It was widely believed during much of the 19th century that no Gypsies had ever come to North America. Hoyland stated that "Grellmann is of opinion, that America is the only part of the world in which they are not known" (1816:11); Crabb confidently wrote that while they inhabited "... many countries of Europe, Asia and Africa ... on the continent of America alone are there none of them found" (1831:6), and a story published in the United States in 1843 in The Lady's Book included the remark that "... you must be deceived! There never has been a gipsy in North America!" (quoted in Groome, 1899:xv). As late as 1874, the American Cyclopaedia told its readers that it was "questionable whether a band of genuine Gipsies has ever been in America." Even Matt Salo, who has collected the most extensive documentation of North American British Gypsy ancestry, has stated more than once that the "Romnichels began appearing in the U.S. in the 1850s" only (1982:281). It is clear from existing records, however, that those first to arrive here from Britain did so nearly two centuries before that. Simson devotes several pages to this, maintaining that the fact that
many Gipsies were banished to America in colonial times, from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, sometimes for merely being 'by habit and repute' Gipsies, is beyond dispute ... Gipsies may be said to have been in America almost from the time of its settlement (1865:418).
Hall noted that "Thickly sprinkled with Gypsy names are the 'transportation lists', 1787-1867, reposing on the shelves of the Public Records Office in London" (1915:281), while Brown(1929:148) quoted one Romanichal verbatim who told him that he remembered his grandfather telling him that his great-uncle fought in the American Revolution in 1776. Paine's History of East Harwich, in Vermont, mentions a Romanichal family named Cahoon living at Grassy Pond during the mid 1700s, also referred to briefly in Kipling's Captains Courageous (Paine, 1937:464). But the earliest actual document known to us, dates from the time of the administration of Oliver Cromwell's successor, his son Richard, when the first trans-Atlantic expulsion of Gypsies was instituted:
In 1661 'Commissions and Instructions' were issued anew to justices and constables, by Act of Parliament, with the view of arresting Gypsies ... a great many Gypsies must have been deported to the British 'plantations' in Virginia, Jamaica and Barbadoes during the second half of the seventeenth century. That they had there to undergo a temporary, if not 'perpetual' servitude, seems very likely (MacRitchie, 1894:102).
A reference dated November, 1665, comments upon the motives for indenturing Gypsies and others in this way:
The light regard paid to the personal right of individuals was shown by a wholesale deportation of poor people at this time to the West Indies ... out of a desire as weel to promote the Scottish and English plantations in Gemaica and Barbadoes for the honour of their country, as to free the kingdom of the burden of many strong and idle beggars, Egyptians, common and notorious thieves, and other dissolute and looss persons banished and stigmatised for gross crimes (Chambers, 1858:304).
In 1714, British merchants and planters applied to the Privy Council for permission to ship Gypsies to the Caribbean, avowedly to be used as slaves (MacRitchie, op. cit.), and in the following year, according to a document dated January 1st, 1715,
Prisoners ... were sentenced ... to be transported to the plantations for being [by] habit and repute gipsies ... On the said gipsies coming here the town was brought under a burden [and] they had used endeavours with several merchants who have ships now going abroad [i.e., to transport them as slaves], for which they are to receive thirteen pounds sterling (Memorabilia, 1835:424-426).
Among the family names of those individuals were Faa, Fenwick, Lindsey, Stirling, Robertson, Ross and Yorstoun.
Gypsies, according to the legal definition which was in effect throughout this period in England, included "all such persons not being Fellons wandering and pretending [i.e. identifying themselves to be Egypcians, or wandering in the Habite, Forme or Attyre] counterfayte Egypcians" (Statutes, Eliz., 39.c.4, quoted in Smith, 1971:109. See also Axon, 1897, passim, and Beier, 1985:58-62).
