The Roma, or "Gypsies," entered south-eastern Europe
in the last quarter of the 13th Century, caught up in the Ottoman expansion
westwards. Originating in India as a composite, non-Aryan military population
assembled to resist the Muslim incursions led by the Ghaznavids, they left
through the Hindu Kush during the first quarter of the 11th Century, moving
through Persia, Armenia and the Byzantine Empire towards the West (Hancock,
Early accounts of the Romani presence in mediaeval Europe are scant,
but it appears that the first Roma in the Balkan principality of Wallachia
(now part of present-day Romania) arrived as free people, who found an
economic niche based upon the skills they had brought from India and the
Byzantine Empire - mainly metal-working, carpentry and entertaining. In
part because of the depleting effects of the Crusades in earlier centuries,
the Wallachian society first encountered by the Roma was technologically
backward and agriculturally-centered, but as this peasant economy gradually
shifted to a market-oriented one, it came to depend more and more upon
the artisan skills of the Roma (Gheorghe, 1983). The Romanian peasantry,
though not made slaves, themselves became enserfed with the changing economic
order (discussed by Inalcik, 1979, and Prodan, 1990).
Origins of Romanian Slavery
Roma, who had at first established a loose working
relationship with the feudal landlords, became associated with particular
estates and by the early1300s were being included in parcels of property
given by one owner to another and to the monasteries; the earliest documentation
refers to such tributes being made to monasteries before 1350 (Hancock,
1987:11-12), while Crowe argues for an even earlier date: "By the thirteenth
century, [Roma] began to be enslaved for a variety of economic, military,
social and possibly racial reasons" (1991:61). The condition of slavery
so defined, however, emerged later, out of the increasingly stringent measures
taken by the landowners, the court and the monasteries to prevent their
Romani labor force from leaving the principalities, as they were beginning
to do in response to the ever more burdensome demands upon their skills,
and from the shift of their "limited fiscal dependency upon the Romanian
princes" to an "unlimited personal dependency on the big landlords of the
country, the monasteries and the boyars" (Gheorghe, 1983:23). The Code
of Basil the Wolf of Moldavia, dated 1654, contained references to the
treatment of slaves, including the death penalty in the case of the rape
of a white woman by a Rom (the same offense committed by a non-Rom warranted
no punishment, according to the same Code).
Gheorghe (loc. cit.) saw the process of the enslavement of Roma
as an abuse committed by the feudal landlords, without any legal base or
legitimation; certainly their outsider status denied Roma any power to
resist, and qualified them for this status according to the Islamic world-view
of the occupying Ottomans, for whom dominated non-Muslim populations were
"fit only for enslavement" (Sugar, 1964:103). By the 1500s, the terms rob
and tsigan had become synonymous with "slave," although the latter
was originally a neutral ethnonym applied by the Europeans to the first
Roma. The fact that in 1995 tsigan was adopted by the Romanian government
as the official designation for Roma in that country has generated much
pain and anger, and is indicative of the ongoing racism against the Romani
minority in contemporary Romania (see Szente, 1996, and Zenk, 1991).
The word for "slave" was tsigan,
or scindrom; they were broadly divided into field slaves (tsigani
de ogor) and house slaves (tsigani de casali), the latter further
divided into two groups, (1) slaves of the Crown or state, namely those
of the noblemen (the sclavi domnesti), the court (sclavi curte)
and the householders (sclavi gospod), and (2) the slaves of the
Church (the sclavi monastivesti). The field slaves were likewise
divided into two groups, those of the boyars or land-barons, called the
coevesti, and those of the small landowners, the sclavi de mosii.
The slaves of the Crown had three principal occupations: goldwasher, bear-trainer
and spoon-maker. In addition, there were slaves known as laiesi who
were allowed to move about the estates doing a variety of jobs, including
those of musician, farrier, whitewasher, sieve-maker, blacksmith and coppersmith.
Slaves of the Church were grooms, cooks and coachmen; among the house slaves
were scopiti, males castrated so as not to present a threat to the
noblewoman whom they served.
