Roma community marks 150 years of freedom
Bucharest Daily News - February 21, 2006
by Denisa Maruntoiu
The Roma community throughout the country celebrated yesterday the "Abolishment of Roma slavery" day, which marked 150 years of freedom for the Roma living in Romania.
"We consider ourselves free and we enjoy our freedom every day. This celebration is of great importance to us and this is all the 17,000 Roma in Sibiu decided to praise this day through prayers and talks about our history," said Roma's King Florin Cioaba, quoted by Rompres.
The "Abolishment of Roma slavery" day was also celebrated in Bucharest, where representatives of the Roma associations, local officials and representatives of various NGOs organized the "March towards freedom".
Dozens of people gathered downtown Bucharest, at Mihail Kogalniceanu Square, and then marched off towards the Metropolitan Church, were they lit candles and prayed for all the Roma killed during the five centuries of Roma slavery.
The celebrations also included traditional Roma artistic performances and round tables, during which the representatives of the civil society tackled all the problems the Roma people are currently confronted with.
Romas were enslaved for more than 500 years in Romania until abolition in 1856. Early accounts of the Roma's presence in mediaeval Europe are limited, but it appears that the first Roma in the Balkan principality of Walachia (now part of present-day Romania) arrived as free people.
But the Roma, who had at first established a loose working relationship with the feudal landlords, became associated with particular estates and by the early1300s were being included in parcels of property given by one owner to another and to the monasteries, according to the Romanian chroniclers.
The first recorded sale of Roma slaves was in Romania in 1385. Later, in 1445, Prince Vlad Dracul of Walachia is believed to have kidnapped 12,000 Roma from Bulgaria and put them to slave labor. The very first anti-Roma laws were passed in Switzerland in 1471, and in the same year 17,000 Roma were transported into Moldavia for slave labor by Stephan the Great.
The Code of Basil the Wolf of Moldavia, dated 1654, contained references to the treatment of slaves, including the death penalty in the case of the rape of a white woman by a Roma.
Nevertheless, by 1800 the Ottoman court had managed to make the laws more stringent, and in 1818 incorporated into the Walachia Criminal code the following laws: "Gypsies are born slaves," "Anyone born of a mother who is a slave, is also a slave," "Any owner has the right to sell or give away his slaves," and "Any Gypsy without an owner is the property of the Prince."
By the middle of the 19th century, economic and social changes were beginning to affect the Romanian principalities. Moldavia and Walachia were keen to be regarded as a part of the new Europe, and took France as its model. And in France, slavery was increasingly being seen as a barbaric and inhumane anachronism.
On September 25th, 1848, students demonstrated publicly in Bucharest and tore up a copy of the statutes relating to slavery.
Following the unrest, the Moldavian General Assembly voted unanimously for abolition, and the bill was passed on December 23rd, 1855. The Wallachian Assembly did likewise in February 1856. Complete legal freedom came in 1864, when Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza, ruler of the now-united principalities, restored the Roma to the estates they had worked on, not as slaves but as free people.
ED'L NOTE - For background reading on the Romani people see:
Ian Hancok, We Are the Romani People, University of Hertforshire Press, Hatfield, England, 2002.