Barbados served as an entrepôt for the distribution of slaves to other British territories in the western hemisphere for many years. Whether ultimately bound for Virginia, Jamaica or elsewhere, large numbers of slaves passed first of all through that island (Hancock, 1980b). However, while the designations Gypsy, Gypcian, Egyptian, &c., turn up in the records of transportation located in Britain, nothing similar appears anywhere in the documents examined in Barbados, visited for this purpose by the writer in the Spring of 1979. These were Hotten (1874), Nicholson (n.d.), St. Hill (1937), Anon. (1963), Headlam (1964), Kaminkow (1967), A. Smith (I 971), Coldham (1974) and F. Smith (1976). Nevertheless, an examination of the lists of transportees found in these works and in the Barbados Records indicated that a great number of individuals bearing Romanichal (British Gypsy) surnames did in fact arrive in Barbados: the names occurring include Boswell, Cook/Cooke, Hern/Herne/Heron, Lee/Leek, Locke, Palmer, Penfold/Pinfold, Price, Scot/Scott, Smith and Ward, ranging from one Pinfold to nine Boswells to over a hundred Smiths. Only a small percentage of these were likely to have been Gypsies, of course. Sometimes, a further clue was provided by the county of origin of the individual, where given (Cookes from Middlesex and Kent), or by occupation (Boswell, a blacksmith), but these must also be considered non-conclusive.
Alexandre Exquemelin remarked upon a number of "Egyptian wenches" among the bondservants in Tortuga, when he visited that island in 1666, but we cannot be sure that Gypsies were meant here. So far, only one reference to Gypsies as a discrete group in the West Indies, and referred to as such, has been located, and that from Jamaica:
I have known many gipsies [to be] subject from the age of eleven to thirty to the prostitution and lust of overseers, book-keepers, negroes, &c., to be taken into keeping by gentlemen, who paid exorbitant hire for their use (Moreton, 1793:130).
The censuses themselves do not mention Gypsies, although Jews are listed separately from other whites (Dunn, 1962). This omission may not be significant, however, since the Amerindian slaves brought in from South America, and possibly New England, are not listed either - a fact remarked upon by Handler (1970:127). Robert Rich, a resident of Barbados writing in 1670, noted that the population there consisted of English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, French, Jewish, colored and black slaves (in Ogilby, 1671:378-379).
This leaves four possibilities: firstly, that Gypsies were counted together with the white population, perhaps because of a common point of origin at time of shipment, and were therefore not officially registered separately; secondly, that most were shipped on to the North American colonies, and did not remain long enough in the West Indies to become a recognized, established community; thirdly, that by some means, some of them at least were able to return to Britain, and lastly, that the population was ultimately bred out of existence.
Against the first stands the fact that Gypsies, being of Asian origin, are ultimately not 'white', despite the presence in modern times of many English-looking Romanichals, resulting from miscegenation with Europeans. Such genetic mixture would, in any case, have been far less apparent in the 17th century, and even today, it would be difficult to attribute the white Barbadian's "sickly white or light red" complexion (Price, 1962:49) to the British Gypsy population. Furthermore, the fact that the Gypsies who were brought to the West Indies were not native speakers of English would have served to distinguish them from other non-African bondsmen. Their speech, which "none could understand" was often referred to in 17th century descriptions of Gypsies in England (cf. Hancock, 1984:92-95, and Beier, 1985:60). Von Uchteritz, in 1652 (before the first-known trans-Atlantic English or Scottish shipments of Gypsies) noted that among the slave population, "Those who are Christian speak English; the Negroes and Indians, however, have their own strange languages" (Gunkel and Handler, 1970:93). The existence of the factors, together with the deeply-entrenched Romani cultural restrictions on over-fraternizing with non-Gypsies, must certainly have made them an easily-recognizable group. The second possibility is supported by the fact that we do have a concrete reference to the presence of British Gypsies in North America during this period, turning up in Virginia in 1695 from Henrico county. It is on record that what appears to have been a charge of rape made by a Gypsy woman was dismissed by the magistrate,
it being the opinion of this Court that the Act ag'st ffornication does not touch her, she being an Egyptian and noe Xtian woman (Anon., 1894:100).
