The So-Called “Gypsies”
Although there’s no such thing as a curse of the Gypsies, there does seem to be a curse on the Gypsies, so to speak. However, before I go any further, it must be understood that the term “Gypsy” is a pejorative exonym, with connotations of illegality and irregularity. In contrast to this, many of those who are part of the race of refugees often refer to themselves by the generic name, “Roma”, meaning “men”. With that being said, the Roma are genetically descended from ancient Indians, who initially lived in the Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab regions of the subcontinent. Therefore, they have Indo-Aryan roots and heritage. More importantly, the Roma were lured into war with the offer of social elevation if they participated in frontline battles. This is why the core words in the Sanskrit-based Romani language contain a large military vocabulary. The problem is that the Rajput warriors always saw the Roma as “untouchables” at the very bottom of the caste system. So the Rajput didn’t really see the Roma as people. Since the Roma were constantly ridiculed and made to do demeaning tasks, they decided to flee northwestern India in the early 6th century, due to the suffering brought on by caste-based oppression.
Since the race of refugees left India to become a culture without a country, the Roma have never actually identified themselves with a specific territory, nor do they claim the right to national sovereignty in any of the lands where they reside. Instead, the wandering Roma consists of genetically isolated founder populations across the globe, with their own ethnicity, but no nationality, in the conventional sense of lines on a map. As a result of this, there are socially divergent and geographically dispersed Roma groups throughout the world. Thus, the Romani people identify as distinct ethnicities based in part on territorial, cultural, and dialectal differences, as well as self-designation. To make it all happen, the freedom-seeking family-based nomads left India in repeated migrations, during a great diaspora. Beginning in the 11th century, the Roma spent several generations with the Persians learning how to farm, and then later with the Byzantines learning metalcraft. To briefly sum up their epic caravan journey, the Roma left India and headed straight for the coast of the Caspian, pushed across the foothills of the Caucus Mountains, on to the north coast of the Greek Byzantine Empire, and then on toward Europe.
The Roma had made it into southeastern Europe by the beginning of the 14th century, and into western Europe by the 15th century. In late medieval times, the Roma were mistaken for Egyptians, hence the misnomer “Gypsies”. Plus, not wanting to be tied to their past, the Roma didn’t deny being Egyptian, which just complicated things even further. To make matters worse, Romaphobia and antiziganism soon became widespread throughout Europe. This became a big problem in the 16th century when racist laws against the Roma began to be passed. In 1538, the first anti-Romani legislation was issued in Moravia and Bohemia. Three years later, after a series of fires in Prague that were blamed on the Roma, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I ordered the Roma to be expelled. In 1545, the Diet of Augsburg declared that “whoever kills a Gypsy, will be guilty of no murder”. Several years later, the so-called Egyptians Act of 1554, ordered the Roma to leave England within a month. All non-compliant Roma were executed. Since this was happening, the Roma people began moving to and being moved to North America in colonial times, bringing their oral tradition with them. Of course, even here in America, a veil of mystery still enshrouded their tight-knit communities.
Still, things just kept getting worse for the Roma in 16th and 17th century Europe. In 1660, the Roma were prohibited from residing in France by King Louis XIV. In 1685, Portugal deported Roma to Brasil. In 1710, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph I issued a decree declaring the extermination of the Roma. He ordered that “all adult males were to be hanged without trial, whereas women and young males were to be flogged and banished forever.” In addition to this, they were to have their right ears cut off in the kingdom of Bohemia and their left ear in Moravia. Permanently disfiguring them as pariahs. In 1721, Emperor Charles VI amended the decree to include the execution of adult female Roma, while children were “to be put in hospitals for education”. Unfortunately, ethnic cleansing was becoming quite prevalent in Europe, and the “Gypsies” became scapegoats for nearly everything, living on the margins of society, persecuted, hunted, enslaved, and more often than not, just executed on sight. Tragically, when a Rom dies, he and his euthanized horse and his wagon cart are all burned together. Then, his family and friends work for a year to put him to rest, hoping that he will be able to cross over in peace. So, death puts a lot of stress on the community, to say the least.
The Roma have a rich culture, including non-rhythmical melismatic music, which I’m listening to as I write this. They have amazing dancers too. This rather provocative display of sights and sounds was simply more than the 18th-century aristocrats could handle. So, in 1758, Maria Theresa of Austria began a program of assimilation to turn Romanies into “new Hungarians”. The government built permanent huts to replace tents, forbade travel, and forcefully removed children from their parents to be fostered. Russia also encouraged settlement of all nomads in 1783, and the Polish introduced a settlement law in 1791. In the UK in 1882, a specific “Turnpike Act” was established to prevent nomads from camping on the roadside. All of these things disproportionately affected the Roma in particular. So, during the late 1800s up to the turn of the century, the Roma fled to the US, settling in New York and California. As if that wasn’t bad enough, in the 20th century, during WWII, the Nazis murdered half a million Roma. The Romani Holocaust was a horrendous effort by Nazi Germany and its WWII allies to commit genocide against Europe’s Romani people, from 1935 to 1945. Like the Jews, “Gypsies” were segregated into ghettos, and then sent to concentration camps or even extermination camps. On August 1st of 1944, in just one day, 4,000 Roma were gassed in Auschwitz. In only one decade, the Nazis killed 500,000 Roma, just because they were “Gypsies”. So, about 25% of European Roma perished in the tragedy.
Nonetheless, by the second half of the 20th century, the Roma had migrated to every inhabited continent, establishing themselves everywhere they could. However, during the late 20th century and early 21st century, more Roma from central and eastern Europe attempted to migrate to western Europe or Canada, but the majority of Roma people were turned back. Several of these countries have even established strict visa requirements to prevent further migration. This is important because the Roma are Europe’s largest minority, with as many as 12 million stateless Roma roaming across the continent. Since the marginalized group is still nomadic, they often build illegal camps. Fortunately, the 1st World Romani Congress was organized in 1971. The international event was attended by representatives from India and 20 other countries. Then, in 1979, Roma became a member of the UN, giving the people of many places a place at the table. Finally, in the year 2000, the 5th World Romany Congress issued an official declaration of the Roma non-territorial nation. In line with this, the UN Human Rights Office, which chairs the UN Regional Working Group on Roma, is working in a number of different countries to strengthen the effective exercise of human rights by Roma all around the world and, if all goes well, they will do so long into the future.