A NEW LOOK AT OUR ROMANI ORIGINS AND DIASPORA
By Ronald Lee
© Ronald Lee, 2009, all rights reserved
“Until lions have historians,
Stories of the hunt
Shall always glorify the hunters.’’
– African proverb
The Mystery People and the Pseudo-Egyptians
For almost five-hundred years after we Romani people appeared in Europe in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Europeans were asking where we had come from. By then, we ourselves had forgotten our origins in North-Central India although in 1422 some Romani newcomers did tell Italians in Forli, Italy, who asked them where they had come from, that their original homeland was in India. (Muratori, 1731, Vol X1X: 890) This remained buried in the archives until recently (Informaciako Lil 7-9, 1992). Our Indian origin only started to become known in the latter 18th century among a select group of scholars such as pioneer Heinrich Grellman. It then slowly spread through what came to be known as “Gypsy Studies” in the latter 19th and the 20th centuries when it became monopolized by the British Gypsy Lore Society (GLS), a fluctuating group of Victorian paternalistic racists founded in 1888 and an offshoot of the contemporary Orientalists. Their Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, a mixture of academic scholarship of the era and the literary meanderings of wealthy eccentrics and dilettantes, soon became the main source of information on the Romani people, albeit those mainly located in Britain, then the tip of the Romani demographic iceberg at that period in time, for the erudite. Thus, by the latter 19th century, the stage was set for us to be misdefined and stereotyped by outsiders. This was ably catered to by a series of armchair scribblers who penned a never-ending series of romantic novels about the Gypsies they had never met and which soon became the main source of information for the less erudite until largely bumped from this role by movies such as Golden Earrings and Hot Blood and later, by the prime-time idiot box. In the latter 20th century after the death of venerable pundit Dora Yates in 1974 at the age of 95, the old, toothless and moribund GLS was gradually metamorphosed by the rising academic Young Turks of Neolorist Gypsy Studies into what is now called the “Non-Romani Gypsy Industry” by Romani activists.
Despite the fact that our Indian origin has now proven beyond question, even today (2009), in the age of the Internet, there is still a widespread and totally erroneous belief that we originated in Egypt! I recently saw a children’s book which shows the sphinx, pyramids, pharaohs, camels and carved and decorated English Romani vardo (caravan) with an English Romanichel sitting on the caravan steps and dutifully whittling wooden clothes pegs in some secluded English dingle à la George Borrow and the romantic novelists, which stated ‘authoritatively’ that the “The Gypsies came from Egypt.” How did this kind of mythology get started?