Eyes Eastward

Balkans and Eastern Europe in the Early Modern period.

Who cares about Bosnia?

Bosnia is an unusual place indeed. Or at least this is what Napoleon probably thought of this remote corner of Europe, where the attention goes on and off in Western historiography. It looks like a cyclamen which rests under the vegetation of the woods when the season is warm and it resuscitates when the weather gets colder.

Well, Bosnia might look like a tranquil spot, but it is like a simmering geyser where the waters are ready to erupt all of a sudden when nobody is expecting it.

Most of the Westerners know Bosnia for two dramatic episodes in history. The first one is the assassination of Francis Ferdinand of Austria, which took place in Sarajevo and ignited the World War I. The second episode is related to the war(s) which ended the existence of Yugoslavia in 1990s, which saw Bosnia as one of the most gruesome battlefields, where the ghosts of World War II revived and concepts like “ethnic cleansing” and “concentration camps”, which sounded outdated in Europe, became familiar again.

Squeezed in the heart of the Balkans, this mountainous region fell under the Ottoman rule in the late 15th century and used to be a springboard for the Ottomans to launch attacks to Hungary and Austria during their formidable expansion in the 16th and 17th century. Nonetheless at the end of the latter century the fortunes of the sultans started to reverse and the region “was refashioned by the Ottomans as the main bulwark of the northern border facing Austria”[1] after the disastrous outcome of the early wars of the 18th century against the Habsburgs and Russia. At the beginning of the 19th century, an unexpected neighbour knocked at Bosnia’s doors, though: France.

When France had the Bourbons on the throne, the relationship with the Ottoman Empire was quite friendly and, like all relationships, it had its ups and downs. Thanks to the famous alliance between “the Lily and the Crescent”, France enjoyed a good position at the sultan’s court.[2] This mutual exchanges culminated with the Capitulations of 1740 obtained by the French ambassador Villeneuve which allowed France to have the primacy in the international trade with the Ottoman Empire and a significant diplomatic influence over the Sublime Porte.[3]

Once the French Revolution toppled the reigning household, things seemed to go further anyway. Only Napoleon’s ambition brought to an end the contacts between Paris and Constantinople. The invasion of Egypt in 1798 seemed to wipe out centuries of mutual exchanges, but four years later the bridges between Saint Cloud and Topkapı were rebuilt.

After the victorious aftermath in the war against the Third Coalition, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 by which he acquired former Austrian Dalmatia. This new province offered the potential for an expansion of his influence (maybe his dreams were even bigger) in the Ottoman Levant.[4]

     Bosnia during the period of the French occupation of Dalmatia

Napoleon was eager to relaunch the ancient connection with the Turk, in order to have the sultan Selim III on his side against the Russians. Through his ambassador, Sébastiani, he managed to drag the Ottomans in a war against St. Petersburg, but his strategy was more complex. He wanted to restore and expand the diplomatic network in the Ottoman empire. One of the posts where he sent his diplomats was Bosnia. In fact, Napoleon saw opportunities which were overlooked by others and considered highly strategic this province of the Ottoman Empire. Bosnia was in a very different situation at that time, it was the province of the Ottoman Empire which shared a border with the Napoleonic territories. To this nearly unknown region Napoleon sent his diplomat Pierre David, a Telleyrand’s protégé, who set foot in the Bosnian capital Travnik in the first months of 1807.

For David to enter Bosnia was like a leap in the dark. He probably knew little if not nothing about this land. His mission was to send information about this Ottoman province and ensure French interests were enhanced and pursued. His objectives were to boost the contacts between Bosnia and the French administered Dalmatia, to enlist the Bosnian authorities to side French political aims and provide information about possible commercial exchanges.

The governor, or pasha, of Bosnia was Hüsrev Mehemed Paşa who will be very friendly with David and very well disposed towards the French. He will put every effort to keep this relationship firm and solid, but the events will show unexpected aftermaths.

You can read more about David and his experience in Bosnia, in my article published on French Historical Studies. Click here to read it. If you wish to ask me something or share your considerations, do not hesitate to contact me!

[1] Bruce McGowan, The Age of Ayans, 1699–1812.” In vol. 2 of An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, edited by Halil İnalcık and Donald Quataert, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 664.

[2] Jensen, De Lamar. “The Ottoman Turks in Sixteenth Century French Diplomacy.” The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 16, no. 4, 1985, 451–470.

[3] Edhem Eldem, “Capitulations and Western Trade”, in vol. 3 of The Cambridge History of Turkey, edited by Suraiya Faroqhi, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 311-317. Alexander H. De Groot, “The Historical Development of the Capitulatory Regime in the Ottoman Middle East from the Fifteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries.”, Oriente Moderno, 22 (83), no. 3, 2003: 575–604.

[4] Shaw was far more explicit. See,  Stanford J. Shaw, Between Old and New: The Ottoman Empire under Sultan Selim III, 1789–
1807, (
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 336-337.


Credits: “An Imperial Bonne Bouche or the Dinner at Tilsit”, July 1807. ©Trustees of the British Museum

The picture represents Napoleon and tsar Alexander, “sharing” Europe at Tilsit in July 1807. The British satirical picture stigmatises Napoleon’s greed which leads him to have the whole meal, leaving nothing for Alexander. Every food on the table is labeled with Napoleon’s victories which led him to master continental Europe and forge an alliance with the former Russian enemy. At the feet of the table Friederich Wilhelm III of Prussia holds what remained of his kingdom after the new settlement, which assigned nearly half of former Prussian territories to Napoleon’s German vassal states.


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