History of the Romani people

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The Romani people, also referred to depending on the sub-group as Roma, Sinti or Sindhi, or Kale are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, who live primarily in Europe. They originated in northwest regions of the Indian subcontinent[1][2][3] and left sometime between the 6th and 11th century to work in Middle Eastern courts of their own volition, or as slaves. A small number of nomadic groups were cut off from their return to the subcontinent by conflicts and moved west,[1] eventually settling in Europe, Turkey and North Africa via Iran.[4]


The initial arrival of Romani outside Bern in the 15th century, described by the chronicler as getoufte heiden "baptized heathens" and drawn wearing Saracene style clothes and weapons (Spiezer Schilling, p. 749).

The Romani have been described by Diana Muir Appelbaum as unique among peoples because they have never identified themselves with a territory; they have no tradition of an ancient and distant homeland from which their ancestors migrated, nor do they claim the right to national sovereignty in any of the lands where they reside. Rather, Romani identity is bound up with the ideal of freedom expressed, in part, in having no ties to a homeland.[5] The absence of traditional origin stories and of a written history has meant that the origin and early history of the Romani people was long an enigma. Indian origin was suggested on linguistic grounds as early as the late 18th century.[6]

One theory suggests that the name ultimately derives from a form ḍōmba- 'man of low caste living by singing and music', attested in Classical Sanskrit.[7] Many also believe that Gypsies are descendants of Dalit because of the word zingaro (ατσίγγανος) (untouchable) that was used to designate gypsies in Greece. An alternative view is that the ancestors of the Romani were part of the military in Northern India. When there were invasions by Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi and these soldiers were defeated, they were moved west with their families into the Byzantine Empire between AD 1000 and 1030.[8]

The genetic evidence identified an Indian origin for Roma.[9][10] Genetic evidence connects the Romani people to the descendants of groups which emigrated from South Asia towards Central Asia during the medieval period.[11]

Language origins[edit]

Until the mid-to-late 18th century, theories of the origin of the Romani were mostly speculative. In 1782, Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger published his research that pointed out the relationship between the Romani language and Hindustani.[12] Subsequent work supported the hypothesis that Romani shared a common origin with the Indo-Aryan languages of Northern India,[13] with Romani grouping most closely with Sinhalese in a recent study.[14]

Domari and Romani language[edit]

Domari was once thought to be the "sister language" of Romani, the two languages having split after the departure from the South Asia, but more recent research suggests that the differences between them are significant enough to treat them as two separate languages within the Central zone (Hindustani) Saraiki language group of languages. The Dom and the Rom are therefore likely to be descendants of two different migration waves from the Indian subcontinent, separated by several centuries.[15][16]

Numerals in the Romani, Domari and Lomavren languages, with Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian forms for comparison.[17] Note that Romani 7–9 are borrowed from Greek.

Sanskrit Hindi Romani Domari Lomavren Persian
1 éka ek ekh, jekh yika yak, yek yak, yek
2 dvá do duj lui du, do
3 trí tīn trin tærən tərin se
4 catvā́raḥ cār štar štar išdör čahār
5 páñca pā̃c pandž pandž pendž pandž
6 ṣáṭ chah šov šaš šeš šeš
7 saptá sāt ifta xaut haft haft
8 aṣṭá āṭh oxto xaišt hašt hašt
9 náva nau inja na nu noh
10 dáśa das deš des las dah
20 viṃśatí bīs biš wīs vist bist
100 śatá sau šel saj saj sad

Genetic evidence[edit]

Further evidence for the South Asian origin of the Romanies came in the late 1990s. Researchers doing DNA analysis discovered that Romani populations carried large frequencies of particular Y chromosomes (inherited paternally) and mitochondrial DNA (inherited maternally) that otherwise exist only in populations from South Asia.

47.3% of Romani men carry Y chromosomes of haplogroup H-M82 which is rare outside South Asia.[18] Mitochondrial haplogroup M, most common in Indian subjects and rare outside Southern Asia, accounts for nearly 30% of Romani people.[18] A more detailed study of Polish Roma shows this to be of the M5 lineage, which is specific to India.[19] Moreover, a form of the inherited disorder congenital myasthenia is found in Romani subjects. This form of the disorder, caused by the 1267delG mutation, is otherwise known only in subjects of Indian ancestry. This is considered to be the best evidence of the Indian ancestry of the Romanis.[20]

The Romanis have been described as "a conglomerate of genetically isolated founder populations".[21] The number of common Mendelian disorders found among Romanis from all over Europe indicates "a common origin and founder effect".[21] See also this table:[22]

A study from 2001 by Gresham et al. suggests "a limited number of related founders, compatible with a small group of migrants splitting from a distinct caste or tribal group".[23] Also the study pointed out that "genetic drift and different levels and sources of admixture, appear to have played a role in the subsequent differentiation of populations".[23] The same study found that "a single lineage ... found across Romani populations, accounts for almost one-third of Romani males.

