Once human beings are made the possessions of others, they become stripped of their identity as people and are seen simply as objects. The psychology underlying this is, among other things, probably guilt; it is easier to live with a situation such as slavery if the victims are dehumanized. Article I(37) of the Moldavian Civil Code for 1833 admitted, but dismissed, the moral wrong of slavery:
Although slavery goes against the natural law of man, it has nevertheless been practiced in this principality since antiquity ...
Gypsies were seen as "debased creatures, inferior even to the animals" by at least one observer, Wickenhauer, whose rationale for such a statement was that if they had had any redeeming qualities at all, Gypsies would not have been slaves (Potra, 1935:296).
The earliest legal documentation referring to Gypsies as slaves date back to the reigns of Rudolph IV and Stephan Dushan (Urosh IV), 1331-1355, who made one fifth of their number the property of the monasteries and landowners (Ozanne, 1878:65, Kinder and Hilgemann, 1964:205). They are referred to variously as sclavi, scindromi or robie in the documents, Rumanian and Slavic terms meaning "slave."
Throughout the Balkan principalities, Gypsies were distributed in the following way: the overall population was divided into house slaves (tsigani de casatsi) and field slaves (tsigani de ogor). The former were divided further into three categories of Slaves of the Crown or State, namely the sclavi domneshti (noblemen), sclavi curte (court) and sclavi gospod (householders), and one category of Slaves of the Church (sclavi monastiveshti). The field slaves were likewise divided into two categories, those of the boyars or barons, who were known as the sclavi coevestsi, and those of the small landowners, known as the sclavi de mosii. There were three principal occupations among the Slaves of the Crown: that of rudari (or aurari) or goldwasher, that of ursari or bear-trainer, and that of lingurari or carver of wooden spoons. In addition there was a class of laborers known as laieshi, individuals who were allowed to move with some freedom over the estates, and who did a variety of jobs. In this group were also included the lautari or musicians (properly 'fiddlers'). Slaves of the Church included the vatrashi, who were grooms, coachmen, cooks and Petty merchants, and numbers of laieshi. The different occupations followed by the laieshi have supplied the names of some of the vici, or clans, found among the contemporary Vlax (i.e. "Wallachian" or Danubian")* Gypsies: kirpachi 'basket-makers', kovachi 'blacksmiths', zlatari 'goldwashers', churari sieve-makers', chivute 'whitewashers' and so on. One characteristic of Balkan slavery was that the slaves themselves were required to give tribute to the State or, in the case of the laieshi, to their owners, so that a proportion of what they were able to find for themselves was then taken from them.
*Care should be taken not to confuse geographical with linguistic classifications. Speakers of dialects of the Vlax or Danubian branch of Romani have spread to many parts of the world from the Balkans, following the abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century. As a linguistic category, the Balkan branch includes dialects spoken principally in Bulgaris and Greece, which differ in substantial ways from the Vlax dialects.
[Illustration with caption]
Goldwashers in the Banat
The job of those involved in goldwashing has been remarked upon by a number of travelers through the region, and descriptions may be found in several sources (such as Dembsher, 1777, Grellmann, 1807, Hoyland, 1816, Clarke, 1818, Groome, 1899, and in particular, Wilsdorf, 1984). Grellmann's account from the late 18th century indicates that, unpleasant as their job was, gold washers were seen as a privileged group, and distinct from the slaves:
Goldwashing, in the rivers, is another occupation, by which many thousand Gipseys, of both sexes, procure a livelihood, in the Banat, Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia ... In Wallachia and Moldavia, none of the bojars' slaves, thence called bojaresk (bojar Gipseys), are suffered to meddle with goldwashing; that being a liberty granted only to those who, like other subjects, are immediately under the prince, denominated domnesk (princely Gipseys): which are also subdivided into three classes; the first named Rudar; the second Ursar; and the third Lajaschen. The Rudars alone have the licence above mentioned; the others are obliged to seek a different means of obtaining support. Each person is forced to pay a certain tribute to government (op. cit., pp. 51-52).
Those engaged to entertain their owners with music have also been described by their visitors; one such account, which contains a description of the naju or Pan-pipe, appeared in a work published in 1777:
Even though the music is just as monotonous and miserable as the dance, it is the Gypsies who are charged with tickling their [owners'] ears. The violin, the German guitar, and a pipe of eight reeds into which they blow while passing it back and forth non-stop across the lips, are the local instruments (Carra, 1777:176).
[Illustration with caption]
Lautaris, ca. 1850
There were restrictions on the Gypsies' playing music for their own enjoyment, however; a set of instructions for dealing with one's slaves issued by the Exchequer of the Hapsburg Empire at about the same time, ruled that "the Gypsies' new masters were to beat them if they worked badly, and [they] were instructed to take particular care that they 'wasted no time on music"' (Guy, in Koudelka, 1975). Maria Theresa's list of rules ended with the direction that "They shall be permitted to amuse themselves with music, or other things, only when there is no field work for them to do" (Hoyland, 1816:74).
