Five hundred years a slave

We don’t need to look further than Australian discourses about parasitical migrants arriving by boat to see how arguments of the past are played out again and again. In the Australian example, successive governments have repressed the truth about who actually did steal the country after turning up by sea. In the official narrative, the bad guys remain those who are not white – be they Indigenous land owners or asylum seekers.

While the wealth of the colonies funded Europe over hundreds of years, cruelty and slavery were not new to the colonial bureaucrats and masters. But, if colonial societies have become discursive contortionists to appear to break with the bloody past, justification for violence against Romani people in Europe – from legislative and socio-economic exclusion to physical attacks – simply builds on the pre-modern discourses of enslavement.

Romani people are still largely referred to by the names they were given as slaves and outcasts five hundred years ago; they are still stereotyped as dark skinned and uncivilised invaders from the East rather than as citizens of European Union states; physical violence against Roma as a specific ethnic group is not only under-prosecuted but often actually perpetrated by state institutions.

Romani people first appeared in what is now Greece in the ninth century CE, when they were known as Atsingani. This name was associated with non-Christian foreigners in the Byzantine empire. The gradual travel of people called by variations of the word Atsingani, (Țigani in Romania, Cigany in Hungarian, Zigeuner in German, Zingari in Spanish), can be followed west across the European continent.

Between 1385 and 1848, every Romani person who entered Wallachia and Moldova, now the southern and northern parts of Romania, became a slave of the state, who could be bought and sold by the clergy or private landowners. All slaves were known as Țigani, and no Romani person could be free. Țigan was synonymous with ‘slave’, and slave children and families could be separated for sale at any time – they were not citizens. Any free man could rape any slave woman, and if a slave was ‘damaged’ through sex or physical violence, the offender had to pay compensation only to the owner – any child born of a slave belonged to the slave master.

The first Romanian statesmen argued for manumission of the 250,000 slaves. With great ceremony, Țigani slaves were freed in 1848 – to be (still) known as Țigani and to continue living in shacks on the landowners’ estates and working for their board.

Those Roma who migrated West and avoided Wallachia were given safe passage in 1417 within the Holy Roman Empire.  Already aware of the power of papers, many Romani leaders drew up documents announcing that they were from Egypt. That was why in England, they were known as Egyptians – and later by the G-word (‘Gypsy’), which remains pejorative to many.

Romani peoples were socio-economically important travelling tradesmen in the medieval communities across Europe. They worked as horse traders, metalworkers, builders, and, most notoriously, as fortune-tellers.

Governments attempted to control and limit the presence of Roma, alternately legislating their movement and expelling them entirely. In England, for example, ‘Egyptians’ arrived in 1514, were expelled in the Egyptians Act of 1530, were allowed back in 1540, were deported en masse to Norway in 1544, and so on.  At various stages, Romani people were branded with a G on their forehead – surely the most explicit sign that, if Roma were to be allowed to exist in England, it would only be under the physical control of those who pejoratively named them. During the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of Romani people across Europe were deported to concentration camps and murdered under the names Zigeuner/Cigany/Țigan alongside those of their countrymen who were named Jews.

The refusal of Europeans to refer to Romani people by the names they call themselves continues. The EU today does not force the Italian, Czech, Romanian, Hungarian or French governments (to name a few) to prosecute or prevent violent crimes against Romani communities. On the contrary, the governments themselves continue to demolish Romani slums (without providing alternate accommodation) and deport EU citizens because they are Roma.  As Nando Sigona has highlighted, teachers and doctors are now also used to monitor the movements of European Roma in the UK for the purposes of racialised border control.  Valeriu Nicolae, who has worked for over a decade with the European Commission on ‘Roma integration’ projects, also writes what everyone knows: the money is not spent on Romani communities in need; the laws are not used to punish violent anti-Roma policies. The money is spent for white bureaucrats to discuss ‘the Roma problem’ in conferences held at five star hotels. Romani people continue to provide black market labour, especially illegal underage sexual labour, in the European Union.

The diaries of Romani slave owners in the eighteenth century read very similarly to the speeches of politicians in the European Union about Romani people today. The slaves (today, the Roma) are the problem. They don’t want to work. Sure, they are poor, they are hungry, they have no homes (clothes, passports, identity cards) but they refuse to behave.

Romani slaves were accused of wandering away from their masters, of being irrationally unable to live separate from their children and partners who were sold to another master.  Today, Roma people are a problem because they travel across borders within the European Union to join family members working where they can.

Slaves needed constant education about the civilised world: how to work until the clock said it was time to rest, how to not upset the master if he spoke to them.  Today, Roma people need education about ‘European values’ – despite the fact that it is the staff in hospitals across Europe who refuse to issue the paperwork for birth certificates for children to prevent them accessing future health care, education or welfare within their own state.

