Joseph Mathia Svoboda

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Joseph Mathia Svoboda (October 17, 1840 - January 19, 1908) was an employee of the Lynch Company known for keeping an extensive diary of events in his life. He was the son of Antone Svoboda and Euphemie Joseph Muradjian. He was born in Baghdad and lived for a number of years with his brother Alexander Sandor Svoboda in India and particularly in Bombay returning to Baghdad in 1857. In 1862, he started work with the Lynch Company as an officer on board the company's steamers making regular trips up and down the Tigris carrying cargo and passengers to different ports below Baghdad. At this time, he also started writing the diaries that he kept until his death in 1908. In these diaries he documents all the trips he made on the Lynch steamers, writing down names of official passengers and others with details of cargo and noteworthy events for every trip. In addition, he recorded many details of his life and that of his family and friends in Baghdad. The more than 40 years of diaries, constitute not only an invaluable source for the history of the Svoboda family (including this brief account) but are a precious resource for life and trade in Ottoman Baghdad and Iraq during the last half of the 19th century.


Living in the Christian quarter of Baghdad, the Svoboda family maintained social relations and ties with a number of neighboring Christian families. Among these was the Marine family. The two families exchanged visits and invitations and celebrated various special occasions together. Joseph Svoboda had a particularly close relationship with Eliza Jebra Marine and her family. Preferring to live in Baghdad, Eliza Marine Sayegh (1830-1910) had settled in the Christian quarter with her children and servants while her husband Fathallah Sayegh, assisted by their elder son Jeboory, remained at Amara where he had established a business dealing in trade and construction. Eliza’s bothers, Antone, Micheal and Yoosef worked at various jobs in Basrah and Amara, notably at the British Residency in Basrah and with the Lynch Company. They lived in Amara but sometimes stayed with their sister when visiting or residing in Baghdad. Antone stayed with her for some time during a period when he was assigned to the British Residency in Baghdad. Sometimes her aunts Seddy and Farida also came and stayed at her house.

Joseph Svoboda maintained good relations with Eliza Marine’s brothers and husband. He regularly called on them when he made trips down river to Amara and Basrah where the steamers would halt for a number of days taking on and discharging cargo and passengers or when the steamers were held up by quarantines established because of the plague or cholera which was wide-spread in the region. They also assisted one another in business matters involving trade and real estate. At one time, the husband and brothers assisted Joseph in looking for a garden that he intended to purchase on the riverbank at Basrah and, another time, he even took the side of Eliza Marine’s husband in a dispute with Fatoohi Kasperkhan, his sister Medula's husband, about some of Fathallah Sayegh’s property, a garden on the outskirts of Baghdad that was managed by Kasperkhan.

Joseph Svoboda’s diaries dating back to 1872 and beyond give accounts of several calls made on Eliza Marine upon his returns from river trips. He usually indicated his hostess by her initials (EM) or simply used ellipsis (…) when referring to her in recording the many visits that he made to her house, often several at different times in a single day. The frequency of his visits, in addition to other indications, reflects that their houses lay close together and within sight of each other. Sometimes Joseph’s visits would last for hours, during which they would sit, talk, and take meals together or play backgammon. When calling during the day in summer, they would usually sit in the Serdab, the coolest place in every Baghdad house on hot summer days. In the long summer evenings, they would sometimes sit in the terrace or on the roof and enjoy the fine cool nights with a refreshing breeze until the late rising of the moon. They would take tiffin together or enjoy some refreshing lemonade with grapes, a watermelon or a cold melon that had cooled for some time in the well, or, perhaps, a cup of violet flower tea when Joseph felt unwell and feverish with an irritated chest and throat. However, at times he would call and find her out, gone to the Qadi bath as customary among residents of Baghdad or taking the children to Goomaeth bath or even calling upon her aunts and acquaintances. Sometimes, they would go out together to gardens in Baghdad, bringing with them her young son Rufaeel. One day he even took her to see the new steamer launched by the Lynch Company. He also seems to have looked after some of Eliza Marine's necessities, making purchases for her such as traveling bedsteads and cotton velvet from Baghdad and, when he traveled, he brought back for her a number of items such as tobacco, ghee, and rose water from Basrah. While away on extended business trips up and down the river or aboard the Lynch steamers, Joseph included Eliza Marine in the regular correspondence he kept up with his family and others, writing in both Arabic and English. He would send his letters by any available means: with the steamers that passed each other coming and going along the river, with Arabs living on the outskirts of Baghdad, and at times, when nearing his hometown, just before entering the city he would disembark and hand over the letters to an Arab water carrier who would hurriedly gallop on the back of his donkey along the riverbank to deliver them. Together with her replies, Eliza would sometimes send him a box of pancakes or kaʿak for his long journeys. At times, when sending each other telegrams, Eliza would sign hers with the alias Shawl.

