Of Rivers and Highways: The Perilous Journey into the Future

Pressburg, Hungary, ca. 1835

             The cries of the captain in foreign English, “Back her!” “Ease her!” “Let her go!” warned us that we were already off; and, almost before we could look round, we were in the middle of the Danube:  — another moment, and Presburg was running away from us:  — yet another, and nothing but the castle could be seen, peering over the thick woods which come down to the water’s edge on either side. For many miles no object of interest meets the traveller’s expectant eye: the country all round is flat and sandy, sometimes wooded, sometimes spread out in rich meadows, looking everywhere as if it had at one period formed the bed of the river itself, which, even now, frequently changes its course. The immense arms, which the Danube in this part sends off at every half-mile or less, are many of them wider than the parent stream itself, if that term can be applied to any part of it; for it is often uncertain which course the steersman should prefer, the height of the water, and the appearance of the stream, guiding him in his choice. This, and a very undulating course, are the natural effects of the flatness of its bed; and it is to remedy these defects that the commissioners for the regulation of the Danube direct their chief efforts. [i]

                                                                                    John Paget, 1835

There were no steam railroads on the European continent in 1833, when the Joachim family left their Kittsee home to settle a hundred miles away in Pest. [1] English-style trains were introduced to Belgium in 1835, and to Germany a few years thereafter; the first Hungarian rail connection, between Buda and Vác, would not open until 1846. From Vienna to Pest, the chuffing of steam engines was first heard upon the waters. When Englishman John Paget made his voyage down the Danube on a vessel of the Kaiserliche-Königliche-Österreichische-privilegirte-Donau-Dampfschiffahrts-Gesellschaft[2] its skipper sizing up the shifting currents in an effort to avoid grounding on the untamed river’s numerous sand bars, Hungarian industry and commerce were still in their infancy. Steamships, built in Trieste, using 60 horsepower English engines manufactured by the Birmingham firm of Boulton & Watt, had been plying the river for a mere four years. Julius and Fanny, having packed up their Lares et Penates and set off with young children in tow, doubtless travelled by land. We can imagine them in “the kind of travelling equipage common to the middle and lower classes in Hungary” that John Paget encountered so frequently on his journey in 1835. “It is a low four-wheeled waggon, exceedingly light, sometimes furnished with a seat hung on leathern springs, at others stuffed only with a heap of straw, on which the master sits with an air of considerable dignity, and always smoking. The hinder part of the waggon is commonly filled with hay for provender on the journey. The number of these waggons with two or four horses, which one meets in a day’s drive is really astonishing. Every peasant seems to possess one.” [ii] With hay for provender in the rear of the vehicle, young Joseph no doubt rode comfortably amid the fuel.

The land through which they traveled, under Habsburg rule since the defeat of the Turks, was still a feudal state, with power resting jointly in the hands of the Imperial Austrian government and a small caste of wealthy estate owners who paid no taxes, and spent much of their time abroad in Vienna and other fashionable locales. Early nineteenth-century Hungary was poor, virtually without infrastructure, industry, or trade — a puzzle of secluded villages and feudal demesnes — a hodgepodge of cultures, ethnicities and languages. “Let no one be induced to figure to his imagination a scene of rural delight,” Dr. Richard Bright wrote of this landscape in 1818. “The plain is unenlivened by trees, unintersected by hedges, and thinly inhabited by human beings; — a waste of arable land, badly cultivated, and yielding imperfect crops to proprietors who are scarcely conscious of the extent of territory they possess. [iii] “The mixture of languages in Hungary itself is so great, that scarcely one third of the inhabitants speak the Hungarian,” wrote Bright; “and thus, every one who hopes to travel beyond the village in which he was born, is compelled to learn some other language or dialect. Hence probably it is that Latin has been retained as a common medium of communication. All the older writings are in this language, and, at the present moment, Hungary presents in miniature the picture of the whole continent of Europe, before each country, to the great benefit of works of imagination, and to the unspeakable advantage of national spirit and improvement, adopted its own language, as best suited to convey its own associations and feelings.” [iv] Imagine a land in which even the beggars speak “tolerable Latin,” and respond to a handout with a warm “do gratias, Illustrissime!” [v]

The road to Pest was poorly maintained by the corvée labor of the local serfs — referred to, even in official chancery documents, as the misera plebs contribuens  (“miserable tax-paying plebeians”) — who were often little better than slaves. “It is for some branch of the families of Esterhazy or Palfy, known to them only by name, that the Sclavonian peasants who inhabit these regions are employed,” Bright observed. “Their appearance bespeaks no fostering care from the superior. […] It is easy to perceive, that all stimulus to invention, all incitement to extraordinary exertion, is wanting. No one peasant has proceded in the arts of life and civilization a step farther than his neighbour. When you have seen one you have seen all.” [vi]

