From Hobson's Choice
|Henri Rousseau, "The Sleeping Gitane"|
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Henri Rousseau, "The Sleeping Gypsy"
The Rroma (Roma People; "Rom" = single person; "Romany" = language; "Gypsy" is a colloquial term now discouraged) number about 8-10 million, mostly in the Balkans (Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria), Hungary, and Spain. About a million Rroma live in the USA, conceivably meaning the USA has the largest single national cohort of Rroma. The Rroma are a persecuted group of people from Europe.
The Rroma of Europe (with whom we are concerned) reportedly first appeared in Greece around the 11th century CE, where they were known as Atsinganoi; they were known as magicians and fortune tellers. The legendary date of the Rroma entry into the European mainland, or Aresajipe, is typically estimated as 1300. They appear again, in the 14th century, in the Balkans. In 1385, there is a document affirming an earlier gift (to a monastery) of 20 atsigan families. By 1383, Rroma are regarded in Hungary, Serbia, Dalmatia, and Bulgaria; by 1425, Rroma had spread to Spain, as well as France (1418), Belgium (1419), the Netherlands (1420), and Italy (1422).
Expelling the Rroma
In 1416, Rroma were expelled from Meissen, Germany, a mere nine years after the first documented evidence that they had reached that part of Europe. In 1427, a group of Rroma arriving at the gates of Paris were sent elsewhere. At this time, Vlad Dracul was transporting Rroma from Bulgaria as slave labor; later, his colleague King Stepan of Moldavia, would also take up the large scale transport of Rroma as slave labor. According to Ian Hancock, the abolition of Rroma slavery in Romania was a product in part of nationalist pride when the two kingdoms of Moldavia and Wallachia were merged into Romania (1855).
Because of the extreme difficulty of enforcement, abolition only became effective in 1864.
Rroma slavery was applied sporadically in Spain, England, Scotland, and Russia. The first case of Rroma enslavement in Western Europe appears to have been in 1538, when the Kingdom of Portugal began transporting Rroma as slaves to Angola and Brazil. The following year the Habsburg rulers of Spain ordered the capture and enslavement of the Rroma for use as galley slaves (a common punishment for Rroma and political offenders in France). This example was followed by Edward VI of England (1547). During the Renaissance, slavery was a punishment applied to Rroma who failed to leave England or Scotland; Rroma slaves were used in the coal mines and later shipped to Virginia or the Caribbean. In Spain, slavery was part of a larger program of exile: Rroma captured in Spain were shipped to the New World. The Habsburgs of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire passed shockingly draconian expulsion orders, requiring the entire population to either find a trade at once or face mutillation, then enslavement. France (1510) ordered the Rroma out, on pain of death; this departure was made difficult by the decision of King Gustav Vasa of Sweden to expell the Roma, and, in 1525, an order by Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) to expell all Rroma in two days.
As expulsion orders proliferated across Europe, the customary reluctance of the church to exclude potential members did not extend to Rroma. They were barred from communication by the Swedish Lutheran Church. The Vatican, while not barring Rroma from the sacraments, did bar them from the priesthood.
In the mid-17th century, the wave of executions, expulsions, and enslavements began to wind down in Britain and Scandanavia. The last execution for being a Rroma occurred in 1650, in England. On the continent, however, it seemed as if the massively stronger, more relentless effectiveness of the state was being tested on the Rroma populace, and the ability of their neighbors to murder them en masse. Reading the succession of anti-Rroma measures leads one to wonder how any survived at all:
1721. Emperor Karl VI of the [Holy Roman Empire] orders the extermination of Roma throughout his domain.In 1749, with the "Great Gypsy Roundup," Rroma were systematically captured and enslaved en masse. This scarcely subsided in the 19th century; Otto von Bismarck, for example, served notice to the newly-annexed territories of the German Empire (1870) that all Roma were barred from entering Germany. Conditions in France were comparatively benign, but Rroma were required to carry extensive documentation until 1970. Switzerland had a policy of seizing the children of Rroma until 1973; this was a state secret until 1980, and to this day the Swiss state will not release records of parentage.
