Joseph Mathia Svoboda and the Diaries

A page from one of Joseph’s diaries.

On February 12, 1862, Joseph Svoboda began working for the Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company, an arm of the Lynch Brothers Trading Company. He made his first journey from Baghdad to Basra aboard the City of London, the company’s first steamer. 1 Joseph began keeping his diary during his first year working for the Lynches. Although they contain copious information about many aspects of life in 19th century Iraq, they are essentially a purser’s log of journeys made on the Lynch steamers. Joseph records the details of each journey up and down the Tigris in meticulous and often monotonous detail. Each time, he documents the same procession of landmarks, usually recording the timing of their passage within five minutes. Similarly, he assiduously notes the time and place that they meet other vessels plying the waters of the Tigris—other Lynch steamers, competing steamers from the İdare-i Ummân-ı Osmaniye (the Ottoman-Oman Administration), or the British Residency yacht Comet. He makes logs of the various types and quantities of cargo that they take on, and the number of passengers that embark and disembark at any given port, diligently logging any notable people or products aboard. In marginal notes, he takes down the temperature, notes the wind speed and direction, and records the level of the river and the draft of the steamer. He also includes tabular information about the number of passengers, the quantity of cargo, currency transported, and the draft of the steamer on departure.

Another page from Joseph’s diary.

The diaries’ significance is not limited to the narrative of Joseph’s life. Throughout the diaries, Joseph is meticulous and thoroughgoing in recording disease outbreaks, deaths amongst friends and family, and his own ailments and treatments. Joseph’s experience of dealing with repeated outbreaks of cholera and plague in Baghdad are a topic of intense interest not only because of the concern the aroused for family and friends but for the problems that Ottoman government attempts to contain and control epidemic diseases caused for steamer traffic on the river. The steamer’s frequent detention in Ottoman river quarantines was an unending source of annoyance for Joseph.

  1. Diary 36, December 1891 to August 1892, ed. Margaret Makiya, 84. Entry for February 12, 1892.