John Bax (1793-1863) was an administrator in the Bombay Civil Service. Throughout his working life he kept a meticulous record of his travels between England and India, as well as around Great Britain, and across continental Europe and the Middle East. Two volumes of Baxâs journals have been digitised for the Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme, thanks to Baxâs descriptions of Arabia and Persia. However, these volumes also offer us an insight into life in early 19th-century Europe.
Header for diary entries describing Baxâs journey from England to Persia during 1824/25. Mss Eur F377/1.
Baxâs overland journey from England to India during 1824 and 1825 is particularly illuminating, not least because it offers fascinating vignettes of life in the Habsburg Empire. Baxâs journey through the Empireâs dominions covered in excess of 1,000 kilometres. It took him from Salzburg to Vienna, where he stayed for several weeks over Christmas 1824, and then onwards to Buda and Pest, through Transylvania, stopping at the towns of Temeswar [Timisoara] and Hermanstadt [Sibiu], before passing into the Turkish province of Wallachia.
Baxâs diary entries reveal something of the internal contradictions and tensions of the Habsburg Empire; of the contrasts between its centre and far-flung frontiers, of strict religious codes versus cosmopolitanism, and the stark contrasts that existed between courtly opulence and provincial poverty.
Between Munich and Salzburg Bax noted that the âroad is protected by whole troops of saints, several of whom were comfortably housed in a kind of sentry box.â Of Salzburg itself Bax wrote that âthe bigotry of [the townâs] inhabitants is of ancient date and no Protestant is permitted to domicile there.â Bax added that âWe were required to specify our religion immediately upon arrivalâ (f 209).
Bax was ambivalent about Vienna. He described the âwant of energy and activity of the inhabitantsâ and the âchangeless monotony of societyâ as not befitting the capital of a large Empire. However, Bax did note that âall the finery and clothes of the cityâ were on display at the Prater on New Yearâs Day, and that the music of the carnival seasons was âuniversally of the superior orderâ. Bax appears to have thought the most âimposing spectacleâ of his stay was the funeral procession of an Austrian Field Marshal (ff 210-211).
When Bax arrived at Buda the town was still a distinctly separate entity from Pest, its modern neighbour, on the opposite bank of the Danube. 24 years elapsed after Baxâs visit before the SzĂ©chenyi Chain Bridge linked the two towns. In Buda, Bax wrote that during âthe summer months, there is a bridge of forty-seven boatsâ across the river, which were opened up for one hour each morning to allow the passage of other vessels up and down river (f 213).
In 1825, large parts of the Habsburg Empire had been liberated from Ottoman rule only a century previously. In Transylvania, Bax saw for himself past and present attempts to protect the regionâs towns from the Turks. His journal indicates the contrast between the âstrong fortifiedâ Timisoara and the âdilapidatedâ red brick walls of Sibiu. On the road between Timisoara and Sibiu, Bax wrote of villages âbuilt of wood and mudâ, in which âpoverty seemed to reign on every side in pale and wan squalidityâ (f 215).
When Bax arrived in Sibiu the carnival season was in full swing. He described dancing crowds of âGermans, Hungarians, Greeks, Saxons and Transilvanians [who] were nightly exhibiting a succession of the most intricate figures.â On his departure from the town he witnessed a marriage procession, led by a man âbearing aloft a long pole to which streamers of various colours were attachedâ, followed by a fiddler, the bride and groom, and a âmob of men and women and childrenâ (ff 216-217).
You can read more of John Baxâs travels throughout Europe and elsewhere, in the first of his two volumes of travel journals, now available online on the Qatar Digital Library.
Mark Hobbs, Content Specialist, Gulf History, Qatar Project