500 years of slavery. A stain on human history

Gypsy. An ethnic group or a social condition?


History books and lessons tend to overlook almost completely the history of Roma people and the discussion about the 500 years of slavery the community endured has only just begun. Where does the term “gypsy” come from and why is not the right word when we are talking about Roma people? How many people use it without knowing the history behind it?

The word Gypsy was taken from the Romanian Low Countries (Țările Române) in the 1300s and designated a social condition, of a slave, not an ethnic group.
Slaves were not perceived as human beings, but as objects traded between the masters in whose possession they were. They had no autonomy.
Initially, the Roma were slaves to the Romanian rulers because they needed cheap labour. Slaves at the court were divided into two categories, some were skilled in various crafts, such as blacksmithing, and others were cultural slaves, represented by minstrels and clowns.
The clowns operated according to strict rules and ridiculous dress and were always around the ruler, playing an important role in entertaining the master, his family and subordinates. Their duties were well defined, as were the jokes they could play.
In return for their work, lords were only obliged to clothe and feed their servants.
The social condition of slaves was pitiful. They could be beaten, sold or killed at the discretion of their masters. If a free person married a slave, he or she attracted the free one to the slave ranks, as well as the resulting children.
Depending on his own interest, the master could allow the slave the right to marry, including the right to annul the marriage without his knowledge and to break up the family.

If a slave killed another person’s slave, he was sentenced to death, but the sentence was not carried out, the one who killed taking the place of the one killed.
Among the groups of gypsy slaves, some were recruited to be appointed group leaders, also known as Juzi domnești. These judges were assigned to the counties and their main task was not to let any slave leave the county and to look for those who had run away and hand them over to their masters.
Those who fled were given the harshest of punishments, such as walking în the streets while the passers-by were encouraged to spit on them, hanging by ropes in the stables over animals or being tied up and thrown into the raging waters with the promise that if they survive, they will be freed. In  winter, they were thrown naked în the snow or frozen rivers.
Gypsy servants from the manor courts made up the staff of servants, seamstresses, maids and randais.
The utterly inhumane treatment of slaves was experienced in the gentry families from the earliest ages, with fathers encouraging their offspring to whip and torment the children on their property.
Physical violence against servants was not only carried out by men, but often even women in the gentry practised these cruel acts.
Young Roma girls were forced to have sexual relations with their masters.
However, according to Emmanuel Pons’ study From Robie to Asimiliare, after the ruler, the Romanian Orthodox Church owned the largest number of slaves. The servants of God provided this institution with the resources it needed to exist, building the monasteries Romania is proud of today. In the Romanian archives of all times, the 6th chronological document refers to a donation of slaves, a document that attests for the first time the existence of Roma in Romania in 1385.
In 1388, Cozia Monastery received three hundred villages of gypsies from the ruler Mircea the Elder.
About 500 years later, in 1855, Grigore Alexandru Ghica, the ruler of Romanian Country, impressed by a tragic love story between a slave and a French girl, drafted a bill that provided for the release of all Roma slaves.
The official end of slavery came in 1856 and a few years later, in 1891, Mihail Kogălniceanu gave a speech at the Romanian Academy entitled “The destitution of the Gypsies, the removal of the Bohemian privileges, the emancipation of the peasants”.

If some of us still view this sad historical period with skepticism, the following quote from the speech strongly supports it.
“[…] in my youth I saw human beings wearing chains on their hands or feet, some even iron horns ringed round their foreheads and tied by columns around their necks. Cruel beatings, starvation and smoking, imprisonment in private prisons, thrown naked into the snow or into frozen rivers, this was the fate of the wretched gypsies![…] Before the question of the deportation of the gypsies had entered the councils, the reform plans of the landlords, it began to stir up by the partial initiative of the gypsy masters themselves. Many of them […] disowned and forgave their gypsies. I use the word forgiveness, which we find in all acts of disobedience; but the reform was too difficult, it offended too many interests to be carried out with ease.” (Mihail Kogălniceanu)
At the time of the disenfranchisement, the slave owners received a compensation of ten galleons for each gypsy.
Seeing themselves free, many Roma left the country for neighbouring countries, while others were “thrown” to the fringes of Romanian society.
Uneducated and deprived of any material possessions, they continued to suffer discrimination, culminating in their deportation to extermination camps in Transnistria during the Second World War by order of Ion Antonescu.
In conclusion, for centuries Roma slaves were a source of income for the Romanian Orthodox Church, landlords and rulers.

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