Shedding light on a dark episode. The Great Gypsy Round-up

Shedding light on a dark episode. The Great Gypsy Round-up

Isaac Motos is a researcher who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Murcia. He is coordinator of “Edukaló”, an educational initiative in the province of Alicante whose aim is to promote, respect and support Roma school-age children in their right to obtain an education. Isaac is also an accomplished poet whose verses can be enjoyed in the publication “Palabras de agua”.

→ The sinister extermination of law-abiding Roma


What was the Great Gypsy Round-up?

The Great Gypsy Round-up was certainly one of the most sinister ordeals to have befallen Spain’s Roma community and generally one of the most sinister episodes in the History of Spain. At the same time, it can also be viewed as a mere continuation of previous administrative policies towards Roma in Spain. It did not come about unexpectedly but was considered highly justified and was even supported by a legal ruling. In fact, the ruling was handed down by the country’s highest judicial body of the time, the Consejo de Estado (Council of State). It was thus a measure that typified the historical experiences of Roma in Spain, and marked the end of a way of dealing with the Roma “difference” in Spain.

What happened specifically during this historical event you qualify as being so sinister?

On the night of 30 July 1749, between 9,000 and 14,000 Gypsies were apprehended, and men were separated from women. Men over the age of 12 were sent to perform forced labour as prisoners under absolutely appalling conditions in places such as the mines of Almadén, the Port of Ferrol, the La Carraca shipyard and the Arsenal of Cartagena. These Roma were forced to endure overcrowding, food shortages, poor hygiene, a lack of most everything else and a brutal labour regimen. Those in charge of these sites said it would be impossible to continue keeping the Roma under such conditions, as they would reach a point where fighting would be their best option – under the assumption that death would be preferable to the situation they were in.

Children were most likely given to wealthy (and even not-so-wealthy) families and women were sent to what were known as Casas de Misericordia (Mercy Houses), where attempts were made to reform them spiritually to make them more useful to society. Many women were sent to the Casas de Misericordia in Zaragoza, where records detail how unyielding they were in the face of an absolutely unjust situation, how they did not submit in the least.

Who were the people that were captured?

Roma who had obeyed laws about living in the cities where this was permitted and who had registered in the appropriate registry for this purpose. In other words, Roma who had demonstrated improved relations with the rest of society were the ones who were captured, even though there was still a floating Roma population that, according to historical records, maintained their nomadic way of life. It was the segment of Roma society that decided to… or let’s say, that best co-existed with the rest of society and in accordance with the law that was most brutally treated. All this has been documented in a work which is unfortunately unpublished (and will hopefully cease to be) by Bernard Leblon entitled “El Gran Fichero de España”, which describes the organisation of these cities where Gypsies lived and what jobs they had.

What sort of allies might help Roma communities address the situation you have explained?

Given all this madness, which at that time was not considered as such, many local authorities where these Roma lived, residents of these locations, and Roma in other locations, began to protest because those who were apprehended were not criminals but citizens who were useful to society because they performed trades such as blacksmithing or veterinary medicine that were highly vital in that period. In light of such needs, some Roma were released. The poor were most often freed, because when a Roma was freed their property – which had been confiscated – had to be given back.

What made the Great Round-up possible?

From 1633, the existence of Roma as such was officially denied, a fact that can be documented in legislation. In 1695 a process of municipal registration was begun requiring Roma to register as New Castilians and not as Roma. They were obliged to divulge in which town they lived. Failure to do so would lead to them to be punished as galley slaves. To avoid being punished through imprisonment, they had to subject themselves to local control. In 1717 a Pragmatic Decree was issued specifying 41 cities where Roma would have to live. They would only be allowed to live in these cities and, of course, were required to be officially registered. In 1646, another Pragmatic Decree was issued to enforce the obligation of Roma to register for local censuses. In addition, another 34 cities were added and Roma who registered in them were subjected to strict surveillance.

Thus, the Great Round-up of 1749 could not have been possible without that compilation of data, or without the new strategy of controlling those belonging to the Roma culture. It would have been absolutely impossible. Such measures enabled the existence in 1749 of a listing of 14,000-20,000 Roma people in 54 Spanish cities with details of exactly where and who they were. And that is what made the Great Round-up possible.


When was the decision made to end the Great Round-up?

This situation that I have described existed legally until 1783. Carlos III ordered all Roma to leave. He understood that it was a measure which made no sense and was totally brutal, even though it was no less brutal than the Pragmatic Decree he later issued.