On May 12th 1877, news came of Fathallah Sayegh's death at Amara. He had been complaining of asthma in his chest for some time. Several months earlier, particularly on November 30th 1876, his eldest son Jeboory had written to his mother informing her that his father was seriously ill and intended to come up from Amara to Baghdad. On a trip downriver at the time, Joseph Svoboda did not believe at first the news of his death to be true. He had gone to see Fathallah only few days before embarking on his return to Baghdad and heard directly from him that he was feeling better. Arriving Baghdad and calling on Eliza, he found them putting seats and chairs all around in the courtyard for the customary condolences reception and he knew at once that her husband had truly passed away. The reception lasted for three days. Men were received down in the courtyard while the women's reception held on the floor above, in the iwan and verandah. Eliza had black mourning clothes made for her and the children too wore black izaars. A ceremony was held at the Armenian Church in Baghdad. Many Christians attended, among them the Svoboda family, and prayers were recited for Fathallah Sayegh's soul.

During the days of the condolence receptions, it was difficult for Joseph to call on Eliza and a moment with her alone, even though both of them shared a mutual desire to talk in these emotional days shadowed by grief and sorrow. At times he summoned her young son Roofa’iil to meet him outside and handed him a message to her asking for a meeting after all the visitors had left. At another time, when they found a brief moment to exchange few words, Eliza took Joseph's handkerchief. The next day when a party of visitors was on its way to the terrace Joseph Svoboda stole a moment to take Eliza's handkerchief and one of her stockings. This poignant event sorely grieved Eliza, who felt ill and took to her bed in a near faint. Joseph could hardly bear to see her in this state.

Following the funeral and property settlement, Joseph Svoboda continued his regular calls on Eliza Marine. On July 7th 1877 they had a long talk and spoke of their relationship and the possibility of marriage. Eliza related to Joseph that she had complained to the Assyrian Priest Kass Makarios and that he recommended to her that they marry quickly and lose no time, saying that it would be the most beneficial thing for them and the best plan. She had also talked the matter over with her daughters who had known about their relationship and were glad of it as were her aunts and a number of acquaintances.

On the following day Joseph Svoboda approached his sister Medula on the subject. However, before he even mentioned the name of his intended, he was exceedingly vexed to hear his sister say that everyone who knew of the relationship had been asking her when the marriage would take place, adding that she disapproved because of the age difference (they were nearly the same age and Eliza, at 38, was the older) and the number of her grown children. He called on her again the next day and found her attitude toward him drastically altered and the way she talked about her opposition to this marriage greatly grieved and upset him. He departed, resolved never to broach the subject with Medula again.

This was only the beginning of difficult times for the couple. The saga, worthy of a novel, is detailed in Joseph’s diaries. Friends reported to Eliza that Joseph’s sisters, Eliza (Elizabeth Svoboda) and Medula had spoken publically about their opposition to the relationship and had harsh words to say about her. Eliza’s brothers objected to the match arguing that she was too old and wondering why he did not marry a young virgin. They also felt it unbecoming of her to wish to marry at her advanced age. Joseph’s pleas that he could love no one else went generally unheeded. His sisters continued to abuse Eliza. He fought with his father who was adamantly opposed to the marriage and even knocked Joseph down with his cane during an argument about it that saw Joseph get his gun and threaten to shoot the lot of them. A letter from his sister Caroline’s husband Thomas Blockey, remonstrating with Joseph concerning the impending marriage was somehow made public. As a consequence, the dispute finally spread into the tight-knit Christian community and became a matter of general gossip, upon which Joseph resolved to go forward with the marriage without great ceremony and to move out of the family home.

The Roman Catholic Church would not marry the couple outside of the church and without the prior publication of the banns. However, the priest, Father Joseph, suggested that the bishop would recognize the marriage if performed by an Assyrian priest. The Assyrian Bishop agreed and, on October 11, 1877, sent a priest, Kass Yoosef, to the house where the marriage was performed before a small company including Eliza’s brother Antone and Razook Tessy, the son of her friend Toni, and some neighbors who showed up unexpectedly. The bride exchanged her mourning black for white linen and Joseph gave her a diamond ring which his mother had left to him for his future bride some 12 years earlier. In the days following, many visitors called to congratulate them, including French Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Armenian priests as well as notable members of the local community both Muslims and Christians.

Some of the rancor surrounding the marriage persisted in the family after the wedding but the couple appears to have been quite happy and the bitterness eventually passed away. Some ten months after the wedding, on July 7, 1878, the author of our journal, Alexander Richard Svoboda was born to Joseph and Eliza Marine Svoboda.

Family Tree

Joseph Svoboda's Diaries

Joseph Mathia Svoboda kept extensive diaries from an early age, in which he recorded a host of details about his family life, his work with the Lynch Steamship Company, trips he made up and down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, cargo carried, passengers and ports of call, charts of currencies and exchange rates, his relations with Christian communities of Baghdad (Assyrian, Chaldean, Orthodox, Roman Catholic), the resident French, British, and Ottoman officials, and observations on people, entertainment, epidemic diseases, and more. The content of these diaries is unique and constitutes an immensely valuable resource for the modern history of Iraq. At one time, there were 60 notebooks, none of which have been published except for some extracts that were included by an Iraqi researcher in a now unavailable article. At present, a substantial portion of these diaries are located in the Iraq National Manuscript Center but, because of the unsettled conditions in Baghdad and the fact that they are all in English, they have been languishing in a box in danger of disintegration or destruction.

List of Known Diaries

Joseph in Other Diaries

Alexander's Travel Diary

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