Slaves belonging to private landowners were not subject to any laws higher than those of whoever owned them, and although the churches and monasteries were governed by the law of the land, it was their slaves who were treated most cruelly of all. The boyars were also quite ruthless, although they usually left matters of discipline to their overseer (called a ciocoi or a vatave). In one lurid account, Bercovici describes how
The boyars had a special penal code for Gypsies; beating on the soles of the feet until the flesh hung in shreds ... when a runaway was caught, his neck was placed in an iron band lined with sharp points so that he could neither move his head nor lie down to rest. The boyars had no right to kill their slaves, but there was nothing said about slowly torturing them to death. No law forbade the boyar to take the most beautiful girls as his mistresses, or to separate wives from husbands, and children from parents (1928:81).
Although, as Bercovici states, the laws of both Moldavia and Wallachia granted no right to the slave owners to kill their slaves, it is recorded in the diary of a French journalist, one Félix Colson, writing about a visit to the Balkans in 1839 that despite its common occurrence, not one boyar had ever been prosecuted for the murder of a Gypsy. One account tells us that "A Gypsy postillion or courier is often shot through the head or flogged to death upon any cause or no cause, without the murder being noticed, for 'he is only a zigeuner"' (Chamber's Journal, 1856:274). Colson, whose diary served as the basis of an excellent article by Roleine, described a typical visit to the home of one of these boyars:
When our traveller arrives, he is led to a couch, whereupon six young women appear. Discreetly, and with care, they wash his hands, while others serve him with refreshments. Their skins are hardly brown; some of them are blonde and beautiful. Handsome too are the boys who, in groups of three, will light his pipe. No, the domestics do not work themselves to death; it's not unusual some times to find a hundred or more working in the same household ... could this kind of life be Heaven on Earth for them?
Let's rejoin Colson at the dinner table: "Misery is so clearly painted on the faces of these slaves that, if you happened to glance at one, you'd lose your appetite."
The Gypsy slaves are addressed by Christian names. Basil seems to be the most common, but they are also given house-names, such as Pharoah, Bronze, Dusky, Dopey or Toad, or for the women, Witch, Camel, Dishrag or Whore.
Never does a group revolt. In the evening, the master makes his choice among the beautiful girls - maybe he will offer some of them to the guest - whence these light-skinned, blonde-haired Gypsies. The next morning at dawn, the Frenchman is awakened by piercing shrieks: it is punishment time. The current penalty is a hundred lashes for a broken plate of a badly-curled lock of hair ... it is at this time that the abominable falague is finally outlawed: this was when the slaves were hung up in the air and the soles of their feet were shredded with whips made of bull-sinews (Roleine, 1979:111).
The offspring from these unwelcome sexual unions automatically became slaves. It was this exploitation, as Colson noted, which was largely responsible for the fact that many Gypsies are now fair-skinned; Cohn (1973:63) estimates the mean percentage of white genetic mixture as 60 percent. The mixing of white and Romani blood was not able to take place among the Netoci or runaway slaves (discussed at pp. 38-39), who lived as fugitives in the forests and mountains away from settled habitation; Ozanne comments on the distinct physical types amongst Gypsies in Rumania, which he visited in the 19th century:
There are two distinct types of Gypsies in Roumania. One set have crisp hair and thick lips, with a very dark complexion. The others have a fine profile, regular features, good hair and an olive complexion (1878:62).
Ozanne wrongly attributed this difference to two separate waves of Romani migration into the area: the first, descendants of the original Gypsies, and the second, refugees from India as a result of the invasions of the 'Tatars' Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane in the Middle Ages, though it is clear that the lighter-skinned individuals, nearly all house-slaves, could in fact attribute their complexions to interbreeding with Europeans. While Romani women were thus used by their white owners, Romani men were evidently seen as a sexual threat to Rumanian womanhood. Among the sclavi domneshti, there was a category called the skopici, Gypsy males who had been castrated as boys and whose job it was to drive the coaches of the women of the aristocracy without their being in fear of molestation.
[Illustration with caption]
The forge of a ferari or iron-worker in Wallachia
Another account from a much earlier period describes the peculiar cruelty of Vlad Tepov V, better remembered as Vlad the Impaler, who came to the Wallachian throne in 1476. He disposed of some scindromes, or Gypsy slaves, presumably for sport, thus:
He invited them to a festival, made them all drunk, and threw them into the fire. Another amusement of his was the construction of an enormous cauldron, into which he thrust his victims. Then, filling it with water, he made it boil, and took pleasure in the anguish of the sufferers. When the people whom he impaled writhed in agony, he had their hands and feet nailed to the posts. Some ... were compelled to eat [a] man roasted (Ozanne, 1878:189-190).