This is basically the interpretation we can make based on the historical data we have, but we should always bear in mind that these historical data do not originate from Roma and should be complemented by contributions from persecuted people so as to have a fairer perspective on the historical facts that I am attempting to analyse.


What reasons led Carlos III to end the extermination of Spain’s Roma community? 

Well, I think there were several. On the one hand, there are those who suggest that the situation was financially unsustainable because having prisoners in those places was not profitable.

On the other hand, I think that Carlos III gave more prominence to enlightened ideas in Spain. Yes, there was a certain shift in thinking about how to deal with certain things such as the Roma issue, how to treat the poor, beggars, the needy. Well, there were no longer any needy people, there were the poor and beggars. Needy people no longer existed.


Could we then say that the Pragmatic Decree of Carlos III was a turning point in the treatment of Spain’s Romani community?

In general terms, historians consider Carlos III’s Pragmatic Decree of 1783 as a paradigm shift in terms of policies related to Roma and other issues. However, there seems be a continuity with respect to other aspects. I perceive, and it is one of the things I would like to demonstrate, a change in discourse with respect to Roma, or a shift in terms of how Gypsies were viewed at the time.


What exactly did that shift consist of?

Before the Pragmatic Decree of Carlos III, i.e. from 1499 to 1783, Roma were clearly considered to be a criminal element, and a body of law specifically referring to them as such existed. The Novísima Recopilación de las Leyes de España contains a chapter specifically about Roma which portrayed them as a criminal element comprised of murderers, sodomites and heretics.

Under the Pragmatic Decree of Carlos III, Gypsies lost their status as “beings”. This is not to say that they stopped being criminals, but that the entire concept of crime was redefined in terms of disciplinary actions. Thus, they were no longer classified as criminals but as dangerous individuals. Therefore, it was not a question of applying measures of a punitive nature, but ones of control and surveillance. A vagrancy law was thus enacted specifically with that intention. It was targeted at socially dangerous individuals who needed to be kept under control even though they had not necessarily committed any crimes.


In your view, what aspects of the Pragmatic Decree of Carlos III advanced the freedom of Spain’s Romani communities?

If we delve into its contents, it is true that it granted Gypsies freedom of trade (the position taken since the 16th century that prohibited any trade except agriculture) and freedom of domicile. However, like the rest of anti-Gypsy legislation it maintains the same concept of Gypsies as people. This concept literally says that Gypsies are a race that must be exterminated because they are completely useless, because there are really no such thing as Gypsies, that Gypsy identity is just a ruse used to lead a wretched life that is harmful to society . That is what Carlos III said.


→ The political management of the Roma “difference” in Spain


Before you said that the Great Round-up was the end of a specific management of the Roma difference in Spain. Could you briefly explain how this management was carried out?

anagement of the Gypsy “difference” in Spain basically alternated between three options: expulsion, imprisonment or extermination. Throughout history, these options were interchanged but remained constant. They were sometimes even administered simultaneously.

During the 15th and 16th centuries there was a debate in Spain about how to deal with the Roma “difference”. The option that favoured sequestration seemed to have finally won. That is, monitor them and keep them under control as a form of forced inclusion. This can be understood from the Pragmatic Decree of 1633, in which Roma officially ceased to exist in the legal sense. The law’s heading makes this clear: “They do not originate from nor constitute a nation. They are vagrants who have adopted that form of life as a way to carry out their misdeeds”. However, another trend abruptly appeared that sought to expel, lock up and exterminate the Roma population. We thus had a situation where, on the one hand, some advocated total extermination – i.e., direct, physical death – while others preferred to benefit from the use of an enslaved workforce. In addition, was also a mixing of both trends. In the case of the Great Gypsy Round-up, it was taken literally as a final decision to definitively solve the Roma problem.


You talk first of denial of being and then of extermination. How would it be possible to inflict physical death on something that does not exist?

The treatment of Roma throughout history has been a very strange paranoia. As I said before, in 1633 their mere existence was refuted, and in 1749 a General Round-up of Roma was ordered. That is, ordering a round-up of something that did not exist was very strange, and given the unusual nature of that situation, the solutions offered were are also very strange. To this mixture of slave labour and physical extermination, one can add the spiritual reform of people through education, work and morale-shaping.

Despite the attempt to carry out a spiritual reform, another push for extermination also arose, given the impossibility of getting anywhere with Roma, i.e. the impossibility of reform.


Do you think the Great Round-up had a differential impact on Romani women?

