Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month

24 June 2020

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month in June was established in the UK in 2008 with the purpose of raising awareness of GRT communities, their history and their contributions, and also to educate people in order to reduce negative stereotyping and prejudices.


Roger Galloway-Smith, BAME Representative Committee member for District 3, writes about the history of this often-forgotten community and why it's important to learn this for the future.


In the UK the travelling communities are referred to as Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT), and in Europe as Roma. However there are several distinct groups of Travelling and nomadic peoples which include Romany Gypsy, Irish Traveller, English Traveller, Scottish Traveller, Welsh Traveller, Showmen, Bargees and New Travellers. Showmen, Bargees and New Travellers are cultural groups rather than ethnic. Showmen are involved in travelling fairs, Bargees live on the UK's waterways and New Travellers grew out of the hippie movements of the 60's and 70's.


Historical records reveal that Romany Gypsies have been in the UK since the end of the 15th century after travelling through Europe during their migration from India. The word Gypsy comes from 'Egyptian' as the British thought the Roma had come from Egypt, Egypt being a part of popular culture at the time. However, analysis of the Romani language and genetics has proved that Romany Gypsies originated from Northern India, sometime in the 12th century. 


Irish Travellers originate from the island of Ireland and have a distinct heritage and culture from the general Irish population. References to Irish Travellers can be found in historical documents as far back as the 12th century, with migrations to mainland Britain starting around the early 19th century. Travellers of Irish heritage can identify as Pavee or Minceir, which are from the Irish Traveller language Shelta, which is also known as Cant or De Gammon. 


GRT communities globally have faced violence and persecution for centuries, and there is now a rise in such attacks. The worst case of such oppression and violence in recent years occurred during the Second World War at a time known as the Romani Holocaust or Porajmos, meaning 'the Devouring', with the Nazis targeting Roma and Sinti, (Sinti are a Gypsy people who do not identify as Roma). Roma and Sinti children, women and men were deported to concentration camps and ghettos where they were subjected to medical experimentation and forced sterilisation. Many died of disease and malnutrition, those that survived were murdered at Bergen-Belsen, Auschwitz, Chelmno, Treblinka, Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Ravensbruck, Sobibor, Blezec, Mauthausen and Buchenwald.


As records were largely destroyed, or not even kept as the Roma and Sinti were classed as 'sub-human' by the Nazis, the death toll is difficult to calculate but is estimated to be as high as 1.5 million in the Historiography of the Holocaust published in 2011. The European Roma Holocaust Memorial Day occurs on the 2nd of August each year which marks the day when 3000 Roma children, women and men where exterminated in gas chamber V at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.


For this reason, and many other episodes of the murder, oppression, demonization and destruction of GRT peoples, we have Gypsy Roma and Traveller History Month in the UK to make some headway into the negative stereotyping and ignorance surrounding these cultures and communities.


Attacks against the GRT peoples are rising in the UK, Europe and worldwide with little effort made by any government to prevent them. Our fight continues and only through education, activism and protest, with the support of unions such as ASLEF and its members, can we hope to turn the tide of hate that engulfs us.


If you would like to find out more about Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month and how to stand with the GRT community, click here to visit the Families Friends and Travellers website.

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