Slave owners lamented the energy it took to control and educate the Țigani slaves. Masters had to whip slaves, tie them up, sell troublemakers to far away estates – and all the while the slave women were seen as promiscuous household servants, there to be physically exploited in all ways.

Today, European police forces combine their efforts across the continent, scouring impoverished Romani communities for stolen blonde children, and finding them everywhere. Meanwhile Romani children are drugged, trafficked, and sold into prostitution to non-Romani Europeans – and their parents cannot find police to prevent this happening.

Then, slave masters complained of social pressure to clothe their near-naked slave possessions. Now, the European Union is pressured to write a statement to the Italian government regarding the ‘nomad camps’ where all Romani asylum seekers have been put since the 1970s, without being allowed to apply for asylum or citizenship.  Italian citizens often violently attack the ‘nomad camps’, and the Red Cross fingerprint every Roma person over the age of three months in the camps.

Yes, the Italian government complains that Roma are criminals even as babies, and they need the help of charities to protect ‘their’ people from those who have been there for three generations, working without papers in the worst jobs in Italy.

The way that Roma are stereotyped, spoken about, and targeted in government policy now in Europe has not changed since the times of slavery, persecution and the Holocaust.  The single important difference is that, in the time of slavery, Romani people could not be killed without the master receiving compensation, a deterrent to physical violence against them. Today in the European Union, however, there is virtually no deterrent to anti-Romani violence at all.

Shannon Woodcock

Shannon Woodcock is a colonist in Gunai Kurnai Country .

More by Shannon Woodcock ›

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  1. One of the best, well written articles I have seen. Total agreement. It’s a pity more people especially some involved in Roma rights don’t take the same stance.

  2. Thank you for this well written article.

    I’m a Romanian and I am very unhappy with the image Romani people brought to Romanians. In Europe, mainly, the Romani people commit crimes and in the news they are referred to as Romanian citizen. Most of the people who do not bother to read more believe that it’s the same. So when we introduce ourselves as being from Romania they immediately associate us with Romani, which is wrong.

    I know for fact that the Romanian government gave Romani houses to live in, a few years back. They ended up using them for sheltering horses or they ripped them apart and sold them piece by piece.

    I worked as a translator for an EU country Police Department and while on a job a Romani person complained to me that ‘there is nothing to steal here, in this small town’. This is their culture and I believe there is not much anyone can do about it.

    I also believe that there is a good number of them who are already settled and integrated in society. They are good craftsmen and sell their work within their community. Romani are also good musicians. Those should be the people governments reach to. They prove to be a good example and should be asked to help with educating the rest.

  3. Marius, your comments provide a useful description for readers of the same stereotypical anti-Romani racist discourse that we see over and over … they destroy houses, they can’t ever be civilised…. remarkably similar to the same old stereotypes used by colonising cultures against First Nations as well. These racist stereotypes justify the continuing segregation and violence against Romani people in Europe.

    Did you read the article and realise that it was Romanian people who enslaved Romani people for 500 years? They are Romanian citizens, and the question of Romania’s reputation in the world, sadly, has a lot to do with the virile and physical racism used against Romani people there.

    If people would like to see these stereotypes rebutted with the usual basic sensible and logical approach, see Valeriu Nicolae’s blog as cited in the article, or publications of my own in scholarly journals, or visit the website of the European Roma Rights Centre at

    And other readers, when you see this same racist discourse being repeated again, speak out against it, don’t let the ‘I am Romanian so I know better that they deserve to be hated because they are all inferior thieves’ argument pass without repudiation here.


    1. Dear all, one significat issue is not here, in this article: the psychology of the roma people. As Shannon explained the Roma people were slaves for 500 years, accordind to Jung, there is something called collective unconscious. Meaning that in the mind of mostly of Roma people they are still thinking like slaves, some closed communities passed or are passing hard times in them own countries. This way of thinking makes them behave the way they do. Trust me, I speak from the point of view of a Roma person that is fully integrated in the community, highlly educated. And I feel sometimes the unjustified hate of the others, but I forgive and I try to make a change. So everyone should first try to stay with Roma people,or study them also from psycholgycal side. Then you will look at them differently.If any of you saw “Django unchaned”, or the other movie ” 12 years slave” you saw just a part of the slave life. I recommend them both as further of this well documented articlE. Thank you Shannon



  4. Dear Marius, it seems you did not read this article, or more simply, you did not understand it. Your comment is a living example of attachment to this pejorative stereotype.