This topic has not been thoroughly studied. We presently know that men could have been considered useful for the performance of forced labour in the mercury mines in Almadén, the Port of Ferrol. In other words, to do the type of work to which male offenders were assigned. However, women were sent to hospice houses where they were taught to embroider, sew, and serve in order to make them useful.

It should be noted that in the context of such measures, the concept of the “enemy inside” began to take shape. This concept held that people thought to be a kind of cancer on society must be cured through education, work and effort. These methods of reforming the “enemy inside” were not yet considered valid, but they were used in the Great Round-up. Keep in mind that men and women were separated, and women were sent to do exactly the type of work that would reform them and make them into citizens who were useful, decent and so on.


Was then the Great Round-up the first step towards making Roma into slave labour for the state?

No, it was something that went back to the 16th century, to the Pragmatic Decree of Carlos I in 1560. The Decree legalised substituting the punishments of some prisoners with work in the galleys. This situation led to many Roma being assigned to the galleys simply for being Roma.

This was not the first general round-up of Roma. There had been a previous one. In 1639 Felipe IV ordered a general and indiscriminate round-up of all Roma. The difference is that on this occasion the purpose was clear and expressly stated: to resolve the shortage of slaves in the Castilian galleys. The problem is that this episode has been studied much less and many fewer historical documents have been found. By this I mean the Great Round-up of 1749 was the continuation of a historical process that I believe was intended to make use of Gypsy labour as slave labour, and in the case of both women and men.


Given that the first contacts between Roma groups and European kingdoms, including those on the Iberian Peninsula, were established for pilgrimage purposes, papal letters of protection were issued. What position did the Catholic Church take in regards to this situation of persecution and extermination?

The Holy Brotherhood and some bodies specialised in the persecution of Roma filed complaints about the fact that some Roma were claiming rights of asylum. When any type of person who had committed any type of crime, regardless of its nature, invoked the right of asylum at a Church, a holy place, other authorities were not allowed to act, and a more complicated procedure that prevented their immediate capture was initiated.

It has been documented that Roma were among the people who invoked this right. So in 1748, prior to the Great Round-up, a meeting was held with the Pope in which the right of asylum was invalidated for Roma.


According to your research, both legislative and religious authorities contributed to the implementation of the Great Round-up. Could you explain briefly what the relationship between these authorities was?

We should remember that the Consejo de Estado was the second highest authority in the country after the king, and the council’s president was a bishop and therefore a lawyer and a person of his time. He was not committing an act considered to be mad or barbarous but rather one which was logical at that time and even good.


To further answer your question, if political, legislative and even religious authorities prevented people within the Roma culture from being considered as people, what legal consideration would have remained for Roma to be considered as “beings” in that situation?

One consequence of the process of historical seriation of Roma in Spain is that it gradually deepened and grew within a process of nullifying their rights as Roma. Roma had been classified as criminals from 1499, and the only remaining legal stronghold that would enable them to be recognised as Roma was the right to asylum, the very right that had been invalidated. This placed the state in a legal situation of absolute impunity that made the Great Round-up possible. That is, on the one hand we have an element of bureaucratic intelligence, knowing exactly who and where they were, and secondly a legal and political process that granted absolute impunity with respect to the treatment of Roma. I think it was the combination of these two elements which made the Great Round-up possible at that time.


→ The impacts of Gypsy extermination


Did the Great Round-up have any impact on Spain’s Roma culture?

We do not have historical data from Romani sources. We don’t know what that situation was like for them. However, we do have some clues.

There were a number of Romantic writers from places such as Germany and England who came to Spain and were interested in the language of the Roma because they had already heard about it in their home countries. They collected lists of words and vocabulary which demonstrated that a correct form of the Romani language existed that was consistent with the Romani found in other parts of Europe. In 1749 another attempt was made to document these Romani vocabularies, revealing an absolute corruption of the language. We do not know whether the Roma were no longer willing to risk revealing aspects of themselves or if they stopped talking out of fear – a logical fear of expressing an aspect of their identity that had been prohibited and that might find them once again imprisoned.


Could you give me an example of how the Great Round-up affected the relationship between the Roma community and the majority society?

A deterioration of that relationship was detected, that is very clear. That is, Roma people lost all confidence in their relations with authorities, a sentiment which remains to this day. There is a logical sense of distrust because we have suffered and continue to suffer much abuse. It is logical to distrust in such situations. It would be illogical to trust someone who is treating you badly.


What psychological sequelae could the Great Round-up have left on people?