1723. Roma are prohibited from residence in the Lorraine, gathering in the woods or main roads. Punishment is banishment. Communities are encouraged "to gather, march in formation and open fire on them."
1724. All vagabonds and vagrants are prohibited by Louis XV of France from residence and nomadism and gathering of more than four adults in a house. Adult men are sentenced to the galleys for five years. All others are flogged and sent to the poor house.
1725. Frederick William I of Prussia condemns any Roma over eighteen caught in his territory, man or woman, to be hanged without trial.
1726. Gitanos in Spain are forbidden to appeal against the sentences of the courts.
1727. Berne [Switzerland] decree no.13 reiterates that Roma are forbidden to stay. "Gypsy men and women of more than fifteen years of age shall have one ear cut off the first time they are caught ... but if they are caught a second time they shall be sentenced to death."
1728. The town council of Aachen [n.w. Germany] passes an ordinance condemning Roma to death. "Captured Gypsies, whether they resist or not, shall be put to death immediately. However, those seized who do not resort to counter-attack shall be granted no more than a half an hour to kneel, if they so wish, beg God almighty to forgive them their sins and to prepare themselves for death."
1733. Empress Anna Ioannovna of Russia decrees Roma are forbidden to travel and must settle down as serfs of the land.
1734. Frederick William I [of Prussia] decrees that any Roma caught in his territory, man or woman, will be hanged without trial. A reward is offered.
It is surprisingly unclear how conditions changed for Rroma on arriving in North America. The emancipation of Rroma in Romania and Ottoman Turkey was an odd reversal of the normal scheme of things, in which those countries were politically backward relative to the West. Rroma leaving decades of oppression in Romania were excluded from Germany or Austria-Hungary, and many went directly to the United States or Argentina. Both countries adopted laws to bar Rroma, based on the racialist notions of Cesare Lombroso. And anti-Rroma measures apparently do not require the cover of legality. Essentially, law enforcement in any country, including the US and Canada, occasionally [?] targets Rroma as a criminal class. In 1994, Dennis Marlock and John Dowling published a book, License to Steal, which begins with the "legend" that a Gypsy blacksmith was commissioned by the Romans to forge the nails used to crucify Jesus (and notified in the night by a vision from God what the nails would be used for). Marlock and Dowling then attribute this curious artifact of medieval deicide to the Rroma themselves.
The Rroma as a Cultural Unit
"Gypsy Girl with Mandolin"
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As we have seen, the Rroma were subject to shockingly harsh repressive measures during the period 1420-1850's, with the pre-unification monarchy of Romania importing Rroma as slaves from Bulgaria. In Spain, King Fernando VI issued an order to enslave the Rroma en masse; this was revoked in 1765 under Carlos III, and the Rroma (Gitanes) were released. In other regions of Europe, there were repeated drives to exterminate the Rroma, such as those of Holy Roman Emperor Karl VI (1721) and Adolf Hitler (1941).
During O Porrajmos, approximately 500,000 Roma & Sinti persons were murdered by the Einzatzgrupen and the SS. In view of the fact that there have been numerous thwarted efforts to exterminate the Rroma, each backed by the state, it would appear they were in a better position to fade into the background. Perhaps this is a highly developed skill that the majority of Rroma had mastered as a result of the endless succession of purges.
