History of the Vlach-Roma

The groups whose Romani varieties are strongly determined by Walachian i.e. Romanian features are called Vlach-Roma. This linguistic influence can be traced to the bondage and slavery of the Roma in the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia that lasted for centuries. Together with Transylvania, Moldavia and Walachia form the core of today’s Romania. Among the best-known representatives of the Vlach-Roma, that are spread all over the world today, are the Kalderaš (coppersmiths) and the Lovara (horse traders). [ Roma – Sub Ethnic Groups]

The first Roma groups came from Asia Minor to Modavia and Walachia in the middle of the 14th century. They were attracted by the wealth of the Romanian principalities of that time. According to Ian Hancock, they were first referred to in documents in the years of the regency of Rudolf IV and Stefan Dushan (1331-1355). Offering niche professions, they were originally considered an economically valuable group, although they already stood on the lowest level of the social hierachy. With the Ottoman conquest of the principalities the economical and political situation changed abruptly. Required to pay tribute from this time on, the rulers and monasteries made the free farmers pay increasingly higher taxes and forced them into an increasingly higher economic dependency that finally ended in bondage. Bondage means the personal and economic dependence of a bondsman on the lord of the manor. Bondsmen did not possess anything in terms of land and farmyard, they were committed to service to the lord and bound to the lords' possession.

The Roma were assigned a special role: with only a few exceptions, all Roma that did not end up in bondage were declared "robi" (unfree people or slaves). "Robi" were not bound to the land but to the landowner. Slaves were the possession of their masters. It must be added that slavery was already introduced to Walachia at the end of the 14th century. 120 years after Walachia, the principality of Moldavia, which was founded in 1359 and included Buchowina and Bessarabia, became a tributary of the Ottoman Empire in 1513. From this time on, the rulers used the same methods as in Walachia. In the Hungarian principality Transylvania, which was autonomous (under Turkish sovereignity) from 1542 to 1699 and became Austrian-Hungarian after 1699, bondage and slavery never reached these dimensions and was abolished completely at the end of the 17th century. [ Arrival in Europe]

Three groups of Roma slaves were distinguished according to their masters:

  • "Ţigani" or "Robi domneşti" ("gypsies or unfree people of the crown")
  • "Ţigani" or "Robi boiereşti" ("gypsies or unfree people of the bojars or the great landowners respectively")
  • "Ţigani" or "Robi manaştiresti" ("gypsies or unfree people of the monestaries")

The different circumstances of slavery or bondage that the respective groups were confronted with changed the homogenous social structure of the Roma. While the "Ţigani" or "Robi domneşti" could claim a certain degree of personal freedom as itinerant craftsmen (Kalderaš, Linguari, Aurari [gold digger or gold washer]), which led to the fact that they could maintain their culture and language to a large extent, the "Ţigani" or "Robi boiereşti" and "Ţigani" or "Robi manaştiresti" were forced into sedentarism as domestic servants and farm hands and were, therefore, at the mercy of their owners most strongly. They were also called "Ţigani vatraşii" ("gypsies of the community") and could be singled out, punished or sold at will due to their constant "availability". According to the Romanian writer Mihail Kogalniceanu, they were the largest group of the about 200,000 Roma slaves.

All Roma groups, however, fell victim to a ruling system that did not only limit their human rights, but withdrew them completely. "The dark skinned strangers" were denied their humanness: Roma were seen as "debased creatures" that "wanted to become slaves because it lifted them, although not to the level of human beings, to the same level of good, working, domestic animals".

On the one hand, this kind of racism legitimised the total enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people. On the other hand, civic rights were bound to landownership in the Romanian principalities; farmers without land as well as Roma were affected by this.

The terms "Ţigani" and "Robi" were interchangable, they described a certain social class. Roma were slaves from their birth on. They were not allowed to enter relationships with "free" persons, and marriages between slaves could only take place, if the respective owner granted permission. The spectrum of bodily violence ranged from flogging to torture and the death penalty. During his childhood and youth Mihail Kogalniceanu witnessed the circumstances under which the Roma lived in slavery:

It also was Kogalniceanu, who made an important contribution to the abolishment of slavery and bondage in the principalities of Moldavia and Walachia. In 1844 he started a campaign for the release of all Roma, and in the same year he published the article "Desrobirea Ţiganilor" ("The Liberation of the Gypsies"). The changed political circumstances supported his demands. In 1829 in the "Peace of Adrianopel" between Turkey and Russia the Romanian principalities were put under Russian sovereignity. While the Turkish influence was decreasing, more and more Romanian intellectuals were inspired by the French Revolution. The idea of human rights entered daily politics and led to a political climate that was the precondition for the abolition of slavery.

A first step was the exchange of the system of direct exploitation by a system based on a work contract and paid labour. In 1844 all Roma that were subject to the church or the state were released. Four years later the provisional government decided to liberate all Roma. It took another twelve years, however, until the bojars gave their assent to this law. In 1856 the end of slavery and bondage, which had lasted for half a century, could be declared.

"The Second Big Wave of Migration"

Thousands of Roma used their newly gained freedom to leave the Romanian principalities as fast as they could. A migratory movement which is called "the second wave of migration" was the consequence. It did not take place in the form of a mass migration, but in smaller, more flexible groups that each belonged to a clan (vitsa or tserha) or to an economic community (kumpania). [ Traditional socio-organisation] Searching for lucrative living conditions, the Vlach-Roma did not only spread all over the European continent, but moved to North and South America, South Africa and Australia. A few Roma groups must have succeeded in leaving the Romanian territory before the abolition of slavery.

It should be added that the frequently spread figure of 200,000 Roma migrants is definitely put to high. It probably rests on the assumption that the Roma could not follow their "innate migratory instincts" because of slavery only. Discussions in the media and in party politics after the end of Ceaucescu's regime made it obvious what political dimensions and continuity are carried within this myth. The danger of a new "invasion of gypsies" could be propagated and politically instrumentalised easily.

Despite the abolition of bondage and slavery ecocomic dependencies continued. They even increased in so far as the Roma became liable to taxation in 1856. Exact figures are not available. Reports point to the fact, however, that the majority of the Roma living in Romania at that time remained bound to their former owners and – at that stage – employers.


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Image Printable version
Image Mihail Kogalniceanu
Portrait of a Walachian (Roma-)slave (Romania)
Coppersmith (Kalderaš) working on a "post anvil" (Romania), 1919
Gypsy woman and her children at a camp near Lambton (Canada), 1918
Romantic picture of Walachian Gypsies (Romania)