. Rashid-paša himself was injured and barely escaped with his life.

The Tsar's Mosque in Sarajevo, where Gradaščević was officially proclaimed the vizier of Bosnia.

Following claims from the Grand Vizier that the Sultan would meet all Bosniak demands if the rebel army would return to Bosnia, Gradaščević and his army turned back home. On August 10 a meeting of all major figures in the movement for autonomy was held in Priština. At this meeting it was decided that Gradaščević should be declared vizier of Bosnia. Although Gradaščević refused at first, those around him insisted and he eventually accepted the honour. His new status was made official during an all-Bosnian congress held in Sarajevo on September 12. In front of the Tsar's Mosque, those present swore on the Koran to be loyal to Gradaščević and declared that, despite potential failure and death, there would be no turning back.

At this point, Gradaščević was not only the supreme military commander, but Bosnia's leading civilian authority as well. He established a court around him, and after initially making himself at home in Sarajevo, he moved the centre of Bosnian politics to Travnik, making it the de facto capital of the rebel state. In Travnik, he established a divan, a Bosnian congress, which together with him made up the Bosnian government. Gradaščević also collected taxes at this time, and executed various local opponents of the autonomy movement. He gained a reputation as a hero and a strong, brave, and decisive ruler. One anecdote that illustrates this is Husein-kapetan's alleged response to whether he was scared of waging war against the Ottoman Empire. God I fear slightly, Gradaščević replied, the Sultan not at all, and the Grand Vizier no more than my own horse.

Map of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina. 1. Sarajevo, 2. Stolac, 3. Gacko, 4. Trebinje. Herzegovina is shaded darker.

During this lull in armed conflict with the Ottomans, attention was turned to the autonomy movement's strong opposition in Herzegovina. A small campaign was launched against the region from three different directions:

  • 1. An army from Sarajevo was ordered to attack Stolac for a final encounter with Namik-paša, who had fled there following Gradaščević's capture of Travnik.
  • 2. An army from Krajina was to assist the Sarajevan forces in this endeavor.
  • 3. Armies from Posavina and south Podrinje were to attack Gacko and local captain Smail-aga Čengić.

As it happened, Namik-paša had already abandoned Stolac, so this attack was put on hold. The attack on Gacko was a failure as the forces from Posavina and south Podrinje were defeated by Čengić's troops. There was one success, however; in October, an army Gradaščević had deployed under the command of Ahmed-beg Resulbegović had taken over Trebinje from Resulbegović's loyalist cousins and other supporters of the Stolac opposition.

A Bosnian delegation reached the Grand Vizier's camp in Skopje in November of that year. The Grand Vizier promised this delegation that he would insist to the Sultan that he accept the Bosniak demands and appoint Gradaščević as the official vizier of an autonomous Bosnia. His true intentions, however, were manifested by early December when he attacked Bosnian units stationed on the outskirts of Novi Pazar. Yet again, the rebel army handed a defeat to the imperial forces. Due to a particularly strong winter though, the Bosnian troops were forced to return home.

Meanwhile in Bosnia, Gradaščević decided to carry on his campaign in Herzegovina despite the unfavorable climate. The captain of Livno, Ibrahim-beg Fidrus, was ordered to launch a final attack against the local captains and to thus end all domestic opposition to the autonomy movement. To achieve this, Fidrus first attacked Ljubuški and the local captain Sulejman-beg. In a significant victory, Fidrus defeated Sulejman-beg and secured the whole of Herzegovina except Stolac in the process. Unfortunately, the segment of the army that laid siege to Stolac itself met with failure in early March of the next year. Receiving information that the Bosnian ranks were depleted due to the winter, the captain of Stolac Ali-paša Rizvanbegović broke the siege, counterattacking the rebels and dispersing their forces. A force had already been sent towards Stolac from Sarajevo, under the command of Mujaga Zlatar, but was ordered back by Gradaščević on March 16 after he received news of a major offensive on Bosnia being planned by the Grand Vizier.

Stup today: the eastern Sarajevo locality was the scene of Husein Gradaščević's final battle.

The Ottoman campaign began in early February. The Grand Vizier sent two armies: one from Vučitrn and one from Shkodër. Both armies headed toward Sarajevo, and Gradaščević sent an army of around 10,000 men to meet them. When the Vizier's troops succeeded in crossing the Drina, Gradaščević ordered 6,000 men under Ali-paša Fidahić to meet them in Rogatica while units stationed in Višegrad were to head to Pale on the outskirts of Sarajevo. The encounter between the two sides finally happened on the Glasinac plains to the east of Sarajevo, near Sokolac, at the end of May. The Bosnian army was led by Gradaščević himself, while the Ottoman troops were under the command of Kara Mahmud Hamdi-paša, the new imperially recognized vizier of Bosnia. In this first encounter, Gradaščević was forced to retreat to Pale. The fighting continued in Pale and Gradaščević was once again forced to retreat; this time to Sarajevo. There, a council of captains decided that the fight would continue.

The final battle was played out on June 4 at Stup, a small locality on the road between Sarajevo and Ilidža. After a long, intense battle, it seemed Gradaščević had once again defeated the Sultan's army. Near the very end, however, Herzegovinian troops under the command of Ali-paša Rizvanbegović and Smail-aga Čengić broke through defenses Gradaščević had set up on his flank and joined the fighting. Overwhelmed by the unexpected attack from behind, the rebel army was forced to retreat into the city of Sarajevo itself. It was decided that further military resistance would be futile. Gradaščević fled to Gradačac as the imperial army entered the city on June 5 and prepared to march on Travnik. Upon realizing the difficulties that his home and family would experience if he stayed there, Gradaščević decided to leave Gradačac and continue on to Austrian lands instead.