Field slaves lived in satras or collections of reed and mud huts
on the outskirts of the estates, seldom visited by their owners. They were
not allowed to have musical instruments for their own amusement, and they
were bought and sold in lots, also called satras, cetas or
Groups of slaves remained under the supervision of a vatav (also
called a ciocoi) or overseer, who was sometimes brutally cruel;
and although it was forbidden by law to kill a slave, this was not an infrequent
House slaves were forbidden to speak Romani, and their descendants,
the Beyash (also Boyash or Bayash), today have a variety
of Romanian, a Latin-based language, rather than Romani, as their mother
tongue. Female house slaves were also provided to visitors for sexual entertainment
(Colson, 1839); the half-white children of such unions automatically became
In the 16th Century, a Romani child sold for the equivalent of 48¢.
By the 19th Century, slaves were sold by weight, at the rate of one gold
piece per pound. Treatment of the slaves included flogging, the falague
or shredding the soles of the feet with a whip, cutting off of the lips,
burning with lye, and wearing a three-cornered spiked iron collar called
a cangue. Slaves were able to escape periodically and take refuge
in maroon communities in the Carpathian mountains; these are called netoti
in the literature.
By 1800 the laws codified by Basil the Wolf in
1654 had been forgotten, and the treatment of the slaves had become a matter
of the whim of those in charge of the estates or the monasteries. The Ottoman
court attempted to make the laws more stringent, and in 1818 incorporated
into the Wallachian Penal code the following laws: §2 "Gypsies are
born slaves," §3 "Anyone born of a mother who is a slave, is also
a slave," §5 "Any owner has the right to sell or give away his slaves,"
and §6 "Any Gypsy without an owner is the property of the Prince."
But Ottoman rule was thwarted by a takeover by the Russians in 1826, and
Paul Kisseleff was appointed governor in 1829. He was firmly opposed to
slavery, but because of pressure from the boyars, among other things, he
did not abolish it. Instead in 1833 he incorporated stringent, conservative
revisions in the Moldavian civil code, including the following: §II(154)
"Legal unions cannot take place between free persons and slaves," §II(162)
"Marriage between slaves cannot take place without their owner's consent,"
§II(174) "The price of a slave must be fixed by the Tribunal, according
to his age, condition and profession," and §II(176) "If anyone has
taken a female slave as a concubine, she will become free after his death.
If he has had any children by her, they will also become free."
The Abolition of Romanian Slavery
By the middle of the 19th Century, economic and
social changes were beginning to affect the principalities. The efficiency
resulting from the mechanization introduced as a result the Industrial
Revolution, both in America and in south-eastern Europe, was making the
ownership, care and feeding of slaves a liability rather than an asset.
Movements calling for Abolition in the West, brought into Romania by students
returning from abroad, were a cause for self-examination. Moldavia and
Wallachia were keen to be regarded as a part of the new Europe, and took
France as its model; slavery was increasingly being seen as a barbaric
and inhumane anachronism. By the 1830s, calls for its abolition began to
be heard. The smaller landowners, however, were not able to afford mechanization,
and still relied on their slaves; they continued to oppose abolition vigorously.
In 1837, however, Governor Alexandru Ghica freed the slaves on the estates
under his jurisdiction, and allowed them to speak Romani and practice their
customs. But this was merely a drop in the bucket, since it affected only
a tiny fraction (perhaps one one-hundredth) of the overall slave population.
Nevertheless it stimulated similar actions on the part of others: Mihai
Sturdza freed his slaves in Moldavia in 1842, and in 1847 the Wallachian
church did likewise. On September 25th, 1848, students demonstrated publicly
in Bucharest and tore up a copy of the statutes relating to slavery. They
successfully replaced the government with a provisional party, which immediately
called for abolition, proclaiming that "The Romanian people reject the
inhuman and barbaric practice of owning slaves, and announce the immediate
freedom of all Gypsies who belong to individual owners." This freedom was
short-lived, for less than three months later the provisional government
was overthrown by the Russian-Turkish Convention, which promptly reinstituted
many of the old laws, including those legalizing the ownership of human
beings. It is likely that many of the slaves had remained unaware of their
brief emancipation; but for those who knew, their return to enslavement
must have been a terrible blow.
The new government appointed Alexandru Ghica and Barbu Stirbei to their
Council, where they served from 1849 to 1855. In that year, Ghica's cousin
Grigore was made Prince of Moldavia, and Stirbei was appointed Governor
of Wallachia. Grigore was a weak man, and while he claimed to deplore slavery,
he made no move to abolish it. He made a token show of sympathy by passing
a law forbidding children to be sold separately from their parents, but
it was the result of the repeated urgings of his eldest daughter Natalia
Balsch, and his advisor Edward Grenier, that he finally brought the matter
before the Moldavian General Assembly with the words "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."
