History of the Roma people

The Roma people, also referred to as the Roma or Gypsies, are an ethnic group who live primarily in Europe. They are believed to have originated in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent. They began their migration to Europe and North Africa via the Iranian plateau about 1,000 years ago. The reason for their diaspora remains an enigma.

Origin and diaspora

Both linguistic and genetic evidence indicate that the Roms originated on the Indian subcontinent. Turner postulates Roms' origins in central India before migrating ca. 250 B.C. to the Punjab region where they resided until beginning a massive exodus ca. 1000 A.D. While the first migration to the Punjab remains a postulate, dated linguistic phenomena sustain a departure from India at the beginning of the second millennium. Donald Kenrick notes the first recorded presence of Roma in Baghdad in 420 A.D., Khaneikin in 834 A.D.Donald Kenrick, "Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies (Romanies)," Second Edition, Scarecrow Press, 2007]

Contemporary scholars have suggested one of the first written references to the Roma, under the term "Atsingani", (derived from the Greek "atsinganoi"), dates from the Byzantine era during a time of famine in the 9th century. In the year 800 A.D., Saint Athanasia gave food to "foreigners called the Atsingani" near Thrace. Later, in 803 A.D., Theophanes the Confessor wrote that Emperor Nikephoros I had the help of the "Atsingani" to put down a riot with their "knowledge of magic". However, the Atsingani were a Manichean sect that disappeared from chronicles in the 11th century. "Atsinganoi" was used to refer to itinerant fortune tellers, ventriloquists and wizards who visited the Emperor Constantine IX in the year 1054. [ [http://www.kuviyam.com/scr/index.asp?pLang=E&pHead=90&pMenu=1&pIssue=31 Indian studies] ] The hagiographical text, "The Life of St. George the Anchorite," mentions that the "Atsingani" were called on by Constantine to help rid his forests of the wild animals which were killing off his livestock.


In 1322 a Franciscan monk named Simon Simeonis described people in likeness to the "atsingani" living in Crete and in 1350 Ludolphus of Sudheim mentioned a similar people with a unique language who he called "Mandapolos", a word which some theorize was possibly derived from the Greek word "mantes" (meaning prophet or fortune teller). [ [http://www.florilegium.org/files/CULTURES/Gypsies-msg.html Gypsy Culture] ]

Around 1360, an independent Roma fiefdom (called the "Feudum Acinganorum") was established in Corfu and became "a settled community and an important and established part of the economy." [ [ A Chronology of significant dates in Romani history] ]

By the 14th century, the Roma had reached the Balkans and Bohemia; by the 15th century, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal; and by the 16th century, Russia, Denmark, Scotland and Sweden.(although DNA evidence from mid 11th century skeletons in Norwich suggest that at least a few individuals may have arrived earlier, perhaps due to Viking enslavement of Roma from the eastern Mediterranean or liaisons with the Varangians [Pitts, M. (2006) DNA Surprise: Romani in England 440 years too early. "British Archaeology" 89 (July/August): 9] ). Some Roma migrated from Persia through North Africa, reaching Europe via Spain in the 15th century. The two currents met in France. Roma began immigrating to the United States in colonial times, with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana. Larger-scale immigration began in the 1860s, with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number immigrated in the early 1900s, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash. Many Roma also settled in Latin America.

According to historian Norman Davies, a 1378 law passed by the governor of Nauplion in the Greek Peloponnese confirming privileges for the "atstingani" is "the first documented record of Romany Gypsies in Europe." Similar documents, again representing the Roma as a group that had been exiled from Egypt, record them reaching Braşov, Transylvania in 1416; Hamburg, Holy Roman Empire in 1418; and Paris in 1427. A chronicler for a Parisian journal described them as dressed in a manner that the Parisians considered shabby, and reports that the Church had them leave town because they practiced palm-reading and fortune-telling. [cite book|title=|author=Norman Davies|id=ISBN 0-19-820171-0 |year=1996|pages=p. 387-388]

Their early history shows a mixed reception. Although 1385 marks the first recorded transaction for a Roma slave in Wallachia, they were issued safe conduct by Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire in 1417. Roma were ordered expelled from the Meissen region of Germany in 1416, Lucerne in 1471, Milan in 1493, France in 1504, Catalonia in 1512, Sweden in 1525, the Kingdom of England in 1530 (see Egyptians Act 1530), and Denmark in 1536. In 1510, any Roma found in Switzerland were ordered to be put to death, with similar rules established in England in 1554, and Denmark in 1589, whereas Portugal began deportations of Roma to its colonies in 1538.