Throughout Hungary, only nobles, about five percent of the population, were permitted to own land. Peasants were assigned a portion of land, called a session, which they were allowed to cultivate, in exchange for the payment of tithes and taxes, and their corvée, the compulsory labor that was due their lord. “The landlord looks on … [the serf] as a tool necessary to cultivate his lands and as a chattel which he inherited from his parents, or purchased, or acquired as a reward,” wrote the liberal intellectual Gergely Berzeviczy. [vii] “…it often appeared to us that they spoke of them, and to them, as though they belonged to a different class of creation from themselves…” wrote Paget. [viii] The peasants responded to insult by working to rule, insolently sending the feeblest members of their families, their weakest draft animals and worst tools to satisfy the letter of their obligations. [ix] “The compulsory labour of the peasant, setting aside its tyranny and injustice, becomes a perfect blot on the landscape,” observed another English traveler, Miss Julia Pardoe. “Every individual flings down upon the road the portion of rubbish, (for it is often nothing better), which he is forced to contribute; […] and thus the line of the road generally resembles a piece of rude patch-work, without method or continuity.” [x]



Vác on the Danube, looking southward toward Pest

In the foreground is a pair of Zackelschäfe, (Ovis strepsiceros), the native Eastern European Sheep. The vehicle is the traditional light wicker wagon, ubiquitous throughout Hungary in the 1830s.

Feudal entail, tithes and corvée would remain in force in Hungary until the 1848 revolution, after which many peasants became freehold proprietors of their own land. By that time, however, the condition of the Hungarian serfs had sunk to such a low point that a mere 40 percent of the peasant population had any land left to work. [xii]

If the roads bore witness to the harsh and dreary realities of everyday peasant existence, English-style steamships on the Danube were harbingers of coming times. Steam navigation on the Danube was a pet project of Hungary’s early, visionary leader in the movement toward modernity and national independence, a bright-eyed, energetic Anglophile nobleman named István Széchenyi, who was just then earning his wings as the “Greatest Hungarian.” [3] The scion of a distinguished family of magnates [4] and priests, Széchenyi sought to raise his country out of its feudal backwardness through a mixture of Romantic literary conceit, shrewd understanding of human nature, political savvy, enlightened ideals and modern industrial and commercial thinking. After a 17-year service in the Austrian cavalry, he spent his newfound leisure time in travel abroad, particularly in England, where he came to understand the nature and importance of Western constitutional government, economic thought and technological innovation. [5] He returned to his native land determined to improve its standard of living, and to liberate it from its subservience to a conservative, repressive Austrian monarchy that was all too happy to prevent its Hungarian subjects from discovering a cohesive voice and purpose. “Totus mundus stultisat, et relictis antiquis suis legibus constitutiones imaginarias quaerit” wrote the gaunt-faced Emperor Francis I in 1820 — “The whole world is idiotic and, having abandoned its ancient laws, is yearning for imaginary constitutions.” [xiii] Széchenyi, by contrast, wrote: “I cannot, like many of my countrymen, please myself with contemplating what is past. I must look forward. It troubles me but little to know what we once were; but it is of vital interest to me to know what with time we might, and what we probably shall become. The past is beyond our control; the future is still within our grasp. Away, then, with fruitless reminiscences! It is time that we bestir ourselves, and open a more glorious future to our fatherland. Many contend that Hungary has been; I love to think she yet will be.” [xiv]


István Széchenyi

Széchenyi pursued his mission in a brilliant and at times seemingly innocuous way, initiating a series of projects aimed at building the Hungarian infrastructure, increasing the use of capital and credit, [6] improving livestock, promoting trade, endorsing the use of the Magyar language and encouraging dialogue among the ruling nobles while at the same time limiting their exclusive tax-exempt status. At a time when fewer than half of the Hungarian people spoke Magyar (Széchenyi himself spoke it only poorly), and debates among the nobility in the rarely-convened Diet were conducted in Latin, Széchenyi shocked his peers by addressing the upper house in the vernacular — a language that the nobility typically used only when speaking with servants or peasants. To promote the use of the Hungarian language, he donated a year’s income toward the founding of a National Academy (1825). The next year, Széchenyi, who revered Benjamin Franklin, took part in founding the first Hungarian fire insurance company. [xv] At the same time, he introduced horse racing and English racehorses to Buda-Pest and Pressburg. His alleged reason for doing so — to improve the breeding-stock of Hungarian horses (a subject of great interest among the country’s nobles) — veiled a deeper motive: to foster solidarity and dialogue among the magnates, by providing them a motive and pretext for gathering.

On St. Stephen’s day, 1827, Széchenyi inaugurated the National Casino (Nemzeti Casino) in Pest, as a venue for social gathering, entertainment and discussion of public issues. A nineteenth-century German or Hungarian “casino” was not a gambling house, but the equivalent of a London club. Though the Nemzeti Casino was also called the Adelskasino (the casino of the nobility), the club was in principle also open to a limited class of non-nobles who could afford to pay the rather steep dues. [7] The casino movement caught on quickly: by 1833, there were 23 in Hungary, closely watched by Metternich and his secret police as liberal, and potentially subversive, organizations.