A 2004 study by Morar et al. concluded that the Romanies are "a founder population of common origins that has subsequently split into multiple socially divergent and geographically dispersed Gypsy groups".[20] The same study revealed that this population "was founded approximately 32–40 generations ago, with secondary and tertiary founder events occurring approximately 16–25 generations ago".[20]

Connection with the Burushos and Pamiris[edit]

The Burushos of Hunza have a paternal lineage genetic marker that is grouped with Pamiri speakers from Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and the Sinti or Sindhi Romani ethnic group. This find of shared genetic haplogroups may indicate an origin of the Romani people in or around these regions.[24]

Possible connection with the Domba people[edit]

According to a genetic study on The Phylogeography of Y-Chromosome Haplogroup H1a1a-M82 in 2012, the ancestors of present scheduled tribes and scheduled caste populations of northern India, traditionally referred to collectively as the Ḍoma, are the likely ancestral populations of modern European Roma.[25]

A mtdna or ydna study provides valuable information but a limitation of these studies is that they represent only one instantiation of the genealogical process. Autosomal data permits simultaneous analysis of multiple lineages, which can provide novel information about population history. According to a genetic study on autosomal data on Roma the source of South Asian Ancestry in Roma is North-West India. The two populations showing closest relatedness to Roma were Gujaratis.[26] The classical and mtDNA genetic markers suggested the closest affinity of the Roma with Rajput and Sindhi populations from Rajasthan and the Punjab respectively.[25][27]

Early records[edit]

Many ancient historians mention a tribe by the name of Sigynnae (Tsigani) on various locations in Europe. Early records of itinerant populations from India begin as early as the Sassanid period. Donald Kenrick notes the first recorded presence of Zott in Baghdad in AD 420, Khaneikin in AD 834.[28]

Contemporary scholars have suggested one of the first written references to the Romanies, under the term "Atsingani", (derived from the Greek ἀτσίγγανοι - atsinganoi), dates from the Byzantine era during a time of famine in the 9th century. In the year AD 800, Saint Athanasia gave food to "foreigners called the Atsingani" near Thrace. Later, in AD 803, Theophanes the Confessor wrote that Emperor Nikephoros I had the help of the "Atsingani" to put down a riot with their "knowledge of magic". However, the Atsingani were a Manichean sect that disappeared from chronicles in the 11th century. "Atsinganoi" was used to refer to itinerant fortune tellers, ventriloquists and wizards who visited the Emperor Constantine IX in the year 1054.[29]

The hagiographical text, The Life of St. George the Anchorite, mentions that the "Atsingani" were called on by Constantine to help rid his forests of the wild animals which were killing off his livestock.

Arrival in Europe[edit]

The migration of the Romani people through the Middle East and Northern Africa to Europe. The key shows the century of arrival in that area, e.g. S.XII is the 12th century

In 1323 Simon Simeonis, an Irish Franciscan friar, described people in likeness to the "atsingani" living in Crete: We also saw outside this city [Candia] a tribe of people, who worship according to the Greek rite, and assert themselves to be of the race of Cain. These people rarely or never stop in one place for more than thirty days, but always, as if cursed by God, are nomad and outcast. After the thirtieth day they wander from field to field with small, oblong, black, and low tents, like those of the Arabs, and from cave to cave, because the place inhabited by them becomes after the term of thirty days so full of vermin and other filth that it is impossible to live in their neighbourhood.[30]

1350 Ludolf von Sudheim mentioned a similar people with a unique language whom he called Mandapolos, a word which some theorize was possibly derived from the Greek word Mantipolos - Μαντιπόλος[31] "frenzied" from mantis - μάντις (meaning "prophet, fortune teller") and poleo - πολέω.

Around 1360, a fiefdom (called the Feudum Acinganorum) was established in Corfu. It mainly used Romani serfs and the Romanies on the island were subservient.[32][33]

By the 14th century, the Romanies had reached the Balkans and Bohemia; by the 15th century, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal; and by the 16th century, Russia, Denmark, Scotland and Sweden.[28] (although DNA evidence from mid-11th century skeletons in Norwich suggest that at least a few individuals may have arrived earlier, perhaps due to Viking enslavement of Romani from the eastern Mediterranean or liaisons with the Varangians[34]).

Some Romanies migrated from Persia through North Africa,[35] reaching Europe via Spain in the 15th century.[36] The two currents met in France.[citation needed] Romanies began immigrating to the United States in colonial times, with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana.[37] Larger-scale immigration began in the 1860s,[citation needed] with groups of Romnichal from Britain.[38] The largest number immigrated in the early 20th century, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash. Many Romanies also settled in Latin America.