Later, a 1596 English statute, however, gave Roma special privileges that other wanderers lacked; France passed a similar law in 1683. Catherine the Great of Russia declared the Roma "crown slaves" (a status superior to serfs), but also kept them out of certain parts of the capital. [cite book|title=|author=Norman Davies|id=ISBN 0-19-820171-0 |year=1996|pages=p. 387-388] In 1595, Ştefan Răzvan overcame his birth into slavery, and became the Voivode (Prince) of Moldavia.

In Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldova, Roma were enslaved for five centuries, until abolition in the mid-1800s.

In the late 1800s, the Roma culture inspired in their neighbors a wealth of artistic works. Among the most notable works are "Carmen" and "La Vie de Bohème". [cite book|title=|author=Norman Davies|id=ISBN 0-19-820171-0 |year=1996|pages=p. 387-388]


In 1758, Maria Theresa of the Austro-Hungarian Empire began a program of assimilation to turn Roma into "ujmagyar" (new Hungarians). The government built permanent huts to replace mobile tents, forbade travel, and forcefully removed children from their parents to be fostered by non-Roma. By 1894, the majority of Roma counted in a Hungarian national census were sedentary. In 1830, Roma children in Nordhausen were taken from their families to be fostered by Germans.

Russia also encouraged settlement of all nomads in 1783, and the Polish introduced a settlement law in 1791. Bulgaria and Serbia banned nomadism in the 1880s.

In 1783, racial legislation against Roma was repealed in the United Kingdom, and a specific "Turnpike Act" was established in 1822 to prevent nomads from camping on the roadside, strengthened in the Highways Act of 1835.

Pre-war organization

In 1879, a national meeting of Roma was held in the Hungarian town of Kisfalu (now Pordašinci, Slovenia). Roma in Bulgaria set up a conference in 1919 to protest for their right to vote, and a Romani journal, "Istiqbal" (Future) was founded in 1923.

In the Soviet Union, the All-Russian Union of Gypsies was organized in 1925 with a journal, "Romani Zorya" (Romani Dawn) beginning two years later. The "Romengiro Lav" (Romani Word) writer's circle encouraged works by authors like Nikolay Aleksandrovich Pankov and Nina Dudarova.

A General Association of the Gypsies of Romania was established in 1933 with a national conference, and two journals, "Neamul Tiganesc" (Gypsy Nation) and "Timpul" (Time). An "international" conference was organized in Bucharest the following year.

In Yugoslavia, Roma journal "Romano Lil" started publication in 1935.


During World War II, the Nazis murdered 200,000 to 800,000 Roma in an attempted genocide referred to as the "Porajmos". Like the Jews, they were sentenced to forced labour and imprisonment in concentration camps. They were often killed on sight, especially by the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front.

Post-war history

In Communist central and eastern Europe, Roma experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romany language and Romany music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of Roma from Slovakia, Hungary and Romania were re-settled in border areas of Czech lands and their nomadic lifestyle was forbidden. In Czechoslovakia, where they were labeled as a “socially degraded stratum,” Roma women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future social welfare payments, misinformation, and involuntary sterilization. [Silverman, Carol. “Persecution and Politicization: Roma (Gypsies) of Eastern Europe.” Cultural Survival Quarterly, Summer 1995. Helsinki Watch. Struggling for Ethnic Identity: Czechoslovakia’s Endangered Gypsies. New York, 1991.]

In the early 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of migrants to central and eastern Europe. Sixty percent of some 100,000 Romanian nationals deported under a 1992 treaty were Roma.

During the 1990s and early 2000s many Roma from central and eastern Europe attempted to migrate to western Europe or Canada. The majority of them were turned back. Several of these countries established strict visa requirements to prevent further migration.

In 2005, the Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched in nine Central and Southeastern European countries to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of the Roma minority across the region.

