Gypsy Persecution: From 12th Century Balkans to Conservative Britain

The history of the Roma (or Gypsies) is the history of persecution. From the earliest records they have been considered foreigners and outcasts in the lands in which they have travelled. Hundreds of years of propaganda against them have led to vast misconceptions about their culture and heritage . It has been said that despite there being thousands of books on them, only a handful contain any truth. Often considered the underclass in society, the Roma population have often lacked the same rights and access to essential services and so have lived shorter and less substantial lives, even in modern Britain.

The Roma, a nomadic folk, are originally come from Northern India. Their true beginning is lost in myths and legends. Some say that they are descended from an ancient warrior caste, others that they were a gift of musicians sent to the king of Persia. Whatever their beginnings it is clear that they left India sometime after the 5th century and headed towards Europe.

Coming to Europe in the 12th century the Roma began to face their first documented persecution in the Balkans. Their flamboyant ways and traditions, and their refusal to succumb to forced integration led to all the Roma in the region being enslaved. They were used as house slaves, field workers and slaves to the Church. At this time they were considered below the law and therefore were treated in any way their masters wanted. Abuse, rape and murder were common, and there were severe punishments for slaves that ran away or tried to rebel. It was also common for selective breeding to take place in order to produce stronger slave stock.

In the 14th century came the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. As it began its march into the West so the Gypsies faced more persecution. The White peoples of Europe considered them to be Muslim spies because of their strange colour, culture and language. They became an easy target on which the Europeans could enact vengeance. Stereotypes of them being thieves and devil-worshippers became prevalent and were used in sanctioning their persecution. So much so that many fairy-tales from that time contain 'evil-gypsies'

As the Roma spread, so too did their persecution. In 17th Century Bohemia: King Leopold I, Emperor of The Holy Roman Empire, ordered the killing of all Roma males and the mutilating of all the woman in the form of cutting off their ears. At the same time in France it became illegal to be a Gypsy, punishable by forced labour. In most other European countries, including Britain, it became common practice to deport them to America, something to which a lot of American Gypsies trace their roots. Throughout this time it is thought that nearly half of all gypsies were enslaved at some point.

During the rise of Nazism the Roma people were once again to face persecution in the form of the Holocaust. After the Balkan Roma slaves were freed in 1860 a new wave of Gypsies spread across Europe and America looking for work and their numbers had begun to grow again. This was at odds with Nazi idealism and so the systematic extermination of them began. Over 500,000 Roma were killed during the Holocaust; in gas chambers, scientific experiments and other forms of cruelty.

Even today the Roma face misunderstanding and mistrust that often comes forth as racism. Over 6 million Gypsies live in Europe, most in former Soviet countries or in small groups around the Mediterranean. They nearly always find themselves at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Poverty is rife among them, unemployment rates are exceptionally high and life expectancy is exceptionally low. In Hungary and the Czech-Republic, racism against Gypsies is common, with 'White Only' restaurants and schools, and although the situation is improving there is still a lot to be done.

Though to a lesser extent, the same problem exists here in Britain. Gypsies (or Travellers) have a well below average life expectancy, have worse access to schools and medicine and are significantly more likely to develop mental illness. As well as these factors they still face a racism that stems from a continued misunderstanding of their culture. Many small towns are opposed to Gypsy camps being allowed to set up near them and often use the same reasoning that has been the basis for their persecution throughout history. It doesn't help when the Conservative party (now in government) do everything they can to stop the creation of new Traveller camps, and when its members have been accused of racism towards the Gypsy Community.

It is amazing that, despite nearly a millennium of persecution, slavery and extermination, this vibrant and colourful people have held onto their identity. Many of their customs are hundreds of years old and the legends that surround them are both fantastic and wonderful. Modern Gypsies hold on to these traditions, but the tradition of their exclusion and mistrust should be consigned to the annals of history. We can only do this by not letting their proposed areas of land be cut, as has happened recently when Boris Johnson cut the proposed sites from over 800 to just 238. The new Conservative government also plans to take away the ‘Regional Spatial Strategies’ that, among other things, force local councils into setting aside areas of land for Traveller communities. In a modern society, where equality is so championed, surely the time is long overdue for embracing these people rather than pushing them further into to the fringes of society.

I wrote this piece after studying the Gypsies for a recent blog-post on the government rescinding the 'regional spatial strategies' (found here)I was horrified at the information I found and, unable to fit it all into a single post decided to submit it here. Thanks for reading.


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Thank you for writing this excellent article. I have been fascinated by the Roma people since I was fifteen (a great book to read is, Bury Me Standing). In recent years I have had the fortune to travel to Transylvania, Hungary and the Czech Republic were I witnessed discrimination against them first hand.

It seems like it is one of the last acceptable forms of racism. So far I have only found a handful of people who don't hate gypsies. I recently started a new job the other week and spontaneously in the middle of training we got on the topic of gypsies in general and the usual tired stereotypes were dragged out.

It saddens me that people can be so cruel and narrow minded.

Thanks again for writing this.

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