Infrastructures of the Self in Late Ottoman Iraq

By Camille Lyans Cole

On May 17, 1883, at 10:15 AM, the Tigris river steamship “Mejidieh” stopped in the town of Qal‘at Salih, where it picked up eighty skins of ghee (clarified butter) and dropped off three passengers. At 3:30 PM the same day, it stopped in al-‘Amara, disembarking 18.5 passengers – with some passengers, such as children, counting as half-fares – and picking up another 27, along with 200 bales of wool, the first shipment of the season. That was about the same time as usual, though some years wool started shipping as much as a month earlier. The next day, the ship stopped in ‘Ali al-Gharbi (5:50 AM) and Kut al-Imara (5:45 PM), disembarking a total of 20.5 passengers and picking up 29 people and some more wool and ghee.[1]

Figure 1 – Tigris River between Baghdad and Basra. Visualization using Palladio.

We know all this not from consular reports or corporate statistics, but from the personal diaries of Joseph Svoboda.[2] Svoboda, an Austro-Hungarian subject and native of Baghdad, worked as a purser for the British Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company between the early 1860s and 1905, and kept an extremely detailed diary throughout.[3] He wrote extensively in his diary about his work, and also kept tabs on the activities of the other steamships in the region, whether British or Ottoman; commercial, military, or personal.

Both diaries and steamships were characteristic technologies of the nineteenth century, but for obvious reasons, we rarely think about them together. Working with Svoboda’s diaries, though, has shown me some of the ways these technologies intersected, and highlighted how thinking about them together can help frame intertwined histories of infrastructure and the self.

Figure 2 – The SS “Blosse Lynch,” one of the steamships Svoboda worked on. From Aga Mirza Hasan Khan Badi‘, Tarikh-e Basra (Calcutta, 1914).

The first intersection is that of knowledge production. Often, historians get detailed economic data – like the numbers I opened with – from state bureaucracies. Many scholars have highlighted the pitfalls inherent in using state-produced serialized data uncritically – not least because of how they obscure uncertainty and exclusion.

In the Middle East, these issues are compounded by the fact that the Ottoman bureaucracy mostly did not collect data in this way. Most of the data that are available were instead collected by foreign consuls, who often compiled the – very patchy – reports they sent home based on information provided by locally-active European firms. It is not news that sources have biases. But in this case, the largely state and corporate origins of information on the global economy, including the infrastructures that animated that economy, has made the significance of infrastructure to the making of empires, capitalism, and nation-states hyper-visible, while obscuring its other roles.[4]

Svoboda’s diaries contain a lot of information – about ships, cargo, and prices, among other things – that are otherwise unavailable. While there is plenty of documentation of trade and infrastructure in the Ottoman archives, including reports on the revenues, cargo, and passengers of the Tigris steamships, “data” was collected infrequently and reported inconsistently.[5] But I think it would be a mistake to take Svoboda’s diaries as a straightforward replacement for the kinds of state and corporate sources available elsewhere. Svoboda did not record information in the same form, or for the same reasons, as consuls or merchants.

While he had access to information about shipping and trade because of his job, Svoboda did not keep diaries for his job; they were personal. So we know that on May 16, 1883, before leaving to pick up that first wool shipment in al-‘Amara, Svoboda and his stepsons Rufail (Rafa’il) and Michael went walking in the Basra date gardens of Haji ‘Abd al-Mir. Once he arrived in Baghdad on May 20, he went to services at the Latin church, inspected the work of the masons renovating his house, and visited three of his sisters, among others.[6]

Many scholars, following Foucault, have identified diaries as some of the quintessential “technologies of the self”. That is, diaries, along with things like personal photo albums, can be understood as helping create the self through documentation.[7] This includes diaries that – like Svoboda’s – are full of mundane and rote accounting, rather than deep self-reflection.[8] That means, I think, that we should consider his writing about steamships to be part of his process of self-creation. If the Tigris steamships helped constitute Svoboda’s self, then what does that say about what infrastructures are? And what does it suggest about the possibility of a material history of the self?

At the same time, because this kind of “data” about the Tigris steamships is only available through Svoboda’s diaries (through his self), it is embedded in a serial narration of his daily life. Equally, the gaps in the data are embedded in his life. Eight months are missing in 1876, and another eight months in 1891, in both cases because Svoboda took extended trips to Europe. There is a shorter gap in 1880, when he took several months leave for an unexplained illness.

Figure 3 – Timeline of Tigris steamship stops 1865-–1892 (SS “Dijleh” 1865-1876; SS “Blosse Lynch” 1877-–1883, SS “Mejidieh” 1883-1892). Compiled from Joseph Svoboda, Diaries 4, 7, 8, 9*, 11*, 12-–15, 17-–36. Visualization using Palladio. *Denotes incomplete diaries.