It may seem odd to be perplexed about what sort of demographic category the Rroma are. Some considerable debate has raged on the ethnic origins of the constituent people, with some writers insisting that the European Rroma are unrelated to the Luri (Uzbek nomads), Rabari (Gujarati nomads) and Dom (SW Asian nomad), while others deny there is any meaningful ethnic category at all. The names of Rroma groups are impossibly confusing, and even the most basic facts are subject to controversy. Early references to the Rroma were stymied by the fact that there were many nomadic Europeans, and most did not wish to be so; while repeated official policies of Rroma elimination had the paradoxical effect of leading Gadje (non-Rroma) to assume there weren't any Rroma left. Possibly there were cases of widespread parapsychological abnormalities, with Gadje in effect developing multiple personality disorders: now you see the Gypsies, and now you don't because they were never here.
However, for much of their history the Rroma had more urgent matters that the delusional psychoses of their Polyphemus-style "host." In the time of the Emperor Diocletian, the policy was established of tightly regimenting the movement of peoples in every sense of the term. Great movements occurred either as expulsions, or as invasions. For a person to enter a medieval polity, even as a brief visitor, it was necessary to have a trade and to be plying it. Constant depression and underconsumption characterized the ancient world, and a job was regarded as a sacred privilege. It was such a bonificum to hold gainful employment the only way one could legitimately do so was to inherit it from one's father. Rroma caravans typically included journeymen blacksmiths, who of course were unwelcome competition. The laws against Rroma damned them for plying useful enterprises like metal work, carpentry, and animal husbandry, while they also punished them for vagrancy or parasitic occupations like fortune telling and street theater.
The Rroma were, like most demographic cohorts of the world, a class of workers as well as an ethnos, and they occupied a peculiar racial position in Europe. They were not invaders, like the Gepids and Goths; they were not natives, like the Britons under Norman imperialism; some were transported like human freight as slaves into Romania and the New World, or manacled to galleys, but by the late 18th century Rroma slavery was comparatively rare, so they did not occupy a conventional subaltern role. The Rroma were in some respects a class apart, resilient, mysterious, and discretely essential. The character of anti-Rroma discrimination has relied on startlingly enduring myths: the dark, alien other, stealing children, magically casting hexes, tempting the weak into heathen practices (tempting, I presume, because they had a reputation of working), and seducing the pure. Barred from competing with the Gadje worker, the Rroma was accused of being lazy; appealing to the Gadje's cupidity or jealousy, he was accused of being wily and grasping. Having his children seized by the state, he was accused of stealing babies; being shoving into the relentless exploitation of plantation farm labor, he was accused of eating human flesh when the pillars of the community ate his. Subject to rape and concubinage by the idle privileged, the Rroma women were accused of being loose. The targets of utter faithlessness and disenfranchisement by the state, they were blackballed as a criminal class.
It's discouraging how persistent these myths are; how reliably opportunist majority populations are toward the Rroma, and how blindly Pecksniffian about their own motives. I've known a great many people who were virulently anti-gypsy; they all insisted there was no correspondence between their resentment of Gypsies living today, and the persecution faced by the "historical Gypsies." The Nazis killed all the good ones, so to speak. Yet in the same breath they'll regale one with legends of supposedly ancient provenance about the eternal perfidy of Gypsies (oddly, the legends typically involve the Romany antagonist deceiving to save his life or his family from massacre, as if this were the worst part of the deed).