On the one hand, a distrust of authority is something that I believe has been psychologically internalised by the group. We must remember that the negative impacts were experienced by those with the highest levels of coexistence, people who had been living in those cities for a long time, who had jobs and lives – the very things that were attacked. Of course, this situation exerted some influence on the thinking of other Roma communities who had not adopted that way of life. But as I say, we are unfortunately unable to know the views of Roma who personally experienced that historical moment.

We can say that there was a shift where Roma went from being categorised as criminals to being dangerous people. From being an external to an internal enemy. A latent danger to society in accordance with the logic of perverted states.

I think basically that situation still exists. The treatment of people in Roma communities is still like that. It has not changed. Romani identity continues to be dealt with under these terms in Spain and in the rest of Europe. Have any measures been taken by Spain or the European Commission to reaffirm the identity of Roma? None at all. All measures have been preventative in nature, especially with regards to what Social Security and Public Safety authorities should do about people in marginal situations. Such measures represent a continuity of the “danger to society” concept.



In the second part of the interview, you said that there had been a shift in laws regarding the treatment of Gypsies from considering them as being criminals to being dangerous. Do you think any remnants of that shift still exist today? 

It would be in the shift of the concept of criminality where the “Gypsy criminal” concept was also shifted. Gypsies — in addition to being thought of as thieves, vagrants and criminals — are now considered as dangerous. For this reason it is thought that they should be kept under control and surveillance.

This situation still exists today because the historical process, in spite of having been very long, establishes a relationship that goes from being a danger to society to being at the margins of society. A line of continuity exists there. Having been considered as a danger to society from the 19th to the mid-20th centuries, they are now considered to be marginal.


What does this shift in what you are talking about mean in the context of today’s Spain?

This shift in the continuum which has led to the Roma community’s present position in fact hides it, as there is now not just a political problem but a social one as well. The social problems experienced by Roma are a fundamental aspect of their circumstances and should not be overlooked. Solutions need to be found to high illiteracy rates, severe educational difficulties, employment problems, housing needs, the situation of Roma women and the enhancement of their freedom. It is essential to address all of these issues, as they are part of the social processes of any society. But there is another issue that is never addressed: the political situation. The attention given to political issues has been deplorable, a state of affairs that urgently needs to be remedied.



→ A light needs to be shone in the direction of justice, remedies, truth and a resolve to avoid repeating the past. We should all play by the same rules.


The situation you’ve described and analysed in this interview is truly sinister and also painful for both sides to acknowledge. Do you think you can shed light on it and come up with a remedy? 

Yes, of course. Ideas such as cultural autonomy have been introduced, which are not intended to deny the social situation of Roma. Their social situation is what it is as the result of an issue we have not addressed: the political situation. There are no arenas for political participation by Roma in Spain, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that there are. It is possible for them to participate as citizens, or as new Castilians, as I have said, but not as Roma. There is no political arena in Spain for them to exercise that right.
What would be necessary to remedy this situation?
The right that was taken away, that was sequestered from Gypsies in 1499, must be returned. A process needs to be initiated that will give legal status back to Spanish Romani people. This must be a political process, the keys to which we Roma do not have. We can say things, apply pressure, dialogue, but we do not hold that key. We can knock on the door, but we cannot open it. The door must be opened by those who hold its keys: the political parties, the State.


What do you mean when you talk about the cultural autonomy of Spain’s Roma community?

From my point of view, we must begin to introduce the Roma issue into Spain’s political agenda as a matter of State policy. Furthermore, it should be treated in terms of political, legal and social restitution which will result in the exercise of rights, including collective rights.

It is not true that there are no collective rights in Spain. Nor is the liberal theory that only individual rights exist true. Collective rights do exist in Spain. What are Spain’s self-governing regions comprised of if not of collective rights? Why does someone from Murcia have more rights than I do as a Roma? Or someone from Castilla y León, Andalusia or Madrid? Why? Why are there 17 self-governing regions in Spain and not 18? Why? Politics is the realm of the possible, of what could be different, and cultural autonomy could exist in Spain if the rights of Roma were recognised as existing without the need for them to be affiliated with a geographical area. We will need to explore these issues. I think that is the way to truly restore the historical process of Roma in Spain.


When you talk about the restoration of collective rights, to what collective rights are you referring specifically?

I am referring specifically to the ability of Romani representatives to take decisions of concern to Roma. Legitimately elected through the processes and channels that are determined and defended by the Roma cause in forums where these issues are debated. It is a question of having everyone play by the same rules. If we’re going to participate, if we really want Roma to integrate, if we really want them to be included, they must be given the same set of rules. What is not acceptable is an attempt to have them integrate, or for them to understand what the word means, but without the same rules being applied.

