by Jonathan Lee

Kon mangel te kerel tumendar rroburen chi shoxa phenela tumen o chachimos pa tumare perintonde.
He who wants to enslave you will never tell you the truth about your forefathers.”

In the mid to late 19th century, Bucharest was a city typical of the reformist changes of the era. The influences of the Late Enlightenment and Romanticism in cultural arts were emerging in public administration, economics and politics. The growing call for egalitarianism across Europe had given birth to revolutionary movements and philosophies, out of which Marxism, Idealism and Existentialism, to name a few, began to take shape. Bucharest saw increasing civil mobility as anti-aristocratic sentiment spread, culminating in Prince Bibescu renouncing the throne. The increase of Liberalism across Europe was matched by feats of human endeavour and the creation of centres of intellectualism in the major cities of the continent.

In Bucharest, the Grand Theatre of Bucharest was constructed in 1852, a modern water supply network was put in place and the Cișmigiu public gardens were created. During the mid to late 19th century the city was transformed by gas street lighting, the creation of the University of Bucharest, a tram system and the establishment of the National Bank of Romania. The wave of modernity and reform which was sweeping the continent was becoming ever more present in the visible character of the city.


Also in 1852, the above Bill of Sale was placed in the Bucharest newspaper Luna by St. Elias Monastery and advertised the auction of thirty eight men, women and children as items of property. Whilst the abolitionist movement in Britain had finally concluded the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, slavery of the Roma in Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia, which later became Romania, continued until 1856 and continued in practice for decades after. Similar to the British government slave reparations, compensation was paid to the slave owners for loss of property rather than the slaves themselves. Furthermore, the slaves had to settle in the same village or estate where they had been enslaved for a further two censuses and pay their taxes to the compensation fund for their ex-owners. Complete legal freedom was not realised until 1864. Most slaves found themselves with nowhere to go but back to working for their masters in return for room and board, essentially reinstating their serfdom in practice if not in law. Those who turned to nomadism escaped the social engineering policies implemented after the abolition which scattered some of the 250,000 freed Roma across villages in Romania, banned Romany language, enforced compulsory re-education for children and insisted on the label emancipat to refer to freed gypsies.

Complete legal freedom was not realised until 1864

Such cruelty only continued in Europe because of how deeply entrenched in society it had become after 500 years of practice. The abolitionist movement only reached Romania through returning students, influenced by liberal university teaching. Roma enslavement would have been an unalienable fact of life as it had always been, stretching back to the limit of cultural memory.

The arrival of Roma in Europe was from the South of the Danube at the end of the 14th century and resulted in the immediate split of the ethnic group into at least two distinct sub-groups. Around half were enslaved on arrival in Eastern Europe where slavery was already common. The rest migrated further into the Mediterranean, into Western Europe and North Africa. In the modern day, the result is a marked difference between the descendants of those who were slaves until the 19th century and those descended from the gypsies who entered the West through Spain in the 15th century. The Eastern Vlax Roma are culturally, linguistically and genetically different from the Kale of the West and the more contemporary Manouche and Romanichal populations. The Romanian influence on Eastern gypsies lies in the treatment of slaves. The Bayash class of slaves who served in households were forbidden from speaking Romany, meaning their descendants still speak a variety of Romanian (delineating them as outsiders to both Roma and Romanian circles). Romany women were treated often as sexual commodities and offered as entertainment to white guests, the children conceived of which would thus be lighter of skin and hair. Indeed, as Félix Colson remarked whilst visiting a Romanian estate in the 1830’s: “Their skins are hardly brown; some of them are blonde and beautiful”. The children of these forced unions did not benefit from their mixed race parentage and were also born as slaves. A Romany slave could not become the wife of a white man, and performing such an act was considered “an evil and wicked deed”, any priest doing so would face excommunication and severe punishment. The marriages between Roma slaves were also highly restricted. Slaves could not marry of their own free will but had to be coupled by their owners who would breed them for certain traits and profit.


Conditions were no better for the men. Those who were not amongst the labourers were part of the class known as skopitsi and were used to drive the coaches of aristocratic women. The perceived threat that Romany men posed to white women resulted in the slaves being castrated as boys to protect the wives of their masters. The same sexual fear of the ‘coloured other’ was also a common feature in African American slavery.

