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A History of the Romani People

Photograph captioned 'Hungarian Gypsies all of whom were deported' in the New York Times, Sunday, February 12, 1905

Photograph captioned 'Hungarian Gypsies all of whom were deported' in the New York Times, Sunday, February 12, 1905 (View larger version)

Photograph courtesy of the New York Public Library

By Patrick J. Kiger

Published

According to scholar Ian Hancock, there are about 12 million people worldwide who belong to the ethnic group known as the Romani, more commonly known to outsiders as Gypsies. Most Romani—about eight to 10 million of them--live in Europe, where they are that continent’s biggest minority; in some countries, such as Bulgaria and Romania, they amount to as much as 12 percent of the total population. In addition, there are Romani scattered across Asia, Africa, North and South America and Australia as well.

But while the Romani are numerous, their precise origins have long been mysterious. When the Romani showed up in medieval Europe 700 years ago, their dark skin led some Europeans of the time to assume they were Turks or Egyptians; in Russia and Romania, they were referred to as “pharoah’s people.” By one legend, they are descendants of 12,000 musicians who were given as a gift to Bahram Gur, the ruler of Persia, in the Fifth Century AD. As the story goes, after just a year, Bahram Gur grew tired of his entertainers and sent them away, on a journey that eventually led to the far corners of the Earth. Other, even more fantastic explanations have portrayed the Romani as descendants of survivors of the lost city of Atlantis. Some even have imagined them as the heirs of a prehistoric race of nomadic horsemen that spawned other peoples such as the Bedouin, the Basques and the Native Americans.

As Hancock details in his 2002 book “We Are the Romani People,” however, linguistic detective work, historical events and in recent years a growing body of genetic evidence point to India as the Romani people’s ancestral homeland. The grammar and vocabulary of the Romani language both bear similarities to languages spoken in the Indian subcontinent around 1,000 AD, which suggests that Romani ancestors once lived there but left roughly around the time that a Muslim army (known as the Ghaznavids) invaded India in an effort to spread the Islamic faith. Romani ancestors may have been taken away as slaves or unwilling conscripts to the Muslim forces, or they may have fled as refugees.

Either way, according to Romani historian David Crowe, by the 1100s, eastern European historical documents bore references to a new group of immigrants, who worked as skilled metal craftsman, musicians, and soldiers. Some eastern Europeans initially saw the Romani as useful new residents. Within a couple of centuries, however, the Romani people were in a far more dire situation, most especially in the Balkans. Laws were passed barring Romani from marrying spouses from other groups, and many Romani were seized and forced into slavery, a practice that persisted for five hundred years into the mid-1800s.

Those Romani fortunate enough at least to remain free became persecuted outcasts, excluded from European society and forced to remain on the move. According to historian James Minahan, author of “One Europe, Many Nations: A Historical Dictionary of European National Groups,” Romani were subject to many of the same sort of restrictions and penalties exacted against the Jews, another hated group. And like the Jews, the Romani were accused falsely of a litany of heinous crimes, ranging from involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus to child-stealing and cannibalism. Despite obvious links between the Romani language and India, some even argued that that the Romani were not really a separate ethnic group, but merely an amalgam of criminals and lowlifes from mainstream European society who darkened their faces with clay or berry juice to appear different. In some ways, the ultimate culmination of that anti-Romani hatred came during World War II, when the Nazis decided to exterminate the Romani people altogether. When the war ended in 1945, an estimated two million Romani had perished, including 500,000 who had been sent to the Nazi death camps.

While the Romani people proved resilient enough to survive even the horrors inflicted by Hitler, in postwar Europe they still faced exclusion, prejudice and poverty. In an article on the World Bank’s website, former World Bank president Sir James David Wolfensohn and philanthropist George Soros note that European Romani often are forced to subsist in ramshackle settlements, and are denied employment and hospital treatment because of their ethnicity. Romani children even have been forced to attend schools for disabled children, even when they have no mental or physical disabilities. The average European Romani lifespan is 10 to 15 years below that of other Europeans.

But there is room for optimism about the Romani people’s future. The United Nations, the European Commission, and other international organizations have begun pressuring countries to end their exclusionary policies and to give the Romani people an opportunity to participate more fully in society. In addition, European Romani have formed organizations such as the Roma National Congress to represent their interests and press for change.

16 comments
Bia Bia
Bia Bia

WHY GYPSIES ,  IN BRAZIL ARE ALWAYS  BE  CONNECTED /  ASSOCIATED WITH AN AFRICAN RELIGION

EX- GYPSIES = POMBA GIRA

FOR MONNEY?

