Haiduk is a Turkish word for an outlaw, an outcast, a highwayman.
Upon the Turkish invasion of Smederevo in 1459, Serbia, as a state, disappeared from the historic map, which lasted for the following five centuries. So, Serbian people went on living in several different states of that time. During the centuries of the Turkish rule and without their own state or a ruler, the people were at the mercy of the invaders. The only form of resistance came about when groups of ‘outlaws’ gathered, wandering the woods and mountains of Serbian lands. In summer they came down to the valleys and roads to rob the wealthy merchants, mostly Turks, and also in winter to get shelter at their homes or a friend’s place, who provided aid and harboured them (the yataks). A church holiday, St George’s Day in spring, was the day of the “haiduks reunion” and the St Demetrios’s Day was the “haiduks parting”, when they left the woods for the winter.
These outlaws were organised in gangs with one man as the gang leader (an harambasha), who was always dressed in smart clothes and was elected for his age and abilities. The gangs usually numbered between ten and twenty men, but there were cases when a leader could gather up to sixty men, or even a few hundred. The Turkish merchant caravans travelled through Serbia, constantly vigilant and a watchful, with many security guards because of the haiduks. Although there were frequent cases of attacks even on the Serb parties, these highwaymen were seen, if not always as protectors, but usually as heroes and defenders of national honour. Hence many folk epic songs, which were secretly sung to the gusle instrument, (as it was forbidden). Punishments for the outlaws and those who harboured them were severe. Those who were caught, were tortured and impaled alive. But the gangs never stopped with their activities throughout the period of the Turkish rule.
Similar Serbian haiduk gangs existed also in the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as in the Venetian Republic, the Uskoks (ones who jump in,), but they were somewhat differently organised. They made swift raids (jumped in) in the Turkish territory.
The haiduk gangs also took part in the 1804-1815 uprisings against the Turks. Many of the uprising leaders and warlords were the haiduks and harambashas. A famous novel Stanko the Haiduk (Hajduk Stanko) by Janko Veselinović describes the life of an outlaw of Mačva – his path of life, from an outlaw to an insurgent.
When in the 19th century the Serbian state was restored, the name haidukreferred to common gang men, the outlaws, fugitives from the law, keeping the meaning almost until the Second World War.
The epic folk songs sing of: Old Novak of Romanija (Starina Novak sa Romanije), his son Grujica, Old Vujadin (Starac Vujadin), unknown to history, and Little Radojica (Mali Radojica). Bajo Pivljanin is a famous 17th century haiduk and uskok, while the period of the First Serbian Uprising celebrates Veljko Petrović (Haiduk Veljko), Stanoje Glavaš and many others. Also many songs sing about the great deeds and heroism of the raiders, Ivo Senković, Stojan Janković, Vuk Mandušić and others.
Evo ima četr’est godina,
Romaniju goru obiknuo,
bolje, brate, nego moje dvore;
jer ja čuvam druma kroz planinu,
dočekujem Sarajlije mlade,
te otimam i srebro i zlato
i lijepu čohu i kadifu,
odijevam i sebe i društvo;
a kadar sam stići i uteći
i na strašnu mjestu postajati –
ne bojim se nikoga do Boga!
An excerpt from a Serbian folk epic song, Old Novak and Prince Bogosav(Starina Novak i knez Bogosav)