The old state laws instituted by Basil the Wolf in the mid 17th century had become forgotten, and efforts at legal administration were becoming increasingly disorganized. By the time of the terms of office of the hospodars (i.e. lords appointed by the Ottoman court) Caragea and Calimachi in the early 1800s, specific policies regarding slavery, as well as many other aspects of Moldavian and Wallachian law, were only vaguely understood; slave-owners meted outjustice as they saw it, with little fear of reprisal, and with increasing cruelty. Caragea and Calimachi made efforts to incorporate statutes then current in the neighboring Austrian Empire into their own jurisdiction, a move which might have ultimately been effective except that in 1826, Russia invaded the two principalities and a new governor, Paul Kisseleff, was appointed, in 1829. He was a dogmatic and stern leader, instituting extensive, conservative revisions in 1833 in the Civil Code; he too, drew upon that of the Austrian Empire for his model.
Kisseleff was sickened by the concept of slavery on moral grounds, and was initially quite determined to see it abolished, despite adverse pressure from the boyars. He was also determined to stamp out bribery and corruption within his domain. Word of his anti-slavery sentiments reached the slaves themselves, some of whom, according to Colson (op. cit.) sought an audience with him at which they promised him as much gold as a horse could carry if he would abolish slavery. Kisseleff, however, reacted with anger; He accused the Gypsies not only of trying to bribe him, but of stealing some of the gold they had washed from the rivers. Because of this, he said, they would have to remain as slaves forever. He made it illegal, furthermore, for a Gypsy to move out of his district without a pass obtained from his owner.
Bucharest, 1834. A square. There's no crowd, just a group of people in front of a waggon pulled there by buffaloes. The passersby quicken their steps and lower their eyes so that they don't have to look at the men and women tearing at their rags in anguish. Dishevilled, dark-skinned, these are Gypsies. You can't escape the entreaties of the mothers whose children are being torn from them, nor their sobs and screams of fear, nor their curses; you can't escape the cracking of the whips breaking down their stubborn resistance to the separations inevitably to come.
Although this scene is commonplace, and has already been described a hundred times, it has suddenly shocked the inhabitants of Bucharest because of the immensity of the sale. The same thing has been going on for several days now; so why this huge auction? Because Barbu Shtirbei, a Wallachian hospodar, wants to renovate his palace and needs money, and is therefore selling all of his slaves. For liquidating the stock, his banker Oprano will keep 20,000 ducats for himself. One male is worth 15 ducats, and a female 12 ducats, and children under sixteen half those amounts. This will total about 3000 slaves belonging to Shtirbei-public opinion is therefore beginning to mount (Roleine, 1979:108).
[Illustration with caption]
On September 25th, 1848, the Rumanian revolutionaries publicly tear up the statues relating to slavery (Roleine, 1979:112).
Under influence from the western European nations, these Balkan countries were beginning to develop a conscience about slavery, especially because they were coming to rely upon the West more and more for their economy. The slave auction conducted by the hospodar Barbu Shtirbei, described above by Colson, caused such widespread indignation that he hurriedly suggested abolition as a means of regaining face - but this was at once overridden by the boyars. In 1837, however, Shtirbei's successor, Alexandru Ghica, freed the slaves on the estates under his jurisdiction, and granted them equal status with the white peasants who worked for him. He also allowed them the right to practice their customs and to speak Romani. Ghica was probably influenced by the writings of a number of journalists of his day. Mihail Kogalniceanu in particular, writing in the same year, stirred public conscience with his firsthand descriptions of what he had seen as a boy growing up in Wallachia:
On the streets of the Jassy of my youth, I saw human beings wearing chains on their arms and legs, others with iron clamps around their foreheads, and still others with metal collars about their necks. Cruel beatings, and other punishments such as starvation, being hung over smoking fires, solitary imprisonment and being thrown naked into the snow or the frozen rivers, such was the fate of the wretched Gypsy. The sacred institution of the family was likewise made a mockery: women were wrested from their men, and daughters from their parents. Children were torn from the breasts of those who brought them into this world, separated from their mothers and fathers and from each other, and sold to different buyers from the four corners of Rumania, like cattle. Neither humanity nor religious sentiment, nor even civil law, offered protection for these beings. It was a terrible sight, and one which cried out to Heaven (1837:16-17).