Samantha Gurd
Samantha Gurd

I find this page very interesting, but cannot Join due to not living in America! :(.. My mother has always told me that in my blood is Romany Gypsy, but I do not know for sure, and maybe will never know for sure as her father is dead and she did not know him very well, goes mainly by what she was told. We know for a fact he was a traveler, worked on a fairground, had darker skin than myself and my mother, (hers is slightly darker than mine) and his name was Thomas Kislingbury. I would love to try and do some of my own research, or get in contact with people who may be able to help me find out. I tried to get in further contact with the person on this site under the name of American Gypsy but I was not allowed due to not being a member :( can this person please get in touch with me, thank you, Sam :)

T Morris
T Morris

I learned about this show for the first time today. I own a shop called The Gypsy Wagon. It is a upscale gift and clothing store in Texas. I have owned it for 6 years. Today a man came into my store and demanded to speak to the owner. I introduced myself and he expressed to me that the name of my store was extremely offensive to him and his people. He was angry and adamant that I do not have the right to "capitalize" on a name that hurts people. He suggested that I might as well call my store "The (n-word) Wagon" because it is just as offensive as calling it "The Gypsy Wagon".


We have a large customer base of a diverse set of people, and nobody has ever mentioned that the name of my store was racist or degrading to anyone. And, of course, I did not know that it was offensive to anyone until now. I am sensitive to this fact and and hoping that I can get some feedback. 


Is it possible that this word can be acceptable in the context that I am using it?  I am not intending to call anyone names, nor using it in a degrading way. To me the word "gypsy" refers to a nomadic spirit. I do not use it in reference to the Romani people.  A "gypsy wagon" refers to a literal trailer that carries goods and people from place to place. It is mysterious, playful, and bohemian reference. Our customers respond to the word positively and lovingly. I have many vendors from across the country that use the word "gypsy" the same way that I do. Am I totally oblivious, or is this usage of the word acceptable in American culture?


I am interested in hearing people's opinions on this. 





Ann Scott
Ann Scott

I am curious about the practice of selling or buying children as apparently happened with the little blond girl was found in Greece.  I read a report that she is a Roma child whose mother sold her to the couple in Greece because she didn't have enough money to get back to Bulgaria.  As a little girl in Texas, I heard about "Gypsies" stealing or buying children. Info about Roma culture and children will be appreciated.

Christa Hawks
Christa Hawks

my bapo taught me that we are desedents of pharoah we are from the egyptions who did not enter the red sea after the isrealites..

Bia Bia
Bia Bia

????????????????????????????????????????

Joe Rotheray
Joe Rotheray

@T Morris The complainant was overstepping the line. Unfortunately an individual's actions are governed by his or her perceptions and beliefs, and if those are out of kilter we have a problem.


American Gypsy
American Gypsy

Not true about my people in America.they don't steal or buy children,we are very proud of who we are. we are falsely accused of many many things from the guyshay (non gypsy). We are happy with our culture and our ways of life. Sine the half of the decade,we are born again Christians. And we stick to our Romanian families. We know who we are. But not many who call themselves gypsy are blood related. They are many impostors who call them self gypsy travelers. God gave us a gift to know the second we see our own kind, even if we never seen them before ,that they are Romanian gypsy. The only thing that hurts us as gypsies today,Is our children are losing our language and culture due to social technology. And you can never understand us to know our ways you have to be born into it. But thank you for being interested.

Ado Bishop
Ado Bishop

@Christa Hawks Bapo must mean father, the Hindi word for father is Bapoo. The rest of romani language is also similar to Hindi. I can safely assume you are descended from Hindus.

Rosemary Weaver
Rosemary Weaver

@American Gypsy All Romani are not Romanian and all Romanian are not Romani there Romani all over the world.  We come from Northern India over 1000 years ago.  I was just wondering if you are Romani or Romanian.  Just curious.

Rosemary Weaver
Rosemary Weaver

@American Gypsy Why do you say that you are Romanian?  All Romani are not Romanian, there are Romani in Romania but they are also Romani all over the world.  They migrated from Northern India over 1000 years ago.

Samantha Gurd
Samantha Gurd

@American Gypsy Please get in touch with me, I would be very interested to know your opinion, thoughts on my photos/pictures of myself, due to you saying you believe that god gave you the gift to know when you see your own kind. I need to know in my heart and soul if I have Gypsy blood.. I am left confused with no real answers, Just wanted an opinion from someone who may possibly know in their heart, thanks :)

Brandon O.
Brandon O.

@Ado Bishop@Christa HawksI'm an expat living in Romania, where there is a huge Romani population (~ 7%). Here they like to claim that they are descendants of Romulus and Remus. Wherever they go, they claim to be lost royalty of the richest nation near them. I'm amazed the few in America don't claim to be descendants of Mayan gods.

Samantha Gurd
Samantha Gurd

@American Gypsy Baring in mind that if I do have Gypsy blood, it is only a quarter sadly, my grandad would have been 100% Gypsy if the stories I am told are true x

Andersson Silvia
Andersson Silvia

@Brandon O. @Ado Bishop @Christa Hawks  Hi I am Romanian and I am sadly aware of the idiotic pride Romanians bare, in their majority. I am also sad to find that Romani have suffered so much and I am now making an effort to try to get to know better your culture.