A few sketches of the history of Viganj

Viganj was first mentioned as a settlement in the land register of the Republic of Ragusa in 1336, with the name of Vigel and Vighen, although its origin dates back to the times long before that year. Several legends tell the story of the origin of the name Viganj. According to one of them, the name was connected to the names of the neighbouring settlements of Nakovane and Kućišta. The legend narrates that once upon a time there were three brothers, the blacksmith’s sons. One of them inherited the house and the house lot („kućište“), the other one inherited the forge („viganj“), and the third son inherited the anvil („nakovanj“), and therefore the nearby towns in which they settled got the three brothers’ names. This is, however, a modern time legend and the blacksmith’s trade was never present in this area.

There is an opinion that the name is not connected to the blacksmith’s trade, but to the fact that this area resembles a forge due to frequent winds, especially during summer, and therefore the town got the name of Viganj (“forge”). It is most probable that the name itself is of anthroponymyc origin, because the name of Viganj was mentioned as a personal name of an aristocrat at that time.

The flint debris and other archeological artifacts show that Viganj, as well as Nakovana, were inhabited in the Neolithic period. This was probably one and the same group of people that lived in Nakovana and that was periodically coming down to the sea searching for seafood.

During the classical antiquity Nakovana, together with the Illyrian hill settlement of Grad, dominated the whole area, controlling the waterways.

In order to gain better control of the channel, the Illyrians from Nakovana built many fortified guardhouses on the hills above Viganj, as well as on the narrowest part of the Pelješac Channel, on the cape of Sv. Ivan.

These guardhouses, as well as many tumuli (“montuni”) in the area of the town of Montun, the graves dating from the same period in the area of Bilile and Dol, and the ceramic fragments, indicate the presence of permanent settlement of local Illyrians as early as the 5th  century B.C. in the area of Viganj. Unfortunately, all these remains were ruined with the erection of modern buildings, and the size and importance of this settlement can only be speculated upon. It was probably a merchant settlement where the local Illyrians were trading with Greeks from their colony of Lumbarda on the island of Korčula, which is witnessed by the remains found in Nakovana. The high level of development of the seaborne trade in this area is also witnessed by the foundered ancient galley with its cargo near the cape of Sv. Ivan.

The Illyrian settlement in Viganj most probably shared the destiny of all other Illyrians in this region. With the arrival of Romans in the 1st century B.C., the Illyrians were banished or enslaved, while the rest of them were Romanised. The archeological remains show that Nakovana was full of life before the arrival of Romans, only to die out in the following several centuries, and the centre of living was shifted to the shore.

During the Roman reign, the retired war veterans were being awarded landed properties in the conquered countries for their services and they were building their country houses there, the so-called ville rustice.

The remains of about a dozen ville rustice are found from Sv. Ivan in Viganj to Trstenica in Orebići. Those were times of peace and prosperity for citizens of the Roman Empire, with no fear of pirates or other perils lurking from the sea. That is why the ville rustice were built with no protective walls and on the very shore, and they were probably all connected by a road. Allegedly, parts of this road are still discernible in the shallow spots of the Viganj shoreline. Unfortunately, almost all the ville rustice were destroyed with the erection of modern buildings, and the sole remain of Roman presence in Viganj is the lid of the sarcophagus from the 1st  century and several amphoras.

Until the rule of the Republic of Ragusa, Viganj mostly shared the destiny of the rest of the Pelješac peninsula, with alternating rules of various countries and high nobility. After having bought the peninsula, the Ragusan landed aristocracy divided it among themselves. As the peninsula was far from Dubrovnik, and to protect their estates, the group of about twenty aristocrats decided to build a fortress or a town in Viganj in 1336. However, that attempt was never materialised.

As early as the 14th century, there is a mention of a dozen hamlets in Viganj, situated at a distance from the sea, on the foot of the hill, owing to the threat of pirates.

The largest settlement of that age is Basina (Basiljina), first mentioned in 1389 as Vassilina, named after Vasilije who lived there in pre-Ragusan times.

Other hamlets were formed later and there were the hamlets of Brainica, Dol, Pirovića selo, Njakarino, Sokolovo, Dujmovića, Podac, Jerkovo, Šapetino, Kraljevića, Gagića, Čikatića, (Kovačevića), and Habića selo. Owing to the economic thriving since the 17th century, people started building houses on the seashore, and Viganj gets its true town centre in 1671 with the building of the Dominician monastery and the church of Our Lady of Rosary, and later with the building of an annex of the parish church of St. Michael (Sv. Mihovil).

With the development of the shipping trade in the world in the first part of the 17th century, Viganj experiences its greatest development. The reason for that also lies in a great earthquake that destroyed Dubrovnik and took many of their aristocrats.

Therefore the Ragusan government was forced to leave the initiative of further control of the shipping trade largely to the middle class seamen and serfs. For his great contribution in helping in the reconstruction of Dubrovnik, the ship-owner from Viganj Ivan Krstelj was exempted from all the taxes and ennobled. The serfs, putting out to sea, contributed to their households manifold. By going aboard, the serf would become a free citizen with the right to buy off a part of the ship or a piece of land at home. The shipping trade spread to such a degree by the end of the 17th century that almost all men were sailors.

Besides sailing under the flag of the Republic of Ragusa, the men of Viganj were sailing on Venetian, Austrian, Russian, French, Spanish, and English ships. As time passed, they were becoming increasingly rich, and started building grandiose captains’ houses in town. The shipping trade of Pelješac reaches its peak in the midst of the 19th century, when, among others, the family Kovačević from Viganj founded their naval society “Braća Kovačević” (Kovačević Brothers), headquartered in Marseilles. By the end of the 19th century, due to the negligence of the authorities and to the increasing competitiveness of steam-shipping, all the naval companies from Pelješac are going out of business, and in 1907, with the selling of the last sailing ship, Pelješac is left, after more than 350 years, without ocean-going vessels. During that period Viganj gave 117 captains.

The collapse of the shipping trade on Pelješac caused general crisis and mass migrations. That is how the major part of the inhabitants of Viganj emigrated to the countries like America, Australia, and New Zealand. Since that time until the boom of tourism, Viganj is mostly stagnant, and the great misfortunes, like the Second World War, the 1962 earthquake, the War of Independence, and the fire of 1998, additionally contributed to the stagnation of the town.

With the development of tourism, particularly owing to windsurfing, Viganj begins its rise, and the foreign citizens are buying the old captains’ houses and rebuilding them.


Author: captain Ivan Pamić