Other gaps are less immediately obvious. Joseph Svoboda’s brother Henry was also a steamship purser, working on the other British Tigris steamship. Most of the time, when the two ships crossed paths, Joseph  and Henry Svoboda exchanged letters, and Joseph  recorded how many passengers and how much cargo the other ship was carrying. However, in October 1877, after Joseph  married a woman his family deemed unsuitable, Henry stopped speaking to him for almost a year. The letters stopped, and so did the information about the other ship.[9]

Figure 4 – Joseph Svoboda, Diary 16, p. 21.

The steamships are inseparable from Svoboda’s diaries – and therefore from Svoboda’s self. Not only did the daily operation of the steamships form the narrative framework of the diaries – which are divided into trips from “Baghdad to Basra” and “Basra to Baghdad” – but Svoboda’s personal life and concerns structured what he recorded about the ships. Much in the same way that state-produced information can help us understand how infrastructures make empire and nation, thinking critically about how and why Svoboda recorded the “Blosse Lynch” and the “Mejidieh” can help us understand how infrastructures make the self.

The second intersection is that of sociality. Other than the steamships, Svoboda mostly wrote in his diaries about his social life and the life of his community. His life was not particularly exciting: he went to church on Sundays, frequently visited with his sisters and brothers-in-law, sometimes visited public baths, and often went shooting and picnicking in the countryside.

But Svoboda was unusual in that he traveled regularly up and down the Tigris – usually the ship spent a little over a week in transit and a little under a week in Baghdad – and so his life was spread out over the 670 kilometers between Baghdad and Basra. This shouldn’t be exaggerated: Most of Svoboda’s family and close friends lived in Baghdad. However, steamships, and the steam industry more broadly, provided the context and conditions of possibility for the spatial and social expansiveness of Svoboda’s life.

As the steam industry expanded, both the British steamship company Svoboda worked for and its Ottoman rival opened agencies and offices outside Baghdad. The most important of these was in Basra, but both firms operated coal depots, and the Ottomans also had purchasing agencies in Kut and al-‘Amara.[10]

The birth and growth of al-‘Amara as a town, in fact, was deeply tied to the rise of steamshipping. In 1865, the first year for which Svoboda’s diaries are extant, he did not mention al-‘Amara at all. Instead, the ship stopped at Dafass, a shrine and village across from – and later absorbed into – al-‘Amara.[11] Between 1865 and 1869, the steamships seem to have secured more consistent coal supplies, shifting from burning an ad-hoc mix of wood and coal purchased locally, to burning coal almost exclusively. That switch made the coal depot at al-‘Amara a necessary stop on each trip. Dafass largely disappeared from the diaries after 1870, while al-‘Amara became a hub for purchases of agricultural products like wool and ghee.[12] A model of modern Ottoman town construction, it also became a major hub for passengers.[13]

The wealthy Christians who made up the core of Svoboda’s community in Baghdad responded to this new geography in a few ways. From the 1870s, Svoboda’s relatives and friends were employed as clerks, pursers, and agents for both the British and Ottoman steam services, and for the major Ottoman, British, and German merchants who were the steamships’ biggest customers. Through this, many of them lived at least temporarily in Basra, where Svoboda had a built-in community by the 1870s, though its composition shifted over time.

Something similar happened in al-‘Amara, but while Basra was already an important international port, al-‘Amara hardly existed as a permanent settlement before the 1860s. By 1870, though, the Svoboda family friend Fathallah Sayegh had moved to al-‘Amara to work as a grain merchant and the agent for the Ottoman steamships. Svoboda often visited with him when the “Dijleh” stopped there. When Fathallah lost his agency job in 1873, he decided to continue trading in al-‘Amara.[14] After his death in 1877, Fathallah’s son Jeboory (Jibra’il) remained in al-‘Amara to carry on with the business, and Svoboda continued to visit regularly until Jeboory’s untimely death two years later.[15] Although Svoboda never had as large or as consistent a circle in al-‘Amara as in Basra, subsequent relocations by friends and relatives, mostly for the purposes of agricultural trade, ensured a periodic social life there.[16]

But more interesting, I think, than the geographic dispersal of people who were already socially connected, were the opportunities steamships created for Joseph to develop friendships outside the bounds of his existing community. In fact, almost exclusively, the only people Svoboda explicitly identified as “friends” were outside his immediate community. The people we might automatically identify as his friends – men and women he socialized with regularly – he simply identified using their names, presumably because their relationships were too obvious to him to require explanation.

