Roma slavery in Romania - a history

Three Roma sit in front of a wall

A history of more than 500 years of slavery of Roma population on the territory of Romania.

Iulia Hau (öffnet sich in einem neuen Fenster)

In this blog, Romanian journalist Iulia Hau outlines the history of Roma slavery in Romania.

How the Roma population ended up in the area we now call Romania is still not quite clear.

The main hypothesis is that they left the Punjab region of Northern India either as nomads or victims of unfavourable circumstances, such as war or natural disaster. Some theories state that the Roma population arrived in the Principality of Wallachia (the southern part of today’s Romania) as free people, but they were soon enslaved by the princes of Wallachia and Moldavia, who needed a workforce.

It's been said that they also brought valuable crafting skills and items with them, such as Indian ironworks, and that they were talented musicians. The first evidence of their presence in contemporary Romania comes from the 13th century, through a document that testifies to a gift. This gift came in the form of forty Roma families, donated to a monastery by the prince of Wallachia.

In Romania, they are known as țigani, a profoundly derogatory term which has its roots in the old Greek term Athiganoi - translated as 'untouchable, pagan, impure', giving them the status of a heretical sect. Upon arrival in the Byzantine Empire, Roma were considered members of this sect, and the term turned into a general one for any type of conduct or belief that deviated from institutionalized Christian norms. On the other hand, the English term gypsy, together with the Spanish gitanos, emerged from a mistake by Europeans who believed Roma had come from Egypt.

For almost five centuries, their slave labour resulted in huge earnings for their masters: landowers, the feudal aristocracy and the Orthodox Church. Romani people's status was that of subjugated people, the absolute property of their masters: their masters' personality, faith and habits dictated their whole existence.

After 1500, even though the number of slaves decreased dramatically in Catholic and Protestant Europe - as slaves were transferred to overseas colonies to work - slavery flourished in Romanian Principalities. 'In the 16th, 17th, and 18th century we were probably the only country in Europe which had a class of people with this label of slave or bondsman', states Professor doctor Constantin Bălăceanu Stolnici.

Two Roma tinsmith sit on the floor with their work implements scattered around them.

Roma bondsmen were subjected to atrocious treatment.

For five centuries, they were denied the status of human being. Among the cruellest punishments was that of wearing a collar fitted with iron spikes on the inside that prevented the wearer from lying down to rest.

Most of the writing we have about this topic comes from foreigners travelers, staggered by this behaviour.

The squires are their absolute masters. They sell or kill them like cattle, at their sole discretion. Their children are born slaves with no distinction on sex

- Comte d'Antraigues

Jean Louis Parrant, who was in Moldavia during the French revolution, asks himself: 'What can be said about this numerous miserable flock of beings (because they can’t be otherwise described) that are called gypsies and are lost for the humanity, placed on the same level with the cattle of burden and often treated even worse by the their barbaric master whose revolting (so-called) property they are?'

Mihail Kogălniceanu, a former Romanian politician who played a significant role in the abolition of slavery, remembers growing up in a provincial Romanian town and seeing people 'being with hands and feet enchained, with iron circles around their forehead or metal collar around their neck. Bloody whips and other punishments such as starvation, hanging over a burning fire, the detention barrack and the forcing to stay naked in snow or in the frozen water of a river - this is the treatment applied to the miserable gypsies.'

A sepia drawing of a Roma woman chained to the floor, holding a small child in her arms, in front of the house of possibly a landowner or squire.

Legislative texts, referring to them under a double denomination - gypsies or bondsmen - stated that they were born slaves; that every child born from a slave mother was a slave; that their masters had power of life and death over them; that each owner had the right to sell or offer his slaves; and that every masterless gypsy is propriety of the state. The list goes on...

Once the modern concept of property was established in the collective mentality, Romanian noblemen felt entitled to buy and sell bondsmen, as any other commodity, and so the Roma became comparable with any valuable object. They were given as dowry at weddings or offered to monasteries in exchange for the mentioning of their former masters’ name during mass.

Bondsmen auctions, similar to public markets, were kept track of in court records and announced in newspapers. There are a great many documents that testify these slave transactions.

a manuscript in old Romanian with four stamp seals on it.

In 1600, a gypsy fit for work was worth the same as a horse. In 1682, a gypsy woman was worth two mares with foals. In 1760, three gypsies were worth the same as a house, and in 1814, Snagov Monastery was selling a gypsy for the price of four buffalo. There were also cases when gypsies were sold according to their weight, exchanged for honey barrels, pawned off, or offered as presents.

The abolishment of Roma slavery began with young artistocratic Romanians leaving to study in Western Europe. Upon returning home, they gave voice to progressive ideas denouncing slavery.

At the same time, Western Europe, and France especially, exerted considerable pressure on the newly formed Romanian state regarding the abolition of slavery. In the middle of the 19th century, there were half a million slaves on Romanian territory: 7% of the population.

a sepia picture of Roma pail makers with their merchandise

Unfortunately, until now, Roma slavery has not been yet included in most history school books, and there are still very few Romanians who are aware of this historical reality.

At the moment, Roma people represent the second most widely-spread ethnic minority and the most vulnerable ethnic group in Romania. Even though the process of Roma integration began more than 15 years ago, the results leave much to be desired. Tackling discrimination of Roma people is still more of an empty promise than palpable reality.

This blog was made possible through Europeana's editorial grants programme which provides funding for writing that put a spotlight on underrepresented communities, voices and lived experiences. Learn more about the editorial grants programme and how to apply.