According to historian Norman Davies, a 1378 law passed by the governor of Nauplion in the Greek Peloponnese confirming privileges for the "atsingani" is "the first documented record of Romany Gypsies in Europe". Similar documents, again representing the Romanies as a group that had been exiled from Egypt, record them reaching Braşov, Transylvania in 1416; Hamburg, Holy Roman Empire in 1418; and Paris in 1427. A chronicler for a Parisian journal described them as dressed in a manner that the Parisians considered shabby, and reports that the Church had them leave town because they practiced palm-reading and fortune-telling.[39]

Their early history shows a mixed reception. Although 1385 marks the first recorded transaction for a Romani slave in Wallachia, they were issued safe conduct by Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire in 1417.[28] Romanies were ordered expelled from the Meissen region of Germany in 1416, Lucerne in 1471, Milan in 1493, France in 1504, Aragon in 1512, Sweden in 1525, England in 1530 (see Egyptians Act 1530), and Denmark in 1536.[28] In 1510, any Romani found in Switzerland were ordered to be put to death, with similar rules established in England in 1554, Denmark in 1589, and Sweden in 1637, whereas Portugal began deportations of Romanies to its colonies in 1538.[28]

Later, a 1596 English statute, however, gave Romanies special privileges that other wanderers lacked; France passed a similar law in 1683. Catherine the Great of Russia declared the Romanies "crown slaves" (a status superior to serfs), but also kept them out of certain parts of the capital.[39] In 1595, Ştefan Răzvan overcame his birth into slavery, and became the Voivode (Prince) of Moldavia.[28]

In Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia, Romanies were enslaved for five centuries, until abolition in the mid-19th century.

In the late 19th century, the Romani culture inspired in their neighbors a wealth of artistic works. Among the most notable works are Carmen and La Vie de Bohème.[39]


In 1758, Maria Theresa of Austria began a program of assimilation to turn Romanies into ujmagyar (new Hungarians). The government built permanent huts to replace mobile tents, forbade travel, and forcefully removed children from their parents to be fostered by non-Romani.[28] By 1894, the majority of Romanies counted in a Hungarian national census were sedentary. In 1830, Romani children in Nordhausen were taken from their families to be fostered by Germans.[28]

Russia also encouraged settlement of all nomads in 1783, and the Polish introduced a settlement law in 1791. Bulgaria and Serbia banned nomadism in the 1880s.[28]

In 1783, racial legislation against Romanies was repealed in the United Kingdom, and a specific "Turnpike Act" was established in 1822 to prevent nomads from camping on the roadside, strengthened in the Highways Act of 1835.[28]


In 1538, the first anti-ziganist (anti-Romani) legislation was issued in Moravia and Bohemia, which were under Habsburg rule. Three years later, after a series of fires in Prague which were blamed on the Romani, Ferdinand I ordered them to be expelled. In 1545, the Diet of Augsburg declared that "whoever kills a Gypsy, will be guilty of no murder". The massive killing spree that resulted prompted the government to eventually step in and "forbid the drowning of Romani women and children".[40] In 1710, Joseph I ordered that "all adult males were to be hanged without trial, whereas women and young males were to be flogged and banished forever." In addition, they were to have their right ears cut off in the kingdom of Bohemia and their left ear in Moravia.[41]

In 1530, England issued the Egyptians Act which banned Romani from entering the country and required those living in the country to leave within 16 days. Failure to do so could result in confiscation of property, imprisonment and deportation. The act was amended with the Egyptians Act 1554, which ordered the Romani to leave the country within a month. Non-complying Romanies were executed.[42]

In 1660, Romanies were prohibited from residence in France by Louis XIV.[41]

In 1685, Portugal deported Romani to Brasil.[41]

Pre-war organization[edit]

In 1879, a national meeting of Romanies was held in the Hungarian town of Kisfalu (now Pordašinci, Slovenia). Romanies in Bulgaria set up a conference in 1919 to protest for their right to vote, and a Romani journal, Istiqbal (Future) was founded in 1923.[28]

In the Soviet Union, the All-Russian Union of Gypsies was organized in 1925 with a journal, Romani Zorya (Romani Dawn) beginning two years later. The Romengiro Lav (Romani Word) writer's circle encouraged works by authors like Nikolay Aleksandrovich Pankov and Nina Dudarova.[28]

A General Association of the Gypsies of Romania was established in 1933 with a national conference, and two journals, Neamul Țiganesc (Gypsy Nation) and Timpul (Time). An "international" conference was organized in Bucharest the following year.[28]

In Yugoslavia, Romani journal Romano Lil started publication in 1935.[28]


During World War II, the Nazis murdered 220,000 to 500,000 Romanies in a genocide referred to as the Porajmos. Like the Jews, they were segregated into ghettoes before being sent to concentration camps or extermination camps. They were often killed on sight, especially by the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front. 25% of European Roma perished in the genocide.