A similarly moving description, written some twenty years later, is found in Vaillant's history of the Romani people:
What are those animals I can make out over there, through the haze of the evening? They're coming and going, sometimes on all fours, like rats, and sometimes on two feet, like monkeys ... certainly they're not men; they're animals. My God-they are men! Gypsies! There are six of them, and an overseer too, keeping an eye on them. Can you see? They're as naked as Adam, and their bodies are smeared all over with a thick coating of tar. There are shackles on their feet and yokes on their necks, and they are removing sand from the riverbed. They are wearing cangues, those vile, triangular yokes they put on pigs to stop them from breaking through the hedges, but whose three long spikes prevent the Gypsies from being able to rest their heads ...
Since morning, they had been sweating blood, with nothing to drink but river water, and nothing to eat but bits of bread baked there in the ashes, with some boiled leeks and a little salt. At the risk of its being taken away from them by the guard, I gave them each a coin, and went on my way ... (1857:409-412).
[Illustration with caption]
A ferari or iron-worker
In his small book, Kogalniceanu compared slavery in his own country with that in the Americas:
The Europeans are organizing philanthropical societies for the abolition of slavery in America, yet in the bosom of their own continent of Europe, there are 400,000 Gypsies who are slaves, and 200,000 more equally victim to barbarousness (1837:iv).
Protests were heard from further afield, too; the French publication Magasin Pittoresque ended an article on Balkan slavery by an anonymous writer with the following, which surely helped in bringing the attention of western Europe to the situation:
In Rumania, Gypsy is always synonymous with "filthy animal." These Rumanians, who so often have words of humanity and justice on their lips! To work towards easing the degradation of these poor beings, beaten down by pain, to render them born again into the great family of mankind, to free their souls, would not only be a humanitarian act, it would be an act of justice. Where these victimized souls are concerned, the sons should be considered no less guilty than their fathers.
Ghica's move in 1837 affected only a fraction of the total: just 5,582 families out of a Romani population of nearly half a million. Nevertheless, it began a succession of similar decisions; Mihai Sturdza freed his slaves in Moldavia in 1842, and two years later, the Moldavian church liberated its slaves, followed by the same decision from the Wallachian church in 1847. The boyars, however, stubbornly refused to capitulate, despite the entreaties of the Church and the public.
In 1848, a revolution led by a group of radicals returning from studying in France replaced Bibescu in the central government in Bucharest with a provisional joint leadership, which immediately proclaimed that
The Rumanian people reject the inhuman and barbaric practice of owning slaves, and announce the immediate freedom of all Gypsies who belong to individual owners.
It seemed that Desrrobireja - Emancipation - was at last being achieved. But in December that same year, the principalities were overrun by Russians and Turks, who reinstituted many of the old laws, including those supporting slavery. The boyars, with little difficulty, repossessed their slaves, many of whom had remained unaware of their short-lived freedom. For those who knew what was happening, this turn of events must have been a bitter blow.
The Russian-Turkish Convention appointed Alexandru Ghica (grandson of Grigore-Alexandru Ghica), and Barbu Shtirbei to their Council, where they served from 1849 until 1855, in which year Grigore Ghica, a cousin of Alexandru, was made Prince of Moldavia, and Shtirbei was given control of Wallachia. But Grigore was not a strong leader, and while he claimed to deplore slavery, he hesitated to take any action. He made a show of concern by passing a law forbidding children to be sold separately from their parents, but it was nearly seven years before he finally capitulated. As a result of repeated urgings from his advisor, Edward Grenier, and in particular from his eldest daughter, Natalia Balsch, who had already liberated her own slaves and who had persuaded eight other households to follow her example, however, he finally brought the matter before the General Assembly, declaring that
For many years, slavery has been abolished in all the civilized states of the Old World; only the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia retain this humiliating vestige of a barbaric society. It is a social disgrace.