Széchenyi was among the first to recognize the potential economic benefits of steam navigation on the Danube. Having seen steamboats at work in England, he hired English engineers to study the practicality of steam travel on the Danube, with the goal of establishing regular steamship service between Vienna and Constantinople. Budapest — as Széchenyi called the sister cities, perhaps for the first time — would naturally be centrally positioned on this line. In 1830, he joined with some of the leading Viennese banking firms to form a company that was granted exclusive steam navigation rights on all rivers within the Austrian dominions for 15 years. [xvi] In the year of Joseph Joachim’s birth, the steam vessel Francis I made its first journey from Vienna to Semlin (Zemun, Serbia), with stops in Raab (Gyor) and Pest.

Throughout Hungary, it was becoming apparent that life would presently be transformed by powerful, invisible engines of change: the scientific and technical advances of the Industrial Revolution, the spread of capitalism, and the continuing political and philosophical repercussions of the Atlantic Revolutionary Era. “Almost all of Europe is surprised by the intellectual revival that Hungary has undergone in the last decade or so,” wrote J. G. Elsner in 1840. “Many go so far as to say that the country has slumbered for a few centuries and is suddenly awakening, aroused as by a miracle.” [xvii] With the opening of the Danube to steam travel, it must have been clear to Julius that the future of Hungarian commerce would not be found on the plains surrounding Kittsee or in the narrow streets of Pressburg, but in the markets and quays of Pest. At the same time, he recognized that his children’s brightest prospects could not unfold in closed communities beside rural byways, but only in the progressive mainstream of contemporary European culture. And so, Julius and Fanny ventured forth — at the relatively advanced age of 43 — on a hopeful, yet uncertain new life course, negotiating the swift currents and testing the shifting sands of a new way of life whose torrents and diversions, like those of the Danube, could be treacherous, and might well lead to a sorry end.

Pesth Castle

Pesth and Ofen (Buda)

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013.

Next Post in Series: Pesth 

[1] The line from Linz to Budweis, opened in August, 1832, was a horse-drawn railroad.

[2] Imperial-Royal Austrian Privileged Danube Steamboat Transport Company, a company that gave birth to the longest word in the German language:


[3] For an outstanding study of this remarkable man see: George Barany, Stephen Széchenyi and the Awakening of Hungarian Nationalism, 1791-1841, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968.

[4] Magnates, belonging to a few dozen prominent families, were members of the upper house of parliament, roughly the equivalent of English lords.

[5] Széchenyi’s extensive reading included a complete course of Western classics, from Goethe, Tasso, Byron, Alfieri, Shakespeare, Burke, Voltaire, Montaigne, Herder and Rousseau to Franklin, Bentham and Adam Smith. He was strongly influenced by Benjamin Franklin (in moments of depression, he contemplated moving to the United States), as well as by Mme. de Staël’s notion of comparing the porgress of a nation to the growth of an individual, and her belief in the possibility of both. Herder’s prophesy of the demise of the Magyar (in Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit) was a burr under the saddle for Széchenyi and others of his generation, and a strong stimulus to Magyar nationalism. [Barany/SZÉCHENYI, p. 62; 19.]

[6] Among Széchenyi’s most controversial acts was the publication, in Hungarian, of Hitel (Credit, 1830), the first of three books in which he chided his fellow magnates for their reactionary ways, and laid out a comprehensive program for reform. Széchenyi called for an end to the nobles’ monopoly on land ownership, for the establishment of commercial credit through laws aiding in the collection of debts and the enforcement of contracts (there were no Hungarian banks in early 19th century), and for the raising of capital for investment in public works: roads, mills, mines, and schools. Though he was soundly pilloried for criticizing his peers, his persistence and vision ultimately carried the day.

[7] Among its 175 founding members were Széchenyi’s close friend Baron Miklós Wesselényi (1796-1850), a leader in liberal politics, and the “Hungarian Aesop,” poet and fabulist András Fáy (1786-1864), a founder of the Hungarian National Theatre. In June 1829, Széchenyi proposed to admit merchants and favored the admission of Jews. The latter idea was voted down by the shareholders, 50-6. [Barany/SZÉCHENYI, p. 171.]

[i] Paget/HUNGARY I, pp. 186-187.

[ii] Paget/HUNGARY I, pp. 54-55.

[iii] Bright/TRAVELS, p. 98.

[iv] Bright/TRAVELS, p. 213.

[v] Paget/HUNGARY I, p. 97.

[vi] Bright/TRAVELS, p. 98.

[vii] Kiraly/NEO-SERFDOM, p. 277.

[viii] Paget/HUNGARY I, p. 15.

[ix] Kiraly/NEO-SERFDOM, p. 278.

[x] Pardoe/MAGYAR I, p. 58.

[xi] Bright/TRAVELS, opp. p. 193.

[xii] Kiraly/NEO-SERFDOM, p. 275.

[xiii] Quoted in Barany/SZÉCHENY, p. 106.

[xiv] Paget/HUNGARY (1839) I, p. 228.

[xv] Barany/SZÉCHENY, p. 173.

[xvi] Barany/SZÉCHENY, p. 246.

[xvii] Elsner/UNGARN I,  p. iii.