On the Ro­mani road

Australian Geographic - - Contents - Story by MANDY SAYER

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.

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