The punishment for slaves engaged in sexual activity with white women was severe. A woman who wilfully engaged in intercourse with a Romany man would become a slave herself, as would her children. If a male slave were to rape a white woman, the Moldavan Civil Code stated “if a Gypsy slave should rape a white woman, he would be burnt alive” (Section 28)”. However, if a gypsy slave is raped by a free man or as the code put it: “if a Romanian should “meet a girl in the road” and “yield to love . . . he shall not be punished at all” (Section 39; Panaitescu, 1928: 14).

Accounts of gypsies being burned alive are also fairly common

Some of those who wrote on slavery described the treatment of the Roma so as to argue that the Roma, by their nature were quite agreeable to their state of subjugation. Paspati, in 1861: maintained that the Roma should wish to “subject themselves voluntarily” to bondage on account of the “mild treatment” they received from their owners. Emerit wrote in 1930 that “despite clubbings which the slave-owners meted out at random, the Gypsies did not altogether hate this tyrannical regime, which once in a while took on a paternal quality.” Sadly, the small number of Roma who were free-men would often voluntarily sell themselves to monasteries in order to acquire work, such was the discrimination Roma faced in society.

Punishments for ill discipline, runaways, mistakes or lethargy varied between estates. The whip, so symbolic of slavery the world over, was employed with such common usage against the Roma that it was said that “one could not get anything [out of the Gypsies] without using a whip.” An account of a visit to a typical boyar (aristocrat) estate described the penalty of a hundred lashes for a broken plate and the later banned practice of falague, where “the slaves were hung up in the air and the soles of their feet were shredded with whips made of bull-sinews.” Accounts of gypsies being burned alive are also fairly common, usually from the 16th century and earlier when slaves were almost entirely owned by the crown rather than monasteries and the landed gentry. Most famous perhaps for his method of disposing of gypsy slaves is Vlad Tepov V, colloquially knowns as Vlad the Impaler. He is known to have made use of a large cauldron of boiling water as well as burning people at the stake or simply impaling them upon it, as his epithet suggests.

For much of the period of Eastern Roma slavery, the Western states were deporting Roma along with Africans as slaves to their colonies in India, Africa and the Americas. Despite this, the Roma presence in the Transatlantic Slave Trade is unmentioned in virtually every account of the tragedy. The sheer scale of the Transatlantic Slave Trade allows for some understanding of this omission to be granted. Many groups other than Black Africans were transported in the colonial slave trade who have also wrongly been largely forgotten. However, the burying of the historically unprecedented institution of slavery in Eastern Europe is not so readily dismissed.

the marginalised nature of Roma communities means that the suppression of history is possible and even preferable to the realities

Modern historians, anthropologists and politicians frequently describe the mysterious and unaccounted history of the gypsies. They largely underplay, deny or are ignorant of the crimes of Europe against the Roma people to the point where a half millennium of European slavery has been almost completely suppressed. The very notion of a nomadic gypsy is an historical inaccuracy which ignores the fact that many gypsies are only three or four generations away from sedentary slavery. An official protest by the Romanian Government at the 1995  OSCE Human Rights conference in Warsaw sought to replace the words Rom and Romani with Úigan, a word synonymous with ‘slave’, in all official state documents. The reasoning being that Romani sounds too similar to Romanian and outsiders may confuse Romanians with Gypsies. There is little to no mention of Roma Slavery in textbooks or curriculum in Romania. There is no monument or memorial dedicated to the atrocities committed. Whilst Britain, the Vatican, Germany, South Africa and the United States have all issued formal apologies for their official historic cruelties, there has been no formal apology nor even acknowledgement of the crimes committed in Romania. Such public apologies have proven to have a positive effect in the aforementioned cases in easing tensions and creating debate on present problems faced in those societies. Yet the marginalised nature of Roma communities means that the suppression of history is possible and even preferable to the realities.

The outcome, as Romany rights activism grows, will likely be a drawn out process involving pan-European co-operation to address the issue of a silenced narrative and with it, put the modern problems of European Roma in an historical context. Romany scholar Ian Hancock honestly, and sincerely articulates the conclusion to the fight for historical justice:

“If this is not a cause for concern among the non-Gypsy population, if that population is reluctant to be reminded about what it has done, and what it continues to do, then the Romani voice must be louder. But one way or another, it will be heard.”


  1. Another well researched and well written article Jonathan. Although I was aware of much of what you published before of what you are writing now I had no knowledge so I am educated much more than I was. It is also a stimulus for me to research further in the subject. Well done!


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