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By Abu Bakr
[At a time when many evocations of slavery are being offered, here is an interesting piece of research submitted to us by Abu Bakr].
This is the International Year of Peoples of African Descent. The Guyanese ACDA promises us a commemorative event that will both celebrate and mourn the history of African slavery and settlement.
The idea of African slavery in the popular imagination is that of a historical aberration in which the treatment of human beings as chattel is presented as a feature unique to the African experience of European contact, and as defining of it. In a way it was. But only in terms of the scale, both numerical and relating to the geographic spread (insofar as the variety of receiving countries is concerned).
The fact is, however, that the historical duration of servitude at the hands of Europeans must take into account the experience of the immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, Gypsies, who were held in servile condition for up to five hundred years in some parts of the Europe. A tenth of the population in Romania would have been composed of Indian Gypsy slaves at the moment of abolition in the mid nineteenth century.
Today the total Gypsy population may be ten million souls spread all over Europe. They are found in most of Eastern and Central Europe and the spatial distribution features as well as concentrations in France, Spain and Portugal. Now generally referred to as “Romani” people, Gypsies are identified as belonging to different sub-groups speaking varying but related languages, where the language survived. But it was the people as a whole that the Nazis decided to eliminate, and the Germans managed to get rid of more than 600 000 or about ten percent of the Gypsy population at the time.
In Wallachia and Moldavia (geographic overlap with much of modern day Romania) slavery of Gypsies would have been legislated as early as the fourteenth century and abolition was only declared in stages in the mid-nineteenth century. It was a manner of slavery similar to that which we experienced in the New World; no less demeaning in its practice. Efforts were made to eliminate them by outlawing marriages in some places and, at the cultural level, by prohibiting the use of their native languages and customs in the Iberian Peninsula. Despite this they managed to survive and are now the largest non-European minority inhabitants of Europe.
Gypsies are immigrants from Northern India, Punjabi/Rajasthani in origin it is assumed, and there has been syncretised retention of the Southern Indian Kali worship by some groups which suggests contact or origin in other areas of India also. In terms of religion they have generally assumed the rites of the countries they inhabit and are particularly fervent evangelists in some places. Their Catholicism may contain elements of another faith. Again, syncretism is assumed. The pilgrimage around May 24 each year to the village of Saintes Maries de la Mer in France features a black Virgin, Sara, that some insist is really a representation of the Indian goddess Kali.
Gypsies were among the first slaves in the New World with records showing that some had been deported from Europe into Latin America and even the USA and worked as slaves.
In the languages that have survived it has been estimated by Romani linguist Dr Ian Hancock that at times up to seventy percent of the vocabulary is of Indic origin. Gypsies have settled or lead nomadic lives in countries of Eastern as well as Western Europe and even in some parts of the Middle East. Most have no recollection of their racial and cultural origins. But you look at them physically and you see Indians and Indo-Europeans. You hear them speak Romani and you recognise the word “pani” for water; common to many Indian languages. For a Guyanese it is easy to situate the Romanis as an ethnic people.
The various groups of immigrants now known as Gypsies had apparently arrived in Europe in waves starting from about the eleventh century A.D and the welcome they received varied with the place and the period. Initially mistaken for Egyptians or Tatars or pilgrims on a penance trip to Rome, they would have slowly sunk into the morass of racist and religious rejection that grew, especially after the end of serfdom and the expulsion of the Moors from Southern Europe. They had been accused of cannibalism long before the Spanish attached the label to the Amerindians they met in the new world. They were said to have forged the nails used in the crucifixion, to be baby thieves and child sacrificers, sorcerers and witches, conmen, heretics and so on.
As a varied people who, up to these days, have sometimes chosen to live in a caste-like apartheid, traditional Gypsies are known to occupy a mental universe divided into the clean and the unclean, with some of the isolationist tendencies felt to have originated in the Hindu preoccupation with these matters. The women are, in most groups, expected to be chaste at marriage, and families are formed in early adolescence. They have generally managed to maintain group identity and solidarity and family life.