  5. Marius, I am a human being and I am very unhappy with the image racist views such as those you express bring to humanity.

    Discrimination and equality is perpetuated precisely through the kind of stereotypes you promote, and through (often wilful) ignorance. It’s rather telling that you choose to ignore several centuries of historical evidence in favour of your own opinion based on hateful prejudice and mythical stereotypes.

    But if you have no interest in challenging your own prejudice by broadening your knowledge and your worldview, perhaps you will at least think about this: Have you ever stopped to consider what it’s like to be a person who is targeted by systematic, relentless racism wherever they go? To constantly be reminded that you are a dirty, filthy thief, a criminal by nature, a worthless human being, that you don’t belong – anywhere. Can you imagine that, to not be welcome *anywhere* in the world? Can you imagine your children being segregated in school, beaten by their peers, your house set on fire by your neighbours, or destroyed by the police?

    And for what? A myth that was created by narrow-minded, ultra-religious Europeans hundreds of years ago. It has to stop.

    And you have a responsibility here Marius. You can help break this trend of centuries of discrimination and violence. You can choose to educate yourself, to know better, you can realise that you’re too smart to buy this racist bullshit, that you know that a person and a stereotype are not the same thing.

    Less than 150 years ago, some of Europe’s most well-respected and widely read doctors and scientists argued that women were unsuited to university education, to politics, and to the natural sciences, and that women who chose to pursue higher education and careers would effectively stop being women – they would become sexless (biologically speaking) and unable to have children. This is a good example of a stereotype, one that was widely accepted, yet thankfully also contested, just like the one you promote today. But it took years of education to overturn this view of women (and, as we know, many people do still to some extent believe this stereotype).

    In a nutshell, you have a choice here. You can do something good to change the image of humanity as full of narrow-minded, bigoted, fearful people. You can be part of the solution instead of the problem. Help people like Shannon (the author) try to build a fairer, better world for everyone. You can choose knowledge over ignorance, compassion over fear. It’s up to you.

  6. Hi Shannon

    I’m wondering if there are any organisations or lobbies which are working to put an end to the failure to provide Romani children with birth certificates or the finger printing of Romani children by the Red Cross? For those of us who would like to show out support

  7. Marius, and by extension all those who think as you do- it’s a pity that you see the Romani people as the problem. Other commentators have well educated you and there is no need to replicate their voices. I just want to add that Europe is shooting itself on the leg by not integrating the Romani people. In the next 50 years, about 40 percent or more of European labor force will be dependent on the Romani people being that their birth rate is growing far more than the other European race. So wouldn’t it be wise that Europe begins to educate its future labor force? Soonest Europe will totally crash as a result of declined production of quality labor force, and that will be a partial nemesis/reward for its discriminations and atrocities against the Romani who are part of them.It’s a shame.

  8. Thank you, Shannon, for your well-written, compelling article, illustrating the history and plight of the Romani (Roma, as they are referred to here in the west.) I was born in Hungary during the Stalinist era. Those were exceptionally difficult times for everyone, and worse for the Romani. I remember as a little girl being warned about the ‘scary gypsies’, the epithets, the hatred, name-calling, ostracism and pejorative stereotyping of this group of people… My admonishment was done by some of the adults. The small children I played with were accepting of others. Their narrow-minded parents were the bigots. This was very strange to me, since my parents were exact opposites to the mainstream. They were compassionate, progressive people who taught us that ignorance, racism, and fear of the ‘other’ were among the worst traits of our species. My parents were saddened and dismayed at the attitudes of many of their peers, and I recall frequent arguments, heated debates, at our house on topics of social justice, human rights. (Along with politics, but this with only a very select few close acquaintances. Being critical of the oppressive regime was not well tolerated, often resulting in imprisonment.) That was almost half a century ago. I am saddened that we have not matured enough to where we no longer view others with such vehement, ugly bigotry and hatred. When will we realise that we are all in this together? That we are all part of the same race: the human race? What will it take? Articles such as Shannon’s go a long way toward educating and replacing ignorance with compassion. I believe it is incumbent upon all of us to speak out when we see/hear injustice, bigotry, racism, bullying, hate-speech/propaganda against the Romani, or any other group or person.. We must not be silent or apathetic. Asa is a good example here, with her (his?) intelligent reply to Marius. That is the kind of conversation we must have when confronting bigotry. Through intelligent discourse and dialogue we can show by example. I do this in my community, and see the small headways that I am making. And I have passed my parents’ example to the children in my family. They in turn are doing likewise. Growing the links, one at a time…

  9. Thanks for this article Shannon, and your many other writings in this space. Revisiting and resharing it today to mark International Roma Day.

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