On the Romani road
The 1000-year-old community of travellers is thriving in Australia.
Since the arrival of the First Fleet, Romani ‘Gypsies’ have travelled across Australia in close-knit communities, performing in sideshows, telling fortunes and picking up seasonal work. Although most are now settled in cities and towns, their 1000-year-old culture is thriving.
“Y OU BETTER BE careful what you write or my relatives will put a curse on me,” Nick Morgan warns as we approach a pub near his home in Waterford West, a suburb of Logan Cit y, south of Brisbane in Queensland. He glances across and probably senses my doubt. “I believe in the Gypsy curse,” he adds, solemnly. “Don’t you worry – it’s real.”
Nick, 65, is a slim man with a thick moustache. He has agreed to have lunch and tell me about his family, who are descended from some of Australia’s earliest Greek Gypsies. In the harsh afternoon light, he resembles his paternal grandmother, former ‘Queen of the Gypsies’ Mary Sterio. She famously travelled the roads of Australia for 50 years with her extended family, appearing in sideshows and fairs as a fortune-teller during the early 1900s.
“Fortune-telling is easy,” Nick says as we f ind ourselves a seat in a quiet corner of the bar. His secret? “You just tell them what you think they want to hear. And you can pick up things just by looking at a person.” He casts his eyes around the tavern, at the men playing pool, the drinkers and the diners in the bistro area. “I often tell fortunes for drinks here in the pub,” he boasts, and I begin to laugh.
I have been seeking out people such as Nick for the past few years. He is one of what I estimate to be about 100,000 Romani Gypsies who currently call Australia home, although the exact number remains unconfirmed. Known for their large families, nomadic lifestyles, lavish marriage and funeral rituals and lively community gatherings, they are a unique ethnic minority. They have a rich culture, yet also have a long history of persecution, and when introduced to people outside their culture often hide their Romani heritage and pretend to be Spanish, Mexican, or Greek, to avoid becoming victims of projected stereotypes.
Because of this, their stories of life in Australia remain relatively untold. I am fortunate to have been offered a
They have a rich culture, yet also have a long history of persecution.
rare glimpse into their world; they’ve trusted me to research and write about their culture, knowing that I’m aware of their past and that I want to better understand and document their complex way of life.
ROMANI GYPSIES HAVE lived in Australia since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, having been transported from England as convicts. One of the first, James Squire, formed a friendship with Indigenous leader Bennelong and was the colony’s first commercial brewer. His tavern, the Malting Shovel, was a popular watering hole in the early 1800s on the banks of the Parramatta River, halfway between the settlements of Sydney and Parramatta. Squire’s grandson James Farnell became the first Australian-born premier of NSW.
Romani Gypsies have been present at just about every signif icant historical episode in Australia: as panners during the gold rush of the 1850s; as entertainers in travelling sideshows during World War I; as conscientious objectors throughout World War II; and as workers at the Wollongong steelworks and the Snowy Mountains Scheme in the early and mid-20th century. Despite their contributions, Gypsies have been excluded from most off icial published histories of this country.
This is not entirely the fault of Australian scholars. For more than a thousand years, the Roma have lived apart from normal society, often in secret, to avoid discrimination and persecution.
They are believed to have made a mass exodus from their homeland in North India as early as 1500 years ago, and to have subsequently made their way to Europe. However, historical records on their origin and dispersal are lacking, and the exact dates and causes of their diaspora out of India are not known.
In Europe, their dark skin and hair, colourful clothes, unusual language and Hindu-based religion caused fear and suspicion. During the 15th and 16th centuries, decrees were made in most European countries for their incarceration or slaughter.
By this time, it was not only illegal to be a Gypsy but also to communicate or trade goods with one. Hence, the nomads were sometimes forced to steal food to keep their families alive.
They were dubbed ‘Egyptians’ by outsiders who assumed they were from Egypt. This was soon shortened to ‘Gypsy’ – a term considered pejorative by some, who prefer the terms ‘Rom’ (singular), ‘Roma’ (plural), and ‘Romani’ (adjectival).
Among Australia’s first Greek Gypsy refugees was ‘Queen’ Mary Sterio (far left), seen here in the Brisbane suburb of Annerley in 1907, with two of her children. This photograph (left) of her son Sperio (standing) and husband Christo was taken in the 1920s.
‘Queen’ Mary (second from right) poses with a group of Romani women in Campsie, NSW, in the 1930s. Her daughter Burgecka is to her left.
Basil Smith, who identifies as an English Romanichal Gypsy, and his wife, Janet, travelled around Australia in a handcrafted caravan for 20 years performing Punch and Judy puppet shows.