Cossacks – the fearless warriors of the frontier #1

Cossacks – the fearless warriors of the frontier #1

Although nominally Commonwealth was a federation of Polish and Lithuanian states, it was home to much more nations and ethnic groups. Among them were Cossacks – freedom-loving warriors of the Ukrainian steppes.

Guillaume le Vasseur de Beauplan was a cartographer and author, who in the 17th century described Ukraine for the Western audience. A few more of his compatriots followed his lead into the fascinating world of multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. One of them was Pierre Chevalier, who wrote a book called “A Discourse of the Original, Countrey, Manners, Government and Religion of the Cossacks”. English translation was published in London in 1672.

Fragment of the map “Vkrania quæ et Terra Cosaccorvm cum vicinis Walachiæ, Moldaviæ, Minorisq[ue] Tartariæ Provinciis” by Johann Baptist Homann, ca. 1715. Source:, public domain.

Who were the Cossacks? It is not an easy question to answer. Basically, they were mainly Orthodox Slavic people, who democratically established themselves into the military organizations in order to protect themselves against the Tatars. Their main area of activity was Ukrainian steppe. One region, in particular, became legendary: so-called “the Wilderness” or “Wild Fields”. In a sense, it was the Eastern European version of “Wild West”.

Strive for freedom – this was the main denominator of the Cossacks. Anyone willing could join the ranks of its multi-ethnic conglomerate: both nobles, townsfolk, and peasants, who fled from feudal oppression or punishment for alleged crimes. There are even records of Cossacks with German or Serbian origin.

The group which was integrally linked to the history of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth were Zaporozhian Cossacks, named after Zaporozhia – a historical region below the Dnieper River rapids. Some say that the best analogy is to compare “Cossacks” with “Vikings” – both terms are more linked to the lifestyle than ethnicity.

“”Although Ukraine be one of the most remote Regions of Europe, and the Cossackian name very Modern; yet hath that Countrey been of late the Stage of Glorious Actions, and the Inhabitants have acquitted themselved with as great Valour in Martial Affairs, as any Nation whatsoever (…).”

– Preface to the English translation of “”A Discourse of the Original, Countrey, Manners, Government and Religion of the Cossacks”.

Over the centuries, Cossacks organized themselves into several state-like formations, like the Sich or the Cossack Hetmanate. They had to diplomatically and militarily maneuver between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the tsardom of Russia, and the empire of Ottoman Turks.

What the word “Cossack” means?

Some early-modern era writers were certain, that word “cossack” is derived from the Polish word “koza”, which means…goat. Pierre Chevalier:

The name of Cossacks was given them by reason of their Address to Agility in penetrating even the most difficult and dangerous places such as the mouth of the Boristhenes, whereby they made War with Turks and Tartars. Cosa signifying in Polish, a Goat.

Mamai – the most popular folk hero of the Cossacks, 18th century. Image source: Dnieper Historical Museum, public domain.

Modern scholars have quite different views on the subject. Although this fact cannot be stated with full certainty, the name is most likely of Turkic origin.Proposed interpretations are quite wide: from “freeman”, “watcher”, “mercenary”, “shepherd” to even “pillager” or “raider”. From the medieval period to the early modern era, “Cossacks” were established as what we view them today: fearless warriors from eastern steppes.

Boats from the sultan’s nightmares

There couldn’t be a Cossack without his horse. But warriors of the steppes weren’t afraid of water. On the contrary, the river Dnieper was central in their folklore and lifestyle. They adapted ways to use this mighty river to their own advantage:

Long agoe from the time of Sigismund the I. there were Voluntiers from the frontiers of Russia, Wolhinia, Podolia, and other Provinces of Poland, which met together to practice their Pyracies upon the Black Sea where they ordinarily met with considerable advantages, and brought rich booty both from the Turskich Galleys and from the places where they often landen in Natolia, where they pillaged and sacked whole Towns, as tjay of Trbisonde and Synopa, having the boldness sometimes to come within two Leagues of Constantinople, and carry away prisones and plunder.

Those famous raids were possible thanks to the »chaikas«. Those were small boats (ca. 20 meters long), carved out of a single tree trunk. They were highly maneuverable and each one could carry several dozens of soldiers.