The family name of the woman, Joane Scot, occurs in the Barbados annals, and survives among American Romanichals today. The Colonial Entry Book during the same period contained a law which provided that "all ... gypsies ... shall either be acquitted and assigned to some settled aboade and course of life here, or be appointed to be sent to the plantations for five years" (Wright, 1939:141).
There is also documentary evidence to support the third possibility. Investigation of court records, transportation certificates and the local British press of the period, together with compilations published in the United States (such as e.g. Boyer, 1979), indicate not only extensive shipment of Gypsies, but the subsequent return of numbers of these to the country of origin. The conclusion, that "there was a fairly regular traffic of returnees, both legally and illegally" (Smith, 1979), has much to uphold it, though with more relevance, possibly, to the penal colony at Botany Bay in South Australia. This was established after America's achievement of independence closed Georgia as a dumping-ground for England's criminals. Numbers of Boswells, Lees, Skeltons, Scarretts and Smiths were shipped there from the Midlands counties during the first quarter of the 19th century, though as felons rather than as slaves or bondservants. The works of George Borrow and others contain references to Gypsies being bitcheno pawdel or bitchady pawdel, "sent across" to America or Australia, a period of Romani history by no means forgotten by Gypsies in Britain today. One term in contemporary Angloromani for "magistrate" is bitcherin' mush, the "transporter." Some factual references to the American situation are to be found in Pinkerton (1880), and to the Australian situation in Langker (1980), but much work remains to be done in these areas.
The notion of Gypsy is well-established in the West Indian folk tradition, though no more accurately here than anywhere else in the world. Wright (1938) tells of the panic the arrival of Gypsies in Jamaica caused earlier in this century. The word itself turns up in several of the island creoles, variously meaning "playful," "frisky," "meddlesome," "mischievous" and "bossy." In both Jamaica and Trinidad, it also refers to 'pig Latin', a secret way of talking; in the related dialect of Sierra Leone, where Jamaicans went to settle in 1800, it has come to mean a "short person." Similarities between some proverbs in the same creole with those in Romani have also been noted (Hancock, 1977:73). In Guadeloupe, Le Gitan is a name with which drivers commonly christen their taxis, trucks, &c. (Métraux, 1950:1411), while in her introduction to Jekyll's collection of Jamaican folktales, Alice Werner draws parallels with Gypsy themes (1907:xxvi).
A search for the existence of Romani words in the Caribbean creoles has so far turned up only two, the items bul "buttocks" and kori "penis." The former is known in Barbados, Tobago, Trinidad and probably elsewhere. It is unlikely that the word which, like the Romani language itself is of Indian origin, came in with the thousands of indentured East Indian laborers, since they did not go at first to Barbados. In any case, the word is unknown to them in their own speech, mainly Bhojpuri, which uses instead the terms bunda or gar. The latter has so far only been found in Trinidad. Its form is specifically Angloromani, i.e. the type of Romani spoken only by Romanichals, and again differs from the equivalent term in Bhojpuri.
The world-famous pre-Lenten carnival in Trinidad traditionally has a Gypsy section, and the costumes colorfully and accurately represent the Hollywood stereotype. Indeed, it is quite possible that this portrayal owes more to modern fictional literature imported from Britain than to any unbroken continuum with the 17th century. There is also currently a popular calypsonian called 'Gypsy'.
The Gypsy slaves may have been absorbed into the (mainly Irish, Scottish and south-western English) white bondservant population, though it is hard to imagine this happening voluntarily. This is, however, the argument maintained by Marchbin (1939:119). More likely intermixture with the general free colored population took place as a result of the forced concubinage described by Moreton above - the same process which has produced, though not by force, the 'Black Irish' of Jamaica and the Afro-Gypsy community at Atchefalaya. Bercovici, with a fair amount of imagination, has speculated that
It is very possible that these Gypsies, then in Barbados, sought refuge with the Indians, intermarried, and were completely assimilated by the aborigines ... perhaps this might account for some customs common to the American Indians and the Hindus (1928:510).