In contrast, he seems to have reserved the word “friend” for relationships outside his immediate community, most often with Muslims. In many cases, he met these friends through his work. They included telegraph and customs officials in Basra and Baghdad, kaymakams (sub-district prefects), and tax, land, and postal officials in multiple towns along the river.

The other major category of “friends” Svoboda described were hunting buddies, mostly Arabs living around Dawar and Lajj – above Kut – and especially a man called Arbid and his family.[17] Svoboda seems to have been quite a crack shot, and went hunting whenever he got the chance. Dawar, Lajj, and neighboring reaches were his most common hunting grounds partly because they were the most difficult parts of the river, navigationally.

Figure 5 – Tigris River between Baghdad and Kut, indicating places Joseph’s steamship ran aground, 1869-–1892. Lajj reach indicated. Compiled from Joseph Svoboda, Diaries 4, 7, 8, 9*, 11*, 12, 14, 15, 17-–28, 30-–36. Visualization using Palladio. *Denotes incomplete diaries.

I have written before about the fact that the Tigris steamships often ran aground, and the effects this had on governance and geopolitics.[18] But for Svoboda, running aground also often meant a chance to disembark and go hunting. This was an activity that was limited seasonally as well as geographically, as the vast majority of groundings clustered between Kut and Baghdad, and between July and November.

Figure 6 – Tigris River between Baghdad and Basra, showing total steamship stops (grey) vs total places run aground (blue), 1869-–1892. Compiled from Joseph Svoboda, Diaries 4, 7, 8, 9*, 11*, 12, 14, 15, 17–28, 30–3617-28, 30-36. Visualization using Palladio. *Denotes incomplete diaries.

Figure 7 – Timeline of steamship groundings, 1869–-1892. Compiled from Joseph Svoboda, Diaries 4, 7, 8, 9*, 11*, 12, 14, 15, 17–28, 30–3617-28, 30-36. Visualization using Palladio. *Denotes incomplete diaries.

The same seasonality applied to these friendships. Between 1876 and 1890, Joseph mentioned Arbid 70 times, 50 of those (71%) between August and December. Between 1869 and 1891, he mentioned Arbid’s son-in-law Khdeir 63 times, 47 (75%) between September and December.[19] About a quarter of those encounters took place while the steamship was actually aground; after becoming friends, Arbid and Khdeir sometimes sought Svoboda out in Kut or ‘Aziziyya, or swam out to the ship as it was traveling.[20] Svoboda, in turn, sought them out as companions when he went on longer hunting trips, and convinced his company to hire them as guards when the steamship “Dijleh” sank.[21] On a few occasions, they, along with Arbid’s daughter Telhaga, came to visit with Svoboda and his family in Baghdad.[22]

This was clearly a relationship that mattered to Svoboda, and one he took pains to sustain over multiple decades. To understand its significance, it’s useful to return to the diary as a format. While Svoboda’s diaries can read like a mindless litany of every single person he interacted with, in fact they were nothing of the sort. If we understand diaries as a technology of self-creation, then the relationships they highlight are part of that process.

This is particularly clear if we consider people who were – largely – excluded from the diaries, like servants. Svoboda and most members of his community relied heavily on both free and enslaved servants. On a day-to-day basis, these people were much more vital to Svoboda’s life than Khdeir or Arbid – and in many ways, more vital than his siblings and close friends. But he only mentioned them when he was forced to do something out of the ordinary because of them – as, for example, when two cooks quit in the space of a month and he had to find new ones.

It is easy to imagine an alternate history in which Svoboda similarly neglected to write about Arbid and Khdeir. It is easy, in fact, because when he went hunting without them, he often noted simply that he hired “some Arabs,” or brought “some deckmen” to accompany him. They were not his friends, and he didn’t elaborate.

It is clear not just from the fact that he wrote about Arbid and Khdeir, but also from his repeated description of them and others as “friends” that non-obvious relationships like these were important to how Svoboda understood himself. And a big part of why he was able to develop and sustain these friendships, and his self, was the commercial and material infrastructure of steamshipping.

Svoboda’s diaries are particularly useful for writing a personal history of infrastructure, and a material history of the self, because of how clearly steamships structured his life, and because the extent to which we can study the Tigris steamships depends on his diaries and his person. But while this is an especially glaring case, it indicates how we might think more generally about “big” infrastructures like steamships as small and personal. Infrastructure shapes the lives of individuals as much as empires. At the same time, individuals can shape the lives, meanings, and afterlives of infrastructure. How would the history of infrastructure look different if we explored the small and the individual as much as, alongside, and as part of the big and the imperial?

Many thanks to Nada Ammagui for help with data and mapping.


