It's Time Historians Get Past the Stereotype of Romani Peoples and Write Them into History

tags: Romani peoples

Becky Taylor is a lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London and the author of ‘Another Darkness, Another Dawn’: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (2014).

In Europe, never far from the front papers when outrage is called for, Romani peoples are back in the news: the British Daily Mail has published an article claiming that a Bulgarian Roma woman has schooled ‘hundreds of children’ in the art of pickpocketing; government promises to clamp down on ‘welfare tourism’ in the wake of the dropping of border controls from Bulgaria and Romania have been explicitly linked to expected ‘invasions’ of Roma. Once again, it seems, society’s wider insecurities about social change have found a scapegoat in Europe’s most marginalized and vilified minority. This is nothing new: in 2014 scaremongering about Bulgarian Roma may be a way of expressing deep seated fears over migration, the expansion of Europe and the lack of a democratic voice; in early modern Europe repression targeting ‘Egyptians’ and ‘counterfeit Egyptians’ was means for regimes trying to control the rapid rise in vagrancy and the social uncertainty caused by wars and religious upheavals. In the United States ‘Gypsies’ are often seen in less immediate and more exotic terms, they remain little understood as an ethnic group, largely invisible yet still targeted by law enforcement agencies who retain stereotypes of Romani as thieves or confidence tricksters.

Whether vilified as in Europe or unseen as in America, Romani peoples are rarely seen as having a place in a country, either geographically or socially. Part of their marginalization stems from the fact that they are excluded from mainstream histories. And yet at the same time they are rarely granted a separate history, but rather seen to exist in a timeless bubble, unchanged and untouched by modern life. If some Roma or Gypsies are seen as deviant, thieving and untrustworthy still others – often existing only in the realm of story books and imagination – are depicted as living a timeless life of constant nomadism; innately exotic, musical, most likely living in bow-topped caravan, ‘here today, gone tomorrow,’ untouched by the cares of modern life.

My recent book, Another Darkness, Another Dawn: A History of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (Reaktion, 2014) is an attempt to move beyond such stereotyping and to write not only a history of peoples most often known as Gypsies, but also to write their history into the mainstream. Understanding their history means tracking the gradual migration of peoples whose descendants became Romani, from India across the Persian empire and into Europe via Byzantium, and then across the Atlantic to the Americas. Writing this history also means throwing out stereotypes and instead reflecting on the vast array of ways in which they have lived: while some groups may have been perpetually nomadic, large numbers – across history and place – often travelled for the summer and settled in the winter; still others settled permanently in particular villages or parts of towns.

Writing this history was to take in the founding and contraction of empires, wars, the expansion of law and order and of states, the Enlightenment and the increasing regulation of the world - it is as much a history of ‘ourselves’ as it is a history of ‘others.’ So long positioned as outsiders, in fact genetic mapping as much as the genealogies constructed by the nineteenth century German police, show the extent to which, whether settled or mobile, Romani peoples’ heritages have long been as intimately bound to mainstream populations as they are to an original Indian ancestry. Evidence from the Venetian as well as Ottoman empires shows how they rapidly became integrated into their social, feudal and military systems. And indeed, that the Ottoman empire was quite capable of managing nomadism and taxing nomads is revealing of the paucity of imagination of modern bureaucratic states with their insistence on a fixed address as a key indicator of citizenship.

Central to Romani experiences has been their ability to find gaps and spaces in which they might continue to exist and even sometimes to thrive. Their economic activities often filled niches which settled communities were unable to fulfil; and their resilience and willingness to live on the margins has enabled them to survive waves of repression. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Spanish and Portguese Gitanos were expelled from the Iberian peninsula and were to be ‘scattered through the separate conquests of Indis, Angola, São Thomé, Ilha do Principe, Benguela and Cabo Verde, Ceara, and Marahão.’ Although in the context of early modern society banishment, particularly of an entire peoples, was an extreme form of punishment, yet once in the ‘New World’ they were able to take advantage of the more fluid nature of migrant societies. Rather than being controlled by colonial administrators, they instead were able to exploit economic niches, choosing sometimes to hide their identities, opting in others to retain it. They became middle men in the slave trade in Brazil; some were able to make their fortunes and become part of the emerging urban classes; others, benefiting from the absence of state control, continued a nomadic trading lifestyle.

When in the 1860s profound political changes in the Balkans spurred mass emigration from the region, leading to one of the largest migrations of the modern period, Romani dispersed. This migration profoundly altered the distribution of Romani across the globe. Once again, while some used this new found freedom to hide a Romani identity, others continued peddling, hawking, finding work as musicians, or engaging with horse trading and other dealing activities. Demonstrating how they were able to combine traditional ways of making a living with new opportunities, those who did fortune telling used ‘modern methods of advertising.'1 As with other events in Romani history, we can only understand such developments if we look at Roma as part of wider historical trends, and not isolated from them.

If exploring the history of Romani peoples was a way of holding up a mirror to the societies in which they have lived, it was also a salutatory lesson that it's naive to believe in a progressive view of history: things don’t always get better, especially if you belong to a stigmatized ethnic group. But neither were the times always as simple as they at first appeared. Carrying out the research for this book showed how the enslavement of Gypsies coexisted under the Ottomans with remarkable cultural diversity and autonomy; how branding, mutilations and ‘gypsy hunts’ occurred at the same time that Gypsies established themselves across Europe and the Americas; and how despite developments in education and attitudes toward minorities across modern Europe and the U.S. has failed to bring anything like active acceptance of the place of Romani peoples within its societies.

It is time for historians to write Romani history into the mainstream, and this means paying close attention to the often difficult and ambiguous ways in which broader historical trends affect marginalized populations. It is no accident that the book takes its name from the words of Ilona Lacková, a Slovakian Roma and Auschwitz survivor: “It’s the end of the war, we’ve survived. After darkness comes the dawn. But after every dawn also comes the darkness. Who knows what’s in store for us.”

1I. Brown, ‘The Gypsies in America’, JGLS, Third Series (1929) 8:4, 145-176, 148.

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