while Central European countries have send a general revival of the slum conditions and endemic unemployment that spawn antigypsyism. Hancock writes about the spiritual outcomes of group loathing in familiar terms:
Rroma continue to be the targets of state "clean up" schemes. Hancock mentions a round-up of Rroma in Barcelona in 1992,
Consequences...: Racism is defined as ‘the belief in the superiority of a particular race.’ This tends to reinforce particular patterns of the behavior of the majority over the minority, the dominant over the weak. Racism is prejudice plus power, and no one can deny the existence of racism in all areas of administration. It is legitimized in society by its very institutional nature. It ensures that, in a racist society, some citizens automatically have opportunities for success and security in life that are available to them in a routine way, while other citizens must struggle for those same opportunities or else not have access to them at all. A dominant, racist population sets up so many barriers in race relations, that those excluded from full participation in the system come to feel like a surplus population, worthless and frustrated. In the United States, the long-term consequence of the racism directed at the Black American people has resulted in a deep-rooted bitterness within that population, a sense of its having been cheated, a resentment and an anger which has robbed the present generation of any sense of hope or self worth. This manifests itself in many ways, above all in anger, and in a desire to strike out at anybody and anything. Recent studies of this phenomenon routinely conclude that the majority of young Black Americans feel an overwhelming hopelessness about their prospects for the future. Unemployment among this section of the population is the highest in the country. The despair this generates translates into violence and an escape into drugs and alcohol. When questioned, such young people say that they don’t expect to live long in the present system, and that there are no positive prospects for them, but they will go out protesting. This protest is tragically turned back onto the same African American population, a population devoid of a sense of dignity, angry at its own powerlessness. Frantz Fanon, describing European oppression in Africa, writes of the police who "beat the African, insult him and make him crawl" without fear of a hostile reaction, while at the same time the same African will "reach for his knife at the slightest hostile or aggressive glance cast at him by another African, for his last resort is to defend his personality vis-à-vis his brother." One consequence of this kind of racism is the evidence of widespread psychological problems: depression, self-hatred, rage, despair, and lack of the means to seek the kind of mental health care available to the middle classes. Another is evidence of crime and sabotage of the system.
As a demographic cohort, the Rroma may be inherently unstable; the efforts of the nations to trammel them, slaughter them, bind them to the land as serfs, ignore them, or export them en masse, have led to occasional unions with other outcasts. Some Rroma become middle class and vanish as such; the definition of who is a Rroma anyway is ambiguous. A Vlax-Irish friend tells me the very idea that there's a roving Rroma nation out there is itself more picaresque gypsy blarney; the Rroma people are so many snowballs rolling through Europe and North America, and molded physically by their lifestyle rather than by some phenotype. I would suggest this describes all of us.
- ↑ The History of the Rroma People in Romania, from Romanothan - the resources site of Roma / Gypsies in Romania
- ↑ Ian Hancock, "[http://www.geocities.com/~Patrin/slavery.htm Roma Slavery]" Patrin
- ↑ Moldavia: confusingly enough, the former Soviet republic of Moldova was formerly known in English as the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic; prior to the 1920's, this region was known as Bessarabia. Immediately to the west of modern Moldova is the Romanian territory of Moldavia, which, prior to 1881, was an autonomous kingdom. As readers might expect, this was the result of Imperial Russian annexation of the part east of the Prut River.
The date of unification of Wallachia (the western part) and Moldavia is ambiguous; in 1853, the sudden evaporation of Russian control in occupied Wallachia led to agitation for Romanian union; this culminated in the election of Alexander John Cuza as prince of both countries in 1859. In 1866, Prince Alexander was ousted in a coup by a cabal of radical and conservative officers, and exiled; his successor was from the ruling house of Prussia. In 1881, as a result of Romanian-Russian success in the Russo-Turkish War, Romania won full independence.
- ↑ See Antonio Henrique R. de Oliveira Marques, History of Portugal Columbia University Press (1972), p.469
- ↑ The Great Gitane Roundup ended in 1763 with a pardon, and two years later, the release, of the enslaved Rroma population. I am unable to find much information on the numbers of Rroma involved or the fate of Rroma already deported to the Americas.
- ↑ The Rroma (pron. "RAHM-ma") is recommended by international organizations of Romany-speakers to refer to the politically-signified cohort. Ethnographically, the preferred designation appears to be "Roma & Sinti." Vernacular terms include "Gypsy" (English), Tsigani (Greek & Russian), "Gitane" (French & Spanish), Cigano (Portuguese), Zigeuner (German), Cigány (Hungarian), Cikánský (Czech)... "Travelers" are sometimes associated with the Rroma by virtue of their lifestyle, but not ethnically.