[1] University of Washington, Svoboda Diary Project, Diaries of Joseph Mathia Svoboda. Diary 25, p. 211. First-wool shipments in other years, eg: Svoboda, Diary 19, p. 126; Diary 28, p. 224; Diary 33, p. 92.

[2] For more on Svoboda, see

[3] There are a total of 48 extant diaries (out of an original 61) spanning the period 1865–1908. 29 exist as scans of the original handwritten diaries and a further 19 as typewritten transcripts. This post is based on the 19 typewritten transcripts of Diaries 4, 7, 8, 9*, 11*, 12–15, and 17–36, which cover 1865–1892. Diaries 9 and 11 are incomplete transcripts.

[4] For example, see: Michael Christopher Low, Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020); Peter H. Christensen, German and the Ottoman Railways: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017); Manu Goswami, Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); and Simone M. Müller and Heidi J.S. Tworek, “‘The telegraph and the bank’: on the interdependence of global communications and capitalism, 1866-1914,” Journal of Global History 10 (2015): 259–83.

[5] On steamship employees c. 1907, see BOA, HH.THR 197.43. On expenses and income, also c. 1907, İlhan Ekinci, Fırat ve Dicle’de Osmanlı-İngiliz Rekabeti (Hamidiye Vapur İdaresi) (Ankara: Asil Yayın Dağıtım, 2007), 379–81. Other work on the Ottoman Tigris steamships: Burcu Kurt, Dicle ve Fırat’ta Seyr-i Sefain Imtiyazi Teşebbüsu 1909-1913 (İstanbul: Osmanlı Bankası Arşiv ve Araştırma Merkezi, 2009); and Camille Lyans Cole, “Nafia for the Tigris: The Privy Purse and the Infrastructure of Development in Late Ottoman Iraq, 1882-1914,” History of Science (online before print).

[6] Svoboda, Diary 25, p. 210, 212.

[7] Lucie Ryzova, “Boys, Girls, and Kodaks: Peer Albums and Middle-Class Personhood in Mid-Twentieth Century Egypt,” Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication 8 (2015), 238; and Peter Heehs, Writing the Self: Diaries, Memoirs, and the History of the Self (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 6.

[8] Lotte Mulligan, “Self-Scrutiny and the Study of Nature: Robert Hooke’s Diary as Natural History,” Journal of British Studies 35 (1996): 311–42.

[9] Svoboda, Diaries 18–20.

[10] Ekinci, Dicle ve Fırat, 13–15.

[11] Svoboda, Diary 4.

[12] Svoboda, Diary 7.

[13] Salname-i Basra (1309/1891–92), 187.

[14] Svoboda, Diary 12, 23 April 1873, p. 6.

[15] Jeboory’s death: Svoboda, Diary 20, 25 April 1879, p. 173.

[16] E.g., his nephew Artin. Svoboda, Diary 36, 3 May 1892, p. 144.

[17] First reference to Arbid: Diary 17, 9 Sep 1876, p.17. They clearly have already met, however.

[18] Camille Lyans Cole, “Precarious Empires: A Social and Environmental History of Steam Navigation on the Tigris,” Journal of Social History 50 (2016): 74–101.

[19] Aggregate numbers, data from Svoboda, Diaries 7–36. Note that he continued to maintain these friendships subsequently, but I have not yet finished working through the later diaries.

[20] For example: Svoboda, Diary 20, 31 Oct 1878, p. 52.

[21] Sinking: Svoboda, Diary 17, 14 Dec 1876, p. 96; Hunting trips, eg, Diary 28, 6–8 October 1885, p. 89–91.

[22] For example: Svoboda, Diary 17, 9 November 1876, p. 70.

Camille Lyans Cole is a Junior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge. She is a historian of capitalism, law, and the environment in late Ottoman Iraq and the Persian Gulf. She has published on Ottoman infrastructures in the Journal of Social History, Middle Eastern Studies, and History of Science. She is also a co-editor of the Jadaliyya Environment Page and member of the environment module for the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Project.

Further articles in the Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies series on TRAFO:

Onur İnal, Tracks of Change: Labor, Nature, and the Izmir-Aydın Railroad, 28 April 2021.

Nurçin İleri, Ambitious yet Ambivalent: Electrical Infrastructure and Inequality in Early Republican Turkey, 13 April 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Photography as Policing Infrastructure During the Late Ottoman Empire, 11 March 2021.

İlkay Yilmaz, Infrastructures and Society in (Post-)Ottoman Geographies: Call for Contributions to the Series, 25 February 2021.

Citation: Camille Lyans Cole, Infrastructures of the Self in Late Ottoman Iraq in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.05.2021,

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