Post-war history[edit]

In Communist central and eastern Europe, Romanies experienced assimilation schemes and restrictions of cultural freedom. The Romani language and Romani music were banned from public performance in Bulgaria. In Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of Romanies from Slovakia, Hungary and Romania were re-settled in border areas of Czech lands and their nomadic lifestyle was forbidden. In Czechoslovakia, where they were labeled as a “socially degraded stratum,” Romani women were sterilized as part of a state policy to reduce their population. This policy was implemented with large financial incentives, threats of denying future social welfare payments, misinformation and involuntary sterilization.[43]

In the early 1990s, Germany deported tens of thousands of migrants to central and eastern Europe. Sixty percent of some 100,000 Romanian nationals deported under a 1992 treaty were Romani.[44]

During the 1990s and early 21st century many Romanies from central and eastern Europe attempted to migrate to western Europe or Canada. The majority of them were turned back. Several of these countries established strict visa requirements to prevent further migration.

In 2005, the Decade of Roma Inclusion was launched in nine Central and Southeastern European countries to improve the socio-economic status and social inclusion of the Romani minority across the region.

Decade of Roma Inclusion 2005 - 2015 has not been successful at all. It initiated crucially important processes for Roma inclusion in Europe, and provided the impetus for an EU-led effort covering similar subject matter, the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020 (EU Framework).[45]


Romanies began immigrating to the United States in colonial times, with small groups in Virginia and French Louisiana. Larger-scale immigration began in the 1860s, with groups of Romnichal from Britain. The largest number immigrated in the early 20th century, mainly from the Vlax group of Kalderash. Many Romanies also settled in other countries of the Americas.

Czech-Canadian Exodus[edit]

In August 1997, TV Nova, a popular television station in the Czech Republic, broadcast a documentary on the situation of Romanies who had emigrated to Canada.[46] The short report portrayed Romanies in Canada living comfortably with support from the state, and sheltered from racial discrimination and violence.[47] At the time, life was particularly difficult for many Romanies living in the Czech Republic. As a result of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, many Romanies were left without citizenship in either the Czech Republic or Slovakia.[48] Following the large flood in Moravia in July, many Romanies were left homeless yet unwelcome in other parts of the country.[46]

Almost overnight, there were reports of Romanies preparing to emigrate to Canada. According to one report, 5,000 Romani from the city of Ostrava intended to move. Mayors in some Czech towns encouraged the exodus, offering to help pay for flights so that Romanies could leave. The following week, the Canadian Embassy in Prague was receiving hundreds of calls a day from Romanies and flights between the Czech Republic and Canada were sold out until October.[46] In 1997, 1,285 people from the Czech Republic arrived in Canada and claimed refugee status, a rather significant jump from the 189 Czechs who did so the previous year.[48]

Lucie Cermakova, a spokesperson at the Canadian Embassy in Prague, criticized the program, claiming it "presented only one side of the matter and picked out only nonsensical ideas." Marie Jurkovicova, a spokesperson for the Czech Embassy in Ottawa suggested that "the program was full of half-truths, which strongly distorted reality and practically invited the exodus of large groups of Czech Romanies. It concealed a number of facts."[46]

President Václav Havel and (after some hesitation) Prime Minister Václav Klaus attempted to convince the Romanies not to leave. With the help of Romani leaders like Emil Scuka, Chairman of the Roma Civic Initiative, they urged Romanies to remain in country and work to solve their problems with the larger Czech population.

The movement of Romanies to Canada had been fairly easy because visa requirements for Czech citizens had been lifted by the Canadian government in April 1996. In response to the influx of Romanies, the Canadian government reinstated the visa requirements for all Czechs as of 8 October 1997.

Romani nationalism[edit]

A small Roma nationalist movement exists.

The first World Romani Congress was organized in 1971 near London, funded in part by the World Council of Churches and the Government of India. It was attended by representatives from India and 20 other countries. At the congress, the green and blue flag from the 1933 conference, embellished with the red, sixteen-spoked chakra, was reaffirmed as the national emblem of the Romani people, and the anthem, "Gelem, Gelem" was adopted.

The International Romani Union was officially established in 1977, and in 1990, the fourth World Congress declared April 8 to be International Day of the Roma, a day to celebrate Romani culture and raise awareness of the issues facing the Romani community.

The 5th World Romany Congress in 2000 issued an official declaration of the Romany non-territorial nation.

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]