The Americas

Roma began immigrating to the United States in colonial times, with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana. Larger-scale immigration began in the 1860s, with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number immigrated in the early 1900s, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash. Many Roma also settled in other countries of the Americas.

Czech-Canadian Exodus

In August 1997, TV Nova, a popular television station in the Czech Republic, broadcast a documentary on the situation of Roma who'd emigrated to Canada. [http://romove.radio.cz/en/clanek/18857 The Roma Exodus to Canada] , romove.radio.cz] The short report portrayed Roma in Canada living comfortably with support from the state, and sheltered from racial discrimination and violence. [ [http://www.geocities.com/~patrin/canada.htm ERRC Statement Regarding Canada as Haven for Roma] , Patrin Web Journal, 17 April 1999] At the time, life was particularly difficult for many Roma living in the Czech Republic. As a result of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, many Roma were left without citizenship in either the Czech Republic or Slovakia. [http://www.cbc.ca/newsinreview/dec97/gypsies/index.html Gypsies in Canada: The Promised Land?] , CBC, December 1997] Following the large flood in Moravia in July, many Roma were left homeless yet unwelcome in other parts of the country.

Almost overnight, there were reports of Roma preparing to emigrate to Canada. According to one report, 5,000 Roma from the city of Ostrava intended to move. Mayors in some Czech towns encouraged the exodus, offering to help pay for flights so that Roma could leave. The following week, the Canadian Embassy in Prague was receiving hundreds of calls a day from Roma and flights between the Czech Republic and Canada were sold out until October. In 1997, 1285 people from the Czech Republic arrived in Canada and claimed refugee status, a rather significant jump from the 189 Czechs who did so the previous year.

Lucie Cermakova, a spokesperson at the Canadian Embassy in Prague, criticized the program, claiming it "presented only one side of the matter and picked out only nonsensical ideas." Marie Jurkovicova, a spokesperson for the Czech Embassy in Ottawa suggested that "the program was full of half-truths, which strongly distorted reality and practically invited the exodus of large groups of Czech Roma. It concealed a number of facts."

President Václav Havel and (after some hesitation) Prime Minister Václav Klaus attempted to convince the Roma not to leave. With the help of Roma leaders like Emil Scuka, Chairman of the Roma Civic Initiative, they urged Roma to remain in country and work to solve their problems with the larger Czech population.

The movement of Roma to Canada had been fairly easy because visa requirements for Czech citizens had been lifted by the Canadian government in April 1996. In response to the influx of Roma, the Canadian government reinstated the visa requirements for all Czechs as of October 8, 1997.

Roma Internationalism

The first World Romani Congress was organized in 1971 near London, funded in part by the World Council of Churches and the Government of India. It was attended by representatives from India and 20 other countries. At the congress, the green and blue flag from the 1933 conference, embellished with the red, sixteen-spoked chakra, was reaffirmed as the national emblem of the Roma people, and the anthem, "Gelem, Gelem" was adopted.

The International Romani Union was officially established in 1977, and in 1990, the fourth World Congress declared April 8 to be International Day of the Roma, a day to celebrate Roma culture and raise awareness of the issues facing the Roma community.

ee also

*Timeline of Roma history


* Turner, Ralph L. (1926) The Position of Romani in Indo-Aryan. In: Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society 3rd Ser. 5/4, pp. 145–188.
* Donald Kenrick (1993) "From India to the Mediterranean: the migration of the Gypsies." Paris: Gypsy Research Centre (University René Descartes).
* Will Guy (2001) "Between past and future: the Roma of Central and Eastern Europe." Hatfield, Hertfordshire, UK: University of Hertfordshire Press.
* Isabel Fonseca (1996) "Bury me standing: the Gypsies and their journey" New York: Vintage Books.
* Ian Hancock (1987) "The pariah syndrome: an account of gypsy slavery and persecution." Ann Arbor: Karoma Publishers.
* Deyan D. Kolev (2004) "Shaping modern identities: social and ethnic changes in Gypsy community in Bulgaria during the Communist period." Budapest: CEU Press.
* Michael Burleigh (1996) Confronting the Nazi past: new debates on modern German history." London: Collins & Brown.
* Guenter Lewy (2000) The Nazi persecution of the Gypsies. New York: Oxford University Press.


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