The Assembly voted unanimously for abolition, and the bill was passed
on December 23rd, 1855. The Wallachian Assembly did likewise on February
8th the following year. Complete legal freedom came in 1864, however, when
Prince Ioan Couza, ruler of the now-united principalities, restored the
Roma to the estates they had worked on, not as slaves but as free people.
It is estimated that the number of slaves was about 600,000 at this time.
J.A. Vaillant, writing in 1857, dedicated his book to Alexandru and
Grigore Ghica with the words "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." However,
following abolition nothing was done to educate or reorient the freed slaves
and bring them into society; instead, it was their former owners who were
paid by the government for their loss. The centuries of dehumanization
have indelibly colored Romanian attitudes towards Roma, who today number
some three million in that country and who are subject to the most virulent
and growing racist aggression.
The Enslavement of Roma Elsewhere
While the enslavement of Roma in the Balkans is
the most extensively documented, Gypsies have also been enslaved at different
times in other parts of the world. In Renaissance England King Edward VI
passed a law stating that Gypsies be "branded with a V on their breast,
and then enslaved for two years," and if they escaped and were recaptured,
they were then branded with an S and made slaves for life. During the same
period in Spain, according to a decree issued in 1538, Gypsies were enslaved
for perpetuity to individuals as a punishment for escaping. Spain had already
begun shipping Gypsies to the Americas in the 15th century; three were
transported by Columbus to the Caribbean on his third voyage in 1498. Spain's
later solucion americans involved the shipping of Gypsy slaves to
its colony in 18th century Louisiana. An Afro-Gypsy community today lives
in St. Martin's Parish, and reportedly there is another one in central
Cuba, both descended from intermarriage between the two enslaved peoples.
In the 16th century, Portugal shipped Gypsies as an unwilling labor force
to its colonies in Maranhão (now Brazil), Angola and even India,
the Romas' country of origin which they had left five centuries earlier.
They were made Slaves of the Crown in 18th century Russia during the reign
of Catherine the Great, while in Scotland during the same period they were
employed "in a state of slavery" in the coal mines. England and Scotland
had shipped Roma to Virginia and the Caribbean as slaves during the 17th
and 18th centuries; John Moreton, in his West India Customs and Manners
(1793), describes seeing "many Gypsies (in Jamaica) subject from the age
of eleven to thirty to the prostitution and lust of overseers, book-keepers,
negroes, &c. (and) taken into keeping by gentlemen who paid exorbitant
hire for their use."
Alfaro, Antonio Gomez, 1982. "La polemica sobre la deportaci6n
de Jos gitanos a las colonias de América," Cuademos Hispanoamericanos,
Ascher, Abraham, Tibor Halasi-Kun & Béla Király,
eds., 1979. The Mutual Effect of the Islamic and Judeo-Christian Worlds:
The East-European Pattern. New York: Columbia University Press.
Beck, Sam, 1989. "The origins of Gypsy slavery in Romania,"
Colson, Félix, 1839. De 1'état présent
et de l'avenir des principautés de Moldavie et de Valachie.
Crowe, David, 1991. "The Gypsy historical experience in
Romania," in Crowe & Kolsti, eds., 61-79.
Crowe, David, & John Koisti, eds., The
Gypsies of Eastern Europe. Armonk: M.E.Sharpe, Inc.
Gheorghe, Nicolae, 1983. "The origin of Roma's slavery
in the Romanian principalities," Roma, 7(l):12-27.
Hancock, Ian, 1987. The
Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution. Ann
Arbor: Karoma Publishers.
Inalcik, H., 1979. "Servile labor in the Ottoman Empire,"
in Ascher, et al., eds., 25-52.
Moreton, J.B., 1793. West India Customs and Manners.
Prodan, David, 1990. "The origins of serfdom in Transylvania,"
Sugar, Peter F.,1964. Southeastern Europe Under Ottoman
Rule, 1354-1804. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Szente, Veronika L., 1996. Sudden rage at dawn: Violence
against Roma in Romania. European Roma Rights Center Country Reports
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