Djordje Petrovic, known as Karadjordje

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The founder of the Karadjordjevic dynasty Djordje (George) Petrovic, called “Karadjordje” (Black George), was born on 15 November 1752, in the village of Visnjevac in Lepenica district during the Ottoman occupation of Serbia and the Balkans. The Serbs at this time used “patronymics” rather than family surnames. Karadjordje’s parents were Peter and Marica Zivkovic. In 1786, Karadjordje married Jelena Jovanovic from the village of Maslosevo. The marriage produced seven children – four daughters Sava, Sara, Poleksija and Stamenka, and three sons: Sima (died after birth), Aleksa (died when he was 29 in Kishinev, Russia) and Alexander.

Soon after starting a family, Karadjordje went to Syrmia, where he took part in the Austro-Turkish war 1787-1791, as a member of the Austrian “Freikorps” under the command of Radic Petrovic. During that war he was awarded a gold medal for courage and became a non-commissioned officer.

Upon returning to Serbia, Karadjordje joined Serb resistance groups to the Ottoman occupation. These popular “Robin Hoods” were known as “hajduks.” He was at first a member of the Hajduk bands of Lazar Dobric and Stanoje Glavas. Later he became a leader of one of these bands of rebels. The establishment of limited autonomy in the Belgrade administrative region (“Pashaluk”) of Ottoman occupied Serbia enabled Karadjordje to go back to farming and trade and to settle in his estate in Topola in the Serbian district of Sumadija (“Sylvania”).

The fragile peace in Serbia ended in 1801 with a reign of terror by the local Ottoman administrators, the Janissary. During this period the Serbian people were reduced to slavery and suffering. At this time, the Serbs experienced humiliation and torment unprecedented since the fall of Serbia to the Ottomans hundreds of years earlier. The Janissary repression culminated in the terrible slaughter of prominent Serb leaders. History records this episode in Serbia as the “hacking of the headmen”.

In response to these developments the surviving Serbian leaders met at a rally in the village of Orasac on 15 February 1804. At that meeting the rebel leaders chose “Karadjordje” Petrovic to lead an uprising against the Janissary chieftains – known as the “Dahis”. From that moment Karadjordje’s life became inseparably connected with the destiny of the First Serbian Uprising (in Serbian “Prvi Srpski Ustanak”). As the elected Supreme Leader he became the central figure and driving force of the national liberation movement of the Serbian people. From that moment on he would be the Supreme Leader, Lord of the Serbs, state builder, commander in chief and diplomat. After successfully removing and executing the Dahis, the Serb rebels found themselves opposing the Ottoman Sultan’s army sent to quell the rebellion. Serbian victories followed one after the other in the battles of Ivankovac (1805), Misar and Deligrad (1806). By the end of 1806 the Serb army had liberated Belgrade. In 1807 there were no Ottoman controlled fortifications in Serbia.

The Serb victories under Karadjordje took place at the beginning of the Russian-Turkish War towards the end of 1806. This situation forced Turkey to negotiate with the victorious Serbs. According to the ensuing, so-called “Ickov’s peace,” Serbia should have become a vassal Turkish principality. However, Karadjordje’s ambitions were for full independence and liberation of all Serbs under Ottoman rule. After establishing an alliance with Russia in the spring of 1807, Serbia’s war against the Ottoman’s continued.

Southern Serbia was liberated and Serbian troops entered into the Raska region and established a connection with Montenegro. After their defeat in Cegar, the Serbs withdrew to the Morava, continuing to fight the Ottomans in the regions of Timok and Podrinje. The Serbian state and Karadjordje’s position as the Supreme Leader were strengthened alongside the liberation of additional territories. Within the independent Serbia Government, courts, post offices and a regular army were established, as well as the “Great School” (the future University) of Belgrade. Elementary schools were founded in all towns in Serbia. Karadjordje’s laws and constitutional reforms turned Serbia into a country ruled by law. At the end of 1808, Karadjordje Petrovic was proclaimed the hereditary Supreme Leader of the Serbs. Under the constitutional reform of 1811, Karadjordje strengthened his position as the leader of the Uprising and the country, but peace was not to last. Under pressure from Napoleon’s Army, Serbia’s ally Russia signed a peace treaty with Turkey in 1812 and this left Serbia alone to face the Ottoman army. Subsequently, Serbia did not sign the Bucharest peace treaty and its negotiations with Turkey failed. In response the Ottomans launched a military campaign against Serbia in 1813. Almost a decade of warfare had weakened the Serbian army, and the First Serbian Uprising was crushed in bloody repression.

Karadjordje with his family and the most prominent Serbian chieftains left the country, initially for Austria and later for Bessarabia (Russia). After attempts to persuade the Russian Tsar to go to war against Turkey failed, Karadjordje made contacts with the Greek organization “Heteria”, whose aim was the allied uprising of the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians and the establishment of a great Balkan state. With the intention to start the struggle anew Karadjordje secretly came to Serbia. Under orders of the Turkish vizier and rival Serbian chieftain Milos Obrenovic, Karadjordje was assassinated in Radovanjski Lug near the city of Smederevo, on the night of 24 July 1817. His body was later buried in the Mausoleum of St. George in Oplenac, built by King Peter I.

Karadjordje’s popularity grew over time into a legend and spread beyond Serbia’s borders. Balkan Christians saw God’s messenger in him, the Serbs from Austria thought of him as their emperor who would free them from the oppressors, and the Archbishop of Montenegro called him the Unifier of the Serbian people. For the contemporary generation of the Serbs, the name Karadjordje was a synonym for the people’s leader, an idol and inspiration to all.