Exile and death

A view of the Golden Horn from Eyup Sultan Cemetery where Gradaščević is buried.

If the choice to flee Bosnia was not already clear, the Sultan's furious fatwa declaring Gradaščević "no good", an "evil-doer", a "traitor", a "gangster" and a "rebel" may have convinced Gradaščević to leave. Due to various customs and procedures, however, Gradaščević's departure from Bosnia was held up for several days. After pleading with Austrian officials to ease their restrictions, Gradaščević finally reached the Sava River boundary with a large party of followers on June 16. He crossed the river into Habsburg lands the same day, along with some 100 followers, servants, and family. Though he expected to be treated as a Bosnian vizier, he instead found himself held in quarantine in Slavonski Brod for nearly a month, with his weapons and many of his possessions taken away.

Austrian officials faced constant pressure from the Ottoman government to move Gradaščević as far away from the border as possible. On July 4 he was moved to Osijek where he essentially lived in internment. His communications with the rest of his family and social circle were severely limited and he complained about his treatment to the authorities several times. His conditions would eventually improve, and before he left Osijek he remarked to local officials that he had enjoyed his stay there. Although intensely homesick and only partially in control of his own destiny, Gradaščević retained his pride and dignity. He was said to have lived a luxurious life that included jousting competitions with his companions.

In late 1832, he agreed to return to Ottoman territory to receive a ferman of pardon from the Sultan. The terms, read to him in Zemun, were very harsh, insisting that Gradaščević not only never to return to Bosnia, but also never to set foot on the European lands of the Ottoman Empire either. Disappointed, Gradaščević was forced to obey the terms and rode on to Belgrade. He entered the city on October 14 in the manner of a true vizier, riding a horse decked out in silver and gold and accompanied by a large procession. He was greeted as a hero by the Muslims in Belgrade and treated like an equal by the local pasha. Gradaščević stayed in the city for two months, during which his health deteriorated (as was documented by local doctor Bartolomeo Kunibert). He left the city for İstanbul in December, but as his daughter was still very young, his wife remained in Belgrade, joining him in the spring of the following year.

In Istanbul Gradaščević lived in an old janissary barracks at atmejdan ( Hippodrome square) while his family lived in a separate house nearby. He lived a relatively quiet life for the next two years, the only notable event being an offer from the Sultan for Gradaščević to become a high-ranking pasha in the Nizami army; an offer that Gradaščević indignantly refused. He died on August 17, 1834. Legend has it that he was poisoned by imperial authorities but, considering his long failing health, a more probable cause might have been cholera. He was buried in Eyup Sultan Cemetery near the site of the old veterinary school, where his grave remains to this day.


Husein Gradaščević was a living legend in his own time. Upon his death, he also became something of a martyr for Bosnian pride. There was a well-known saying among Bosniaks that for years after his death not a single man among our people would be able to hear his name and not shed a tear. This positive sentiment was not exclusive to the Muslim population, as Christians from Posavina are thought to have shared a similar view for decades.

The first historic literature written about Gradaščević can be found in Safvet-beg Bašagić's work from 1900, A short introduction into the past of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, due to historical differences between the Bašagić and Gradaščević families, Safvet-beg's view of Husein-kapetan is somewhat opinionated. A year later, Gradaščević was mentioned by Kunibert in his works on the first Serbian Uprising, which painted a positive picture of Gradaščević as a tragic hero.

In the years that followed, Gradaščević was mentioned, either specifically or in the context of the movement he led, by D. Pavlović, Slavko Kaluđerčić, and Hamdija Kreševljaković. The general sentiment was that the autonomy movement was merely a reaction to imperial reforms by the Bosnian upper class. This view would be predominant among historians for decades. Gradaščević had a minor resurgence during World War II when Ustaše ( Croatian fascists) launched a propaganda-rooted proposal to bring his remains back to Sarajevo.

During the time of Communist Yugoslavia, Gradaščević and his movement were rarely mentioned. The perceived upper-class resistance to implementation of modern reforms did not go well with communist ideology. Gradaščević was briefly mentioned in such a light by Avdo Sućeska in his 1964 work on Bosnian captains. It would be another 24 years before Gradaščević was mentioned again. This time it was in Galib Šljiva's 1988 work on Bosnia in the first half of the 19th century. Though several historiographical controversies were resolved, there was no significant shift in the perception of Gradaščević.

Since the Yugoslav Wars and the Bosniak national awakening, Gradaščević and his movement have experienced a rebirth among historians and the common public alike. Works by Ahmed S. Aličić, Mustafa Imamović, and Husnija Kamberović have all cast Gradaščević in a more positive light. Gradaščević is once again widely considered the greatest Bosniak national hero, and is a symbol of national pride and spirit. The main streets in Gradačac and Sarajevo are both named after him, as well as numerous other places in Bosnia and Herzegovina. An impressive statue and monument to Gradaščević are to be built in Gradačac sometime in the near future. Talk of returning Gradaščević's remains to Bosnia has been proposed, but little has come of it.

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