Chaikas attacking Turkish galleys ca. 1636. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Cossack’s boat raids were highly successful in the 17th century. Cossacks were able to capture Ochakiv, Akerman, and other cities within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. The most spectacular raid was done in 1614 when Cossacks managed to reach the coast of Anatolia – and indeed Trabzon was taken. In the next year famous hetman of Zaporozhian Cossacks, Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny, led a raid into the very heart of the Ottoman Empire. Few suburbs of Constantinople were burnt down before the retreat. But for fearless hetman, it was not enough. He was able to capture Caffa, the center of the slave trade, and he released thousands of Christian captives.

Of course, those incursions could not remain unanswered. Diplomatic relations between Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Sublime Porte were more and more hostile. Cossack’s raids were one of the main reasons why the Polish–Ottoman War broke out in 1620. Funnily enough, after this conflict, both sides claimed their victory.

The fearless warriors of the frontier

Although Cossacks often rebelled against the authorities, they were an important part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth army. The formation of Cossacks was linked to the constant raids performed by Crimean Tatars: people from steppes wanted to defend themselves and, if possible, retaliate.

King Sigismund II Augustus, the first monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, created the “Cossack Register”. Basically, the king created official military Cossack formation. Soldiers who were enlisted as “Registered Cossacks” were granted many privileges, among them regular pay and personal freedom. In return, Cossacks were obliged to defend borders against the Tatar raiders. But his system had also a darker side: only a small part of Cossacks could be enlisted, so the Register created social division within them.

Another change came with the rule of king Stefan Batory (reigned 1576-1586). This Transylvanian prince was elected king of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as a husband of Anna Jagiellon, sister of king Sigismund II Augustus. After difficulties at the beginning of his rule, Batory is now remembered as a successful warrior-king, who challenged Muscovy and succeeded.

Batory was seeking help in his wars against the tsar Ivan the Terrible, and he found allies in the Zaporozhian host. Few hundreds were enlisted under the Ruthenian prince, Michał Wiśniowiecki, appointed as the Senior of Registered Cossacks.

Pierre Chevalier described that period as follows:

King Stephen Batory, to whom Poland is beholden for many good Rules, considering the service which he might draw from these Rovers, towards the defence of the frontiers of Russia and Podolia, which lay always exposed to the incustions of the Tartars, formed a Militia out of them, and have them the Town of Trethymirow upon the Boristhenes [note: it is archaic name of Dnieper] for a Garrison, made a General over them, and gave him power to make under-Officers, granting them besides their pay, divers priviledges and immunities, and joyned to this Infantry of the Cossacks two thousand Horse, for the subsistance of which he designed the fourth part of his Crown-Lands whence they were called Quartani, aby by corruption Quartiani.

These force thus established for the guard of the frontiers, did so secure it against the irruptions of the Tartars that all the desart Countrey, beyond the Towns of Bracklaw, Bar and Kiovia, began to be peopled, and many Towns and Fortresses were built there, evey one bringing in Colonies from the neighboring Provinces.

Chevalier mentions few important places for Cossacks, among them Trakhtemyriv and Kyiv.

Trakhtemyriv – one of the most important Cossack towns. Image taken from “Cyaneae: Oder Die am Bosphoro Thracico, Ligende hohe Stein-Klippen”, 1687. Source: Google Books, public domain.

Today Trakhtemyriv is a tiny village in Ukraine – only 9 people are living there. But in the past, it was one of the most important Cossack towns. In the 16th century, village was passed to Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, but after Tatar raids, monks exchanged it for other properties. Batory granted it to Cossacks, who created a hospital in the Trakhtemyriv Monastery, where sick, wounded, and elderly Cossacks could find shelter. The town lost its significance in the 17th century.

And, of course, there was Kyiv, the so-called “mother of Rus’ cities”. This beautiful and ancient city was the capital of Kyivan Rus’. After the period of Mongol yoke, Kyiv became part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1569, when Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was constituted, Kyiv became part of the Crown of Poland as the capital of the Kyiv Voivodeship. The city was an important center of Ruthenian culture and Orthodox faith.

Kyiv, from “Theatrvm Novellarum Mundi”, 1687. Source: Google Books, public domain.

To be continued.

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