Seventeenth-century laws relating to Gypsies are found in the forty-article Code of Basil the Wolf, Hospodar of Moldavia (1634-1654). Examples include
Section 8 If the Gypsy slave of a boyard or any other proprietor, his woman or one of their children steal once, twice or thrice a chicken, a goose or any other trifle, they shall be pardoned; but if they steal something more valuable, they shall be punished like robbers.
Section 14 He who may discover a treasure by means of sorcery, shall not be allowed to touch it, the whole belonging to the hospodar.
Section 28 A slave who rapes a woman shall be condemned to be burnt alive.
Section 39 [The free man] who, yielding to love, meets a girl in the road and embraces her, shall not be punished at all.
Those who have written about the treatment of the slaves have believed, probably as a salve to their own consciences, that Gypsies were actually well-disposed to this barbarity: "Once they were made slaves ... it seems that they preferred this state" (Lecca, 1908:181). Paspati wondered whether Gypsies did in fact "subject themselves voluntarily to bondage "because of the "mild[er) treatment" from their owners (1861:149, emphasis added), and Emerit believed that
Despite clubbings which the slave-owners meted out at random, the former did not altogether hate this tyrannical regime, which once in a while took on a paternal quality ... (1930:132).
Paternalism certainly was evident; Lecca tells us that
Gypsy slaves were almost the only artisans ... the Gypsy women helped the mistress of the house with her work, and they were on such good terms that they were even allowed to assist in the beautiful embroidery done by the young Rumanian women which is admired throughout the world (ibid., 192),
while Colson was able to report that, "always involved in the games and childhood life of their masters," Gypsies owned by the boyars had "developed a familiar relationship with the children of the nobility" (Vaux de Foletier, 1973:26).
The rustling of legally-owned slaves was not unknown, and was probably common practice despite the low cost of the slaves. A document dated 1560 tells of the abduction of Gypsies from Wallachian estates who were brought into the towns for re-sale by their kidnappers, and warning of penalties against this (Furnica, 1931). In the 16th century, a Gypsy child could be bought for about 48 cents, though people were usually sold not individually but in lots, called either cete, salash or shatre, the latter term also referring to the communities in which Gypsies lived. Roleine's novel, Prince of One Summer, deals with 19th century Gypsy slavery in the Balkans, also the central theme of The Price of Freedom by the Gypsy author Matéo Maximoff:
The slave market was in full swing. The auctioneer, with his Turk-like appearance, athletic shoulders and sweeping moustache, held a whip in his right hand and eyed his prospective customers. Gentlemen! I have the honor once more to offer for sale to you the finest slaves to be found in any market in the world! ... tears flowed in silence, for a Gypsy was not supposed to cry for the miserable destiny of the brothers of his race ... (1947:7-8).
Other impassioned reflections of life under slavery in the Europe of the past century are found in the poems of César Bolliac.
Gypsy slaves could not marry without permission. Members of the same family were sold separately, and children often taken away. In 1757, however, the law involving the disposal of children was changed, and they could no longer be sold without their parents - a short-lived reprieve in the overall condition of the Gypsy slaves: by the middle of the following century, the definition of slavery had been revised, and had perhaps become even stricter.
On January 25th, 1766, Grigore-Alexandru Ghica modified the law as it applied to marriages between Gypsies and whites. Both partners would henceforth be regarded as free, but the man, and any of their children over seven years of age, would have to continue to work for their previous owner. Rather than separate a husband and wife, the husband would be substituted for by another man of equal age and skill. The pronouncement regarding mixed marriages, however, only applied to those unions already in existence; all further such marriages were to be illegal, and any priest discovered performing them was to be excommunicated. This did not prevent these relationships from developing, however, which required that a further anti-miscegenation proclamation be issued in 1776 by Constantin, Prince of Moldavia, against such an
evil and wicked deed, [since ...] in some parts Gypsies have married Moldavian women, and also Moldavian men have taken in marriage Gypsy girls, which is entirely against the Christian faith, for not only have these people bound themselves to spend all their life with the Gypsies, but especially that their children remain forever in unchanged slavery ... such a deed being hateful to God, and contrary to human nature ... any priest who has had the audacity to perform such marriages, which is a great and everlasting wicked act ... will be removed from his post [and] severely punished (Ghibanescu, 1921:119-120).
Just nine years after that, in 1785, a law was passed yet again forbidding such unions between Gypsies and whites, the justification this time being that it was causing individuals with Rumanian blood to become slaves. It was not considered, until the following century, that the same blood could alternatively have made the same children free. Eighty-five years later, Paspati reported that
the Turks, who are not particularly punctilious in the choice of their wives, often marry Gypsy women. Not so with the Christians, who have kept themselves aloof from family connections with the Gypsies, and will rarely have any intercourse with them. No Gypsy is ever permitted to enter into any of the sacerdotal offices of the Greek church (1861:148).
