The Gypsy, or more correctly, Roma people do not have the sort of written history that we are accustomed to in the western world. Their history can only be deduced from linguistic evidence and from the written histories of other peoples. This is because history is generally written by history’s winners, and the Roma were history’s losers.
In 1206 Temujin was proclaimed Genghis Khan (mighty king) of the Mongols. The Mongol expansion that followed extended to virtually the whole of Asia, Northern India and Eastern Europe. This empire was unique in two ways. First, it was the biggest empire in human history, and second, it was run by nomads. Before and since this time, whenever nomads and settled peoples have clashed, the settled peoples may have suffered setbacks, but, because of their access to greater resources and manpower, have always eventually prevailed. Exceptionally, the Mongols prevailed because of their military skills (particularly horsemanship), ruthless attitudes, efficient bureaucracy and their ability to provide mobile food production and mobile manufacturing facilities to backup their mobile armies.
When the Mongols occupied a country, they had a policy that we would call today “multi-culturalism”. As long as they remained in charge and made the rules, they tolerated all races and religions. Over time, this resulted in countries that they occupied having populations of very mixed origins but with a unique “nomad” culture. Northern India was a periferal part of the Empire, it was surrounded by it and its people were subject to its influence and attitudes.
With the death of Kublai Khan in 1294, the empire slowly fragmented. By 1400 the only remaining Khanate was the Russian steppe, occupied by the Tartars of the “Golden Horde”. By 1441, the northern expansion of Islam, particularly in India and southern expansion of Russia in Europe reduced the Mongol Empire to just the Crimea. In 1783 this last piece was ceded to Russia.
This steady collapse of empire meant that for hundreds of years large numbers of people with nomadic culture found themselves refugees, unwanted in their previous homelands. Some of these people, whose original homeland was Northern India, trekked through Turkey, west into Europe. They called themselves “Roma”, others called them “Gypsies” in the mistaken belief that they had come from Egypt. Their racial origins were mixed, their language was of North Indian origin and their culture was a mixture of Hindu and Russian steppe.
They brought with them a love of the outdoor life, of bright colours and glitter, of horses and horsemanship, of circuses and fairs, of singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. They brought the know-how to carry a blacksmith’s forge on a horse and cart and to be able rapidly to set it up and use it. They also brought “nomad” attitudes which were to bring them into conflict with their new neighbours.
There is a fundamental conflict between the attitudes, customs and laws of nomads and those of settled peoples. This is best illustrated by the fact that if someone took a chicken, killed and ate it, a person from a settled community would regard the perpetrator as a thief, because the chicken was the property of the land owner. A nomad would see it differently. He would regard the land and its produce as owned by everyone and no-one, hence the perpetrator was perfectly justified in his actions, and it was the land owner who was the thief, because he had stolen the land and its produce from the people who previously owned it. It is this fundamental difference, plus the universal human tendency to distrust anyone who differs from one’s own norms, that has led to much persecution, which, to a degree, still continues today. Most people are very aware that Hitler killed six million Jews. Strangely, few realise that he also killed between half a million and one and a half million Gypsies using the same methods. (The reason that the number of Jews killed is known more accurately is that there were better records of pre-existing Jewish population numbers than pre-existing Gypsy population numbers).
Today the largest number of full blooded European Gypsies (as a percentage of the population) live in South Eastern Europe particularly Rumania and Bulgaria.
Gypsies have been routinely persecuted throughout Europe. In England a law was enacted in 1530 expelling all Gypsies. The penalty for not complying was death. The last known execution for the offence of being a Gypsy in England was in 1650.
When Jem was born in 1831, England was still, by today’s standards, a very racist place. Slavery was not abolished until 1833. In the British Empire, most of the original inhabitants of every country were persecuted, enslaved or ill-used in some way, and in some cases deliberately exterminated.
Interestingly, native English regarded themselves as a superior race and Gypsies as ignorant vagabonds. The Roma regarded themselves as a superior race and Gadje (“foreigners” in the Romany language) as ignorant people who scratched in the earth for a living.
The applicable laws used to “control” Gypsies in England during the Victorian period were the 1824 and 1833 Vagrancy Acts which are quoted in the attached “Moriarty’s Police Law”. These laws have clearly been enacted by a settled community, they are designed to ease the lives of settled people and put pressure on nomadic communities to conform. (The Laws which were in force in the Mongol Empire were exactly the opposite. They were designed to allow nomads free access to the land and its produce and put pressure on settled communities to conform.)
Police attitudes to Gypsies in England in Victorian times are well illustrated by the scans of the following pages.
Unbelievably, “Criminal Investigation” by Gross was the official British Police handbook until the 1960’s.