The ethnic origins of the Rroma are a complex and controversial subject; I would prefer to avoid getting embroiled in the controversy. Most references dispute the boundaries of the Rroma themselves. I think ethnic boundaries are constructed and those delimiting the Rroma suffer from being couched in legal designations that were used to proscribe them.
- ↑ 2 Ian Hancock mentions this episode in several places, such as "The Roots of Antigypsyism: the Holocaust and After"; he also mentions various state policies of repression. I am unable to confirm the Barcelona episode from any independent source, although my wife recalls hearing about it at the time (my brother-in-law lives in Seville). It seems possible that the measure was criticized in startlingly harsh terms, like the Australian newspaper referring to the Guantanamo Bay detention center as a "death camp." Both invited a comparison with the Final Solution that seems unwarranted. "Urban Slums Reports: The case of Barcelona, Spain" reports in considerable detail on the complicated issues raised by the slums there.
External Links & Sources
- The most famous book describing the modern condition of Rroma Europeans is Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca (1996). This is a type of book known as "narrative journalism," similar to the works of John McPhee and Tracy Kidder. I find this sort of book structure unsatisfying although it was quite fun to read.
- Jonathan Fox, "Patterns of Discrimination, Grievances and Political Activity Among Europe’s Roma: A Cross-Sectional Analysis" , Bar Ilan University, Israel (Winter 2001)
- Ian Hancock is one of the more prominent sources of historical information on the Rroma. "The Struggle for the Control of Identity" (Perspectives) is more of a stream-of-consciousness account of contemporary Romani American outlook.
Elsewhere, I attempted to analyze the reasons for the prejudice which exists today against Rroma, and listed seven: (i) the association of Rroma with the Islamic takeover of parts of the Christian world; (ii) color prejudice, specifically the association of darkness with sin; (iii) the exclusionary nature of Romani culture, which does not encourage intimacy with non-Rroma and which as a result creates suspicion on the part of those excluded; (iv) fortune telling, which inspired fear but which had to be relied upon as a means of livelihood in response to legislation curtailing Romani movement and choice of occupation; (v) the unchallenged function of the "gypsies" as a population upon which mainstream notions of immorality and lawlessness can be projected, and which thereby serve to define that mainstream's own boundaries; (vi) the fact that Rroma have no territorial, military, political or economic strength and are therefore easily targetable as scapegoats because they cannot retaliate, and (vii) the fact that the ‘gypsy’ persona has an — again unchallenged — ongoing function as representing a simpler, freer time, a representation which becomes more and more attractive in an increasingly complex and regimented world.
- Toon Machiels, "Keeping the Distance or Taking the Chances: Roma and Travellers in Western Europe" , Belgium, March 2002
- For a scholarly source on the Rroma/Romani online, I recommend the Romani Archives and Documentation Center (RADOC), which I found in search of Ian Hancock's work.
- Romlex: Romani Dialects
- Rroma.org: flash-based web guide to the history of the Rroma.
- TSHA Online: History of the Roma [in Texas]
I am sorry about the paucity of information about Rroma outside of Europe. The Rroma community in Central Asia is known as the Luli (or Multani, Jughi, or Marghat, "Fire Worshipper"), and here is a little bit on them:
- "Perceptions of Identity: Luli in Uzbekistan" *(thinking-east.net);
- In India, the Rabari are sometimes associated with the Rroma, although Wikipedia's entry for the Rroma was the only source I could find for this assertion.
- "The True Origin of Roma and Sinti," Sándor Avraham; Mr. Avraham has also included a study of the origins of the Magyar and the Romanians. He proposes that the Roma and Sinti are actually of Hebrew origins, and initially traversed Central Asia (map), then returned from Gujarat to SW Asia, immigrated into Anatolia, and from there entered Europe. He sustains his case quite well. Certainly it's one of the most interesting essays on ethnography I've read in a long time.
James R MacLean (10:50, 18 September 2007 (PDT))