Australian Gypsies: Their secret history

Reviewed By  Grasshopper2       November 22, 2017


Author  Mandy Sayer

Distributor:      New South Books
ISBN:                 9781742234670
Publisher:         New South Publications
Release Date:   October 2017  


The author is correct in saying that most of us know little about Gypsies. Vague notions of painted caravans in Enid Blyton books, and of course, references by Toad of Toad Hall permeate our childhood. Mandy only began her research when she came across a group of wonderful Gypsie jazz musicians in Budapest. They sparked her interest, and she began to wonder, what was their history, their culture, and their customs, and why were they such a marginalized group. She has set out this fascinating book in three alternate strands.  The first strand deals with the chronological history of Romani in Australia, the second strand looks at their customs and traditions, and the third strand looks at the lives and stories of the many Romani, or Gypsies, that Mandy has met.

 Along with many other convicts, Gypsies were on the First Fleet, bound for Australia. There were three Romani men, James Squire, (whose name is still attached to beer) Henry Lovell, and James’s brother, Timothy. James became involved in brewing beer, and also became a friend of the Aboriginal Bennelong; it seemed there was a connection between the Gypsies and the Aboriginal people. “Perhaps Aboriginal people and Gypsies recognized in each other their positions as outcasts in a colonial society.” When the ill-fated Second Fleet arrived in Australia, having lost much of its cargo, the Romani convicts on board were able to help the settlers by constructing shelters and doing odd jobs with their skills.

 The Romani People originated in Northern India. They began migrating towards Europe in the 11th and 12th  centuries. They also began migrating through Afghanistan and Iran, developing their culture as they went. Two groups were formed; one travelled to Syria and North Africa, and the other to Armenia and Byzantine. When the Ottomans invaded Istanbul, the Gypsies were forced to flee. From then on, they were never allowed to settle as they were seen to be the fore runners of the Turkish invaders. During the 11th century, the first direct persecution of these peoples began. “Some of them were enslaved as metal workers to make weapons for people joining the Crusades.” In Mediaeval Europe, the skin colour of the Romani caused fear and distrust, and as their original religion was Hinduism, they were seen as a threat to Christianity.

 This is such an interesting book to read, and it is explained in factual and simple terms. The stories that intersperse the History are all vividly described and you warm to the unique characters that Mandy interviews and lives with. Moving from the Gypsies in the First Fleet, to interview others about” Laws and Customs, Work, and Marriage and Birth” we learn many fascinating details about these people. Gypsies…the word itself will always conjure up thoughts of exotic places and peoples.