Unions between Gypsies themselves were arranged by their owners on occasion, in order to produce better stock. During his visit in the 1830s, Colson was invited to one such wedding, to which the man and the woman were brought struggling and in chains, to have the marriage blessed by a priest. So shocked by the hypocrisy of this was Colson, that he fled "in disgust, as though I'd assisted at a human sacrifice" (Roleine, 1979:111).
Gypsies crossing into Moldavia and Wallachia from other countries were captured and automatically made slaves; indeed, this was a specific article of the Civil Code until as late as the 19th century. On the other hand, many of the semi-nomadic Netoci (singular Netoto) referred to above, were able to escape and form maroon communities in the Carpathians, where their descendants, feared by other Gypsies and by non-Gypsies alike, still live today. Again we can report from Paspati, who says
The Netotsi, half savage, half naked, living by theft and rapine, feeding in times of want upon cats, dogs and mice ... are the most degraded and debased of all the Gypsy population (loc. cit.).
Although the European observer saw them as the "most degraded and debased" of all Gypsies, the Netoci were the true heroes of an enslaved race, escaping subjugation and living under extremely adverse conditions in order to maintain their freedom and dignity. Ozanne, probably drawing upon Paspati for his description, also refers to the same people as
... the most savage and wild of all the Gipsy race. Half naked, and living only by theft and plunder, they feed on the flesh of cats and dogs, sleep on the bare ground or in some ruin or barn, and possess absolutely no property of any kind. They have a strong resemblance to the negro physiognomy and character (1878:65).
Serboianu is rather more graphic:
The Netotsi are terribly cruel, while other Gypsies have much more moderate customs. One could therefore suppose that the Netotsi were the tribe that led the way, while the others were merely slaves, who yielded unconditionally to their owners, with whom the power resided in the whips and knives they always carried about them.
Of all Gypsies, only the Netotsi continue to wander, hated by all other Gypsies, since it is on their account, because of their wretched ways, that the whole world persecutes Gypsies ... From my own observations, together with what came to light at the trial [in May, 1929], I am convinced that the Netoci were, and today still are, cannibals (1930:36-37).
His own observations were made at the scene of fighting following the end of the First World War, between Rumanians and Hungarians, at Szechalom in 1920. He remarked that some of the severed limbs of those slain in battle, which he had noticed earlier, were missing. His conclusion was that they had been removed by some Gypsies in the area to be cooked and eaten (ibid.). The idea of cannibalism among Gypsies was not new; a number of newspaper articles reporting this from the late 1700s are reproduced by Grellmann, who devotes several pages to it himself in a chapter entitled "On their food and beverage" (1807:15-20). Another, more humanely-disposed commentary on the Netoci is found, not unexpectedly, in Colson's journal:
These are the descendants of people who managed to slip through the barriers and who kept their freedom by fleeing into the forest and uncultivated lands. Contact with non-Gypsies means capture ... they live, therefore, like primitives, by hunting and gathering, collecting plants and the like, and by poaching. Sometimes they will rob a passing traveler. Unarmed, without carts or tents, pagan, black and naked, they are perhaps more disturbing than alarming.
[Illustration with caption]
Portrait of a Wallachian slave
When Paul Kisseleff revised the slavery laws in the Penal Code of 1833, he also ruled that the Netoci were to be recaptured and distributed between the landowners and the state. This initiated a period of guerilla warfare in the Transylvanian Alps which was to last until abolition a quarter of a century later, and during which both Netoci and white brigands fought side by side against the Prince's troops. Although by the first half of the 19th century, laws pertaining to slavery became less well-defined, according to Gaster "there seems to have been a fixed, or at any rate normal, price at which slaves were sold. For, when the Bucharest papers in 1845 announced the sale of 200 families of Gypsies, they added that they would be sold at a ducat less than usual" (1923:68), a ducat being worth 14 gold francs or four and a half piastres. A selection of statutes pertaining to Gypsies, taken from the Wallachian Penal Code of 1818, includes the following:
Section 2 Gypsies are born slaves.
Section 3 Anyone born of a mother who is a slave, is also a slave.
Section 5 Any owner has the right to sell or give away his slaves.
Section 6 Any Gypsy without an owner is the property of the Prince.
Those from the Moldavian Penal Code of 1833 include:
Section II:154 Legal unions cannot take place between free persons and slaves.
Section II:162 Marriage between slaves cannot take place without their owner's consent.
Section II: 174 The price of a slave must be fixed by the Tribunal, according to his age, condition and profession.
Section II: 176 If anyone has taken a female slave as a concubine...she will become free after his death. If he has had children by her, they will also become free.
[Illustration with caption]
Vlad Tepov V (woodcut)