Shoemaker has also referred to the interaction of the two peoples, rather anticlimactically: "... the first contact between Gipsy and Indian, a romantic and historic foregathering of oppressed peoples ... as one old man from the Little Sand Hills of Dauphin County said in describing it, 'they hated one another"' (1924:6).
There is a local poor white population in Barbados, known as the Redlegs, whose members are distinct in their appearance from other whites in the country. A similar white West Indian population is found in Montserrat, and there are numbers also in Bequia, St. Vincent, Grenada, Jamaica and elsewhere (Williams, 1985), but none has yet been investigated with Romani genealogy in mind. The list of Barbadian Redleg families (Bradshaw, Davis, Dowding, Edwards, Gibson, Gooding, Graves, Harris, Hinkson, King, Marshall and Medford) contains a few surnames also found among North American Romanichals (e.g. Davis, King and Marshall) but Hotten, who was well-acquainted with Romanichal language and history, made no reference to Gypsies in his standard work on transportations to the islands (1874). The two most easily-available and complete sources on the Redlegs, Price (1962) and Sheppard (1977) also make no mention at all of Gypsies.
There are a great many Romanichals in the United States, especially in the South. Salo believes that they may constitute "the largest among the Gypsy groups" in the whole of the country (1977:7), although estimates within the Romani population put their own numbers at ca. 80,000, compared with ca. 500,000 Vlax-speaking Gypsies. While descendants of the Gypsies sent here by the Germans and the French are still sometimes to be found in the areas they were taken to, Gypsies from Britain, being in greater numbers, have spread out over the country, and statements about their history since arrival are speculative at best. American Romanichal families are aware of the circumstances of their arrival, and an examination of their oral tradition will surely help complete the picture. Such internally-transmitted tradition is being gathered by Harry Bryer, whose family arrived in North America in the mid-1800s, while a file of externally-documented records is being compiled by Matt Salo from an examination of newspapers, parish registers and so on. Meanwhile, non-academic speculation will surely also continue to find a place in the printed page, such as that by Burnett, who believed that the ancestors of the Melungeons of Tennessee "may have entered the country as Portuguese or gypsies, and afterwards some families may have intermingled with the negroes or Indians or both" (1889:349). Until Romani history is documented by Gypsies themselves, recording this kind of information will proceed slowly, and inquisitiveness from outside will continue to be discouraged. The editor of the February, 1986, issue of Romany Fires of Revival, for example, a privately-circulated evangelical newsletter sent out monthly to some 600 American Romanichals, cautioned his readers that two specialists were "gathering information about the Travelers and doing a research on our people."
It is tempting, perhaps, to look for Gypsy elements in North and South American and West Indian music, dress, folklore and cuisine; this is a justifiable line of pursuit and one which has not received the attention it should have. There are several reasons for this: the inaccessible nature of the Romani communities, the vagueness of the documentation available, and the strength of the fictional image which confuses the perception of the reality. False leads are many: "gypsies" in the American theatre have nothing to do with Gypsies; there is no connection whatsoever in Romani culture with Hallowe'en, though Non-Gypsies perceive one; in Cuba, a kind of cake called brazo gitano turns out to be an importation from Spain.
A case for extensive Romani contribution to Brazilian culture has already been made by Mello Moraes (op. cit.), who believed that "the Brazilian nation, from the highest to the lowest, is strongly tinctured with Gypsy blood," a notion also supported later by Groome (1899:xvii). Writing nearly ninety years ago about the West Indian islands, MacRitchie (op. cit.) wondered "to what extent the people of those places today are possessed of seventeenth century Gypsy blood ... an interesting, though perhaps delicate, question." Irving Brown too, writing of the situation in the United States, believed that "Some of the oldest Dutch families of Manhattan, and some of the most aristocratic Creoles of the South, must have a dash of Romani blood in their veins" (1927:12). But until the British, Caribbean, and North and South American sources are re-examined at first hand, and recollections from and by the people themselves are systematically gathered, it will be difficult to guess, and little more is likely to be forthcoming in this chapter of Romani history.