The remarkable story of the Uskoks: lessons on migration from the Middle Ages

The remarkable story of the Uskoks: lessons on migration from the Middle Ages

In the 1530s, several thousand Orthodox Christians known as “Uskoks” (from uskočiti, “to jump forward,” or “attack”) moved north out of Ottoman-controlled Bosnia and into a small district known as Žumberak, in Habsburg-controlled Carniola. These were refugees fleeing religious persecution, typical of their times. But certain qualities set them apart from their contemporaries in flight, Huguenots and Jews above all. These Uskoks sought opportunity, and actually negotiated their own landing place, assured by privileges that the Habsburgs were willing to grant them in return for military service. Žumberak and its refugee settlers comprised the first link in what would become the Croatian Military Frontier.

Historians of refugee movements understandably focus on the period from the late nineteenth century, when mass population movements followed logically from the establishment of (at least aspirationally) democratic nation-states. In slighting earlier periods, we limit our opportunities to examine the full run of a given refugee movement – from beginning to end, if indeed we can ever know the “end” when we see it.  The Uskok settlement of Žumberak is now in its sixth century, and while most of the descendants of the Uskoks have now moved on, its outlines are still clearly visible, rendering Žumberak the longest discrete refugee settlement zone that I know of.

Once settled in Žumberak, the Uskoks and their descendants labored under what I have identified as a “dual marginalization.” One aspect of this marginalization came quickly, as the region itself was almost immediately distanced from the rest of the Military Frontier, with the border between the warring Ottomans and Habsburgs settling about fifty miles south of Žumberak. The other form of marginalization came in the seventeenth century, as the region’s Orthodox inhabitants converted en masse to the Uniate church – a halfway-house organization that very few other Orthodox in Croatia joined. In this isolated ghetto as lonely adherents of a marginal church, this population stayed put for centuries. Their isolation, on the margins both geopolitically and culturally, makes these refugee settlers an intriguing study.

As a case study in refugee resettlement, the Uskoks offer many useful comparisons with contemporary cases, some of them reassuringly or distressingly familiar, others not so much. Among the familiar: the Uskoks suffered discrimination. They dressed differently; their families were organised differently; they earned their livings in ways foreign to their hosts; they threatened the livelihoods of the existing population; they came from a war zone and were therefore inevitably perceived as warlike; they acted as spies for the people they claimed to be fleeing; and so on. These responses are utterly familiar to us today as we search for solutions to, say, the Syrian refugee crisis.

More interestingly, the Military Frontier, like many contemporary refugee camps, served as a staging area for military forces preparing for a return to their original homeland and as a collection point for those who continued to flee the Ottoman Empire. There is an interesting study waiting to be written about Žumberak, or the entire Military Frontier, as an Early Modern refugee camp. There are undoubtedly other comparable cases in the Early Modern period (Cossacks come to mind). In this, the Uskoks bear comparison with those modern refugee exoduses that see armed forces, large or small, flee across borders to recruit and regroup in the refugee camp setting.

A bit further afield from most modern refugee experience is the fact that these refugees clearly had agency – they negotiated their move, they negotiated the conditions of their settlement, and they thereafter honored the terms of their agreements scrupulously, to the point that they came to be identified with the land they settled. In that sense, the privileges, which gave them so much in the beginning, and exemplified their agency, also locked them into an insular existence in a small and poor backwoods district. By the nineteenth century, when its people no longer served any military purpose, Žumberak had become known as the Uskokengebirge (Uskok Mountains), legendary for their hearty but impoverished inhabitants. Opportunity had turned to stagnation.

Their identity as Žumberčani, sustained and cursed equally by their dual marginalization, came under some stress in the twentieth century as national conflict engulfed all of the people of former Yugoslavia, forcing them to choose one or the other national affiliation. Today the majority of the relatively small number of inhabitants of Žumberak consider themselves Croats. But among those who left in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and their descendants, a strong sense of separateness persists. The Uskok settlement has now been almost fully played out, as the vast majority of Žumberak’s inhabitants have moved on, either to urban areas in Croatia, Slovenia, and Europe, but also in many cases as small groups that continue to maintain their collective identity as Žumberčani (in Cleveland and Toronto, for instance).

The Uskok refugee movement stands as a unique opening to study a situation that shares many characteristics with movements since the Second World War, and has lasted in some form for nearly six centuries, offering an unparalleled opportunity to examine a refugee movement that has fully run its course. Historians have been late to the study of refugee movements, and even when historians have engaged, they have paid little attention to pre-nineteenth-century examples. There is much more to be learned about the Uskoks – surely there are other examples from earlier times that offer similar possibilities?


Title Image: Public Domain

The Cretan Rebellion of 1897 and the Emigration of the Cretan Muslims

The Cretan Rebellion of 1897 and the Emigration of the Cretan Muslims

Responsibilities towards refugees fleeing atrocities: A failure to learn lessons from Srebrenica?

Responsibilities towards refugees fleeing atrocities: A failure to learn lessons from Srebrenica?