His proposal to abolish slavery met with unanimous approval, and on December 23rd, 1855, it became illegal in Moldavia. Shtirbei followed his lead, and the Wallachian slaves were freed a few weeks later, on February 8th, 1856.
Complete legal freedom, however -- such as it was -- known as Slobuzenja and still cherished in the minds of eastern European Rom today, came in 1864. In this year, Prince Ioan Alexandru Couza, ruler of the now-united principalities (renamed Rumania in 1861) restored the liberated Gypsy slaves and the non-Roma serfs to the estates. In 1864, following a coup díétat, the government of the new Rumanian state, led by Mihail Koglniceanu who represented the progressive wing of the emerging middle class, passed a law abolishing serfdom and which provided for the redistribution of land to the peasants.
This agrarian reform law created conditions favoring the development of capitalism, since it left most of the land still in the hands of the boyars, who did everything they could to limit its effects. In February, 1866, leaders from among the landowners, together with allies from the conservative middle class who were opposed to the peasantsí growing power, conspired to force the abdication of Prince Couza, and replaced him on the Rumanian throne by the Prussian King Charles I of the House of Hohenzollern (Daicoviciu et al., 1959:120-122).
While the land reforms were meant in theory to benefit both the freed Rumanian serfs and the liberated Gypsy slaves, they had little effect on the latter. Despite its new status, Rumania was still heavily dependent upon the Ottoman Empire, which had instituted feudalism in the first place, and which "cloaked and facilitated the economic subservience of the country to the capitalists of western Europe" (op. cit., p. 122). Roma in particular were kept in conditions hardly different from those they had endured as slaves. Writing at this time, Paspati (op. cit.) predicted optimistically that
This people, so long oppressed, enslaved in body and mind, will probably, in a short time, as they rise in wealth and learning, under the fostering hand of freedom attain to some yet higher consideration,
and Vaillant, in the introduction to his book which he dedicated to Alexandru and Grigore Ghica for their noble action, proclaimed that those who
shed tears of compassion for the Negroes of Africa, of whom the American Republic makes its slaves, should give a kind thought to this short history of the Gypsies of India, of whom the European monarchies make their Negroes. These men, wanderers from Asia, will never again be itinerant; these slaves shall be free (1857:7).
Events in Hitlerís Germany eighty years later were to make sad mockery of Paspatiís and VaillantíĎs visions of freedom. Like Paspati, Clark believed that freedom would bring changes for the liberated Roma; he believed too that ultimately being assimilated out of existence would be the best thing for them. Such changes had still not made much impact by the end of the century, however, when Clark, who was probably the only American writer of the time to acknowledge Gypsy slavery, published his observations:
... until the accession of Prince Charles, the Roumanian Gypsies were more terribly oppressed, sunk to a lower depth of poverty, wretchedness and degradation than any otha part of their race, in any other region of the world. The great majority of the Roumanian Gypsies were slaves, held in a rigor of bondage which has never been surpassed; slaves with no rights, no protection and no hope; mere human cattle of whom their cruel, selfish owners would suffer no census to be taken. So long and relentless had this servitude been, that many of the Gypsy slaves had forgotten their own language ... The social condition of the free Gypsies of Wallachia and Moldavia was hardly to be preferred to that of the Gypsy slaves. They were living, many of them, in an utter squalidness of wretchedness and poverty, of nakedness and filth ... With the happiest of results, however, the Wallachian Gypsies have been emancipated, and all taxpayers among them are allowed to vote. What hope or promise there is in the future for such a race as this is difficult to say ... It may be that, rising from their low estate, under the genial influence of freedom of good government, Gypsies and Wallachs may rise together to the enjoyment of a common citizenship in a free and prosperous country. It may be that this is the beginning of a movement which will gradually extend into other lands, until the great body of the Gypsies throughout the civilized world, subsiding gradually into a quiet and settled life, will at length become merged and lost in the mass of the common people. Let us hope at least, that so it may be (1898:505-506).