Otherwise, why integrate? To be marginalised? To be denied rights as a Roma to defend what I think is right? That’s not the way it is for Spaniards. Why should it be like that for Roma? Why are Roma treated differently when it comes to issues of representation?

What has been and what is now the role of pro-Roma movements and associations in the political milieu that you describe?

All kinds of things have happened. Some Roma representatives from the associations movement have done things better or worse than others. Some have made better use of these movements, and others have merely tried to do something. What authorities who deal with these NGOs and associations have always demonstrated is a tendency to consider them as Romani representatives. Why consider them the representatives of Roma if the same consideration is not given to other social groups? An association of people from Burgos does not represent Burgos. If no one would consider it to be a representative of Burgos, then why consider Roma and pro-Roma associations to be representatives of Roma? What benefit does the State derive from this situation? Why do they accept as representatives those they know do not have this status and who have not completed constitutional processes needed to legitimately establish them as such?

This situation cannot continue the way it is. Roma have no representatives. No, there aren’t any.


If you were elected by your community as one of those representatives to fight for the collective rights of Roma in Spain, what issue would you work on first?

Education, without a doubt. The present situation cannot go on. Students – especially Romani students – cannot continue to pay for the improper functioning of the school system. They cannot keep on paying.

They are paying for a lack of resources and educational measures, and often a lack of interest. This is horrendous because it really makes processes of self-determination, conscience-raising and others impossible to implement. It reduces them to situations of absolute marginality.


Why do you think education is such an important part of improving the prospects of Roma?

If you have no job, no education – nothing at all, and no information – then you can be more easily manipulated and convinced to settle for unfavourable circumstances. We don’t have to settle for such circumstances. Much more can be done, and this will inevitably entail becoming involved in education. There must be a process for consideration of this situation. It cannot go on like this. Urgent measures must be taken to change the situation. Growth, expansion and choice are essential to realise the potential of each person. If these factors are absent, the rest is meaningless, because we are unable to get out of the vicious circle. This is essential. Steps have not been taken, and the situation is tragic.


What specifically do you mean when you say that the situation of Roma children and youth is tragic?

We’re talking tragic when we are talking about 90% or more who don’t finish secondary school. We’re talking tragic when fewer than 1% go to college. We’re talking tragic when we know this situation has gone on for 30 years. An attempt was made to do something about this 30 years ago. If you’re trying to do something and always get the same results, you’ll have to change what you are doing if you want different results. It’s as logical as that.

The educational situation is so historical and tragic that you begin to think that you don’t really know whether this is due to a lack of interest or to the presence of hidden agendas that keep things the way they are. The situation has clearly not improved, and nothing is being done about it. Literally nothing is being done. Nothing.


Aren’t there any laws in a democratic state such is Spain that ensure the right to an education for disadvantaged segments of the population, even if this segment is the Romani population?

We are still waiting for something to come of the EU directive for the inclusion of Roma in Spain originating from the National Roma Integration Strategies 2012-2020. Something! Absolutely nothing has been done. Now it’s 2015, the year of the first cut-off period for partial evaluations of objectives achieved. For secondary schools, the partial objective was for 80% to finish secondary school in 2015. We still do not know exactly what the situation of Gypsy students is. It will be necessary to begin with an analysis of the actual situation, its causes and consequences, and then to remedy this unfortunate state of affairs because it’s of urgent importance.


You spoke about the need to take urgent measures. What measures would you take?

Firstly, I think it’s essential to do away with an administrative madness that affects a large percentage of Romani children and school-age youth, which is the following: many of these children are in primary and secondary schools with adapted curricula. When they advance to the high schools that are affiliated with these schools, there is no curricular adaption, which means that they are destined to fail. Some of the places where they study are not adapted to their needs. Not because they’re special, but because the education they received in their previous schools had been adapted!

They have not chosen an adapted education, but rather the State has said that the curriculum has to be an adapted at certain institutions, even though in secondary school this is not the case, and Romani children end up paying the consequences. This is scandalous, and it’s happening in many places. Resolving this situation is as easy as saying: this is madness, it can’t go on like this.

Therefore, it’s absolutely necessary for some sort of specific political representation to be applied with sufficient power within Ministry of Education, and for it to be targeted specifically at this issue.

These are the two urgent measures I would take.


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