Despite the terrible racism that Romani suffer, they have produced some exceptional personalities (Yul Brynner, and possibly Charlie Chaplin) in the arts, notably music while one Nobel prize scientist, August Krogh, has claimed Romani origin.
Surprisingly for us, the Romani children are felt to be of low intelligence and are often placed in special programs. There have been cases of forced sterilisation to limit the Romani population. There had been Maroon communities (escaped slaves) and other forms of resistance by Romanis that point to or predict what would happen when slavery was established in the New World. The stories are similar.
Which brings us to the point of specific interest here. It takes the form of a question: what were the cultural forces that shaped European treatment of slaves and subject peoples after the conquest and settlement of the New World?
The responses, I have concluded, lie in the way patterns of hegemony, occupation and servitude were established in Europe itself and exported wherever Europeans went.
Readings in European history are particularly interesting when they deal with the manner in which Roman conquest was handled by the Gauls in France or the other peoples on the continent. One immediately understands why the French insisted that conquered people adopt wholesale the French culture and the celebration of its language. The French are merely doing unto others what they felt the Romans did to them and projecting upon conquered peoples expectations of behaviour that have been retained from their own past. Similarly, in Spain, the treatment of the Romani is related to the efforts at eliminating entire cultures; Jews and Muslims also suffered, after the re-conquest in the sixteenth century.
Carlos Moore, the Cuban ethnologist and political scientist made mention in one of his analyses of the importance of looking at the way Europe itself responded to its periods of subjection for keys as to what they would do to peoples with whom they later interacted.
It is not surprising that the stereotypes and accusations arising from the Romani experience in Europe would be repeated with respect to Amerindians native to the New World, and specifically to Blacks imported here.
Romani peoples and their “hideous blackness”, I read in one document in Spain last year, their low intelligence, their shiftlessness, sensuality…. bring to mind the vocabulary of racism with which we are familiar in the African context.
The extent to which the depiction becomes, in itself, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy is easy to imagine.
As a permanent underclass, Romani peoples have suffered the anomie that leads to small-scale criminality, the complex of exclusion and mutual rejection, and all the consequences we could imagine in the sociology of poverty that emerges from the story. The ex-communist countries have been better at efforts to integrate Romani peoples, but the uprising of racist rejection in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania after 1990 shows that prejudice runs deep, and that the Romani may be the last people to suffer this kind of naked racism in the West.
Also, in the same way that the fate of blacks, as slaves and freed slaves, has varied significantly with location and cultural conditions, Indian slavery and indentureship has also varied enormously depending on all the conditions that apply in these cases. These are cases that merit further study by the fact that they strip our narratives of any notions of racial or cultural essentialism that are still retained.
. Educated in Guyana and France, he specialized in the social and economic sciences. Former journalist, a Director of Public Affairs for the territorial government in the United States Virgin Islands (department of economic development) until 1991, he is currently preparing a book of essays on “the politics of race, place and gender” with reference primarily to continental Europe, Africa,India and the Caribbean. The main idea being that each of these elements of identity is and has historically been radically modified by changes in the social order such as colonialism, or by emigration etc. In short when our ancestors left the old continents they left behind them definitions of themselves that they were often unable to re-assemble in the New Worlds of BG or Jamaica, Queens.
ABU BAKR is a Guyanese born analyst, educated in Guyana and France and now lives in Europe. He studied social sciences and modern languages. specializing in the social and economic sciences. He was a journalist and a Director of Public Affairs for the territorial government in the United States Virgin Islands (department of economic development) until 1991. During the last twelve years he has been consultant to a French Investment consortium and a businessman in the hotel sector (France and the USA). He is currently preparing a book of essays on “the politics of race, place and gender” with reference primarily to continental Europe, Africa, India and the Caribbean. The main idea being this work is that each of these elements of identity is and has historically been radically modified by changes in the social order such as colonialism, or by migration etc. In short, when our ancestors left the old continents they left behind them definitions of themselves that they were often unable to re-assemble in the New Worlds of British Guiana or Jamaica, etc The ancestors of the dominant groups also re-defined themselves and were re-defined by their new circumstances.
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