The following is a guest post by Jacklyn van der Colff, who served as a summer 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.
Note: this post uses a racial pejorative as it originally appears in the collection item record as well as in the common English title of the historic event that it describes.
The Herencia campaign contains a plethora of 17th-18th century Spanish legal documents that are divided by subject into unique sections. Within these sections, subjects range from financial regulations to property rights, and even criminal cases. However, while the diversity of documents within the Herencia collection serve as an extraordinary tool for scholars to discover more about Spain’s complex sociopolitical and cultural history, the Royal Order of October 1749 tells a part of the painful, yet important story of the Roma people of Spain during the Enlightenment period. Unfortunately, in many parts of contemporary Europe, the consequences of the historic marginalization and persecution of the Roma can still be felt today.
The Royal Order of October 1749 was issued under the reign of King Ferdinand VI three months after the Marquis of Ensenada’s secretive commands to capture and incarcerate Roma people, who were pejoratively referred to as gitanos or “gypsies.” This had led to the arrest of what is estimated to be between 9,000 to 12,000 people on July 30, 1749. This event is known as the Gran Redada de Gitanos or the Great “Gypsy” Round-up. During the roundup, Roma from over 50 towns were separated from their family members based on gender and age and had all of their property confiscated. Women and young children were moved to multiple facilities, typically factories, while men and teenage boys were forced into grueling labor. Elderly people and those unfit to work were sent to hospitals and homes to live out their final days.
However, due to numerous complaints and administrative issues, The Royal Order of October 1749 was issued. It called for the release of those people who were mistakenly incarcerated or deemed “good” gitanos. The distinction between a “good” or “bad” gitano came down to several contingencies: the “good” must be legitimately married and their children “legitimately procreated,” follow the laws, and have official documentation proving they are not gitano. While those released were allowed to return home, in many cases much or all of their property had already been auctioned off by the Spanish government. According to the second page of the Royal Order, those who did not meet these requirements were defined as members of “la mala casta de Gitanos,” or the “bad caste of Gypsies,” and derogatorily referred to as an “antiguo contagio,” or ancient contagion, of the land. Although some Roma did manage to escape, section VI of the order warns the remaining unpardoned gitanos that:
[…] baxo las ordenes, y providencias, que se tuvieren por convenientes a estos fines, y à su seguridad; y que al que se huyere, sin mas justificacion, se le ahorque irremissiblemente.
[…] under the orders, and provisions, that were deemed convenient with these aims, and for their security; and so that whoever escapes, without further justification, be hanged irremissibly.
It was not until 1765, 16 years later, under the command of the new Bourbon king Charles III, that the arrested Roma people were released. The effects of this attempted extermination were devastating. Survivors’ families and communities were forever changed as many Roma were forced into hiding, faced deportation, and were left permanently scarred. After nearly two decades of persecution, even the distinctive Roma language, Caló, became practically extinct. Today, Roma are the biggest minority population in Spain and, although the government has put in place various initiatives to address certain issues, many Roma continue to face discrimination in education, employment, and other social and public areas. The implications of this prejudice are seen in the low literacy rates and high rates of unemployment and food insecurity in Roma communities.
Additional Sources & Readings
Drummond, Susan G. “Culture: Wanderings and Dwellings” in Mapping Marriage Law in Spanish Gitano Communities. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.
Education: the situation of Roma in 11 EU Member States. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014.
Pym, Richard J. “The Bourbon Period” in The Gypsies of Early Modern Spain, 1425-1783. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
Taylor, Becky. Another darkness, another dawn: a history of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. London: Reaktion Books 2014.