Defining Nomads: A study of the nomadic-sedentary co-dependent relationship
“There are two hotels in Djang: the Hotel Windsor and, across the street, the Hotel Anti-Windsor.” – excerpt from Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines
I. Introduction: nomadic-sedentary co-dependence
In a world dominated by the economic, political and social powers of sedentary societies since the rise and extension of the city-state, nomadic communities have historically been subject to discrimination and persecution. The tension between nomadic and sedentary societies is inherent to the relationship of these communities. Mobile and sedentary societies form opposite sides of a single dichotomy, each requiring the other for its cultural existence. Modern nomadic peoples usually come together either from discontent or friction with mainstream or sedentary society, and are thus defined by their alternative to the “conventional” way of life. In the same vein, the classification of a variety of cultures into a singular category of “sedentary” demonstrates that without the alternative nomadic lifestyle there would be no convention of sedentary society. In this way, both “nomadic” and “sedentary” as lifestyles are defined directly according to what they are not.
To sedentary society, the nomadic way of life raises idealized conceptions of either romantic wanderlust or devious counter-culture. Nomads are considered either with apprehension, viewed as inherently thieving and deceptive, or with misconceived adoration, perceived as exotic tribes with an unquenchable thirst for travel. Although nomadic society developed thousands of years prior to sedentary civilization, mobile people have been demoted to a perilous “other” since the rise of the city-state. Throughout history and to the present day, nomadic peoples have been feared as the dangerous antithesis to the concept of the citizen, representing the barbarian to the civilized state. But just as the broad classification of sedentary society cannot be limited to a single cultural explanation, neither can the traditions and motivations of one nomadic community be reduced to a single definition of nomadic societies.
a. Defining nomads
Communities and individuals become nomadic for a variety of reasons. Some are motivated by a lack of economic opportunity, choosing mobility out of financial necessity. This group, which we will call “economic nomads,” encompasses the classical pastoralists, traveling salesmen, and itinerant workers, which find sporadic financial accomplishment by frequently changing their location of work. Other nomads choose mobility as a direct affront to mainstream society, which they view as socially constraining. This group of “counter-culture nomads” includes the American hobos of the late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth century, and the subsequent on-the-road backpacking generation of the 1950s and 60s whose cultural revolution entailed a rejection of the American dream of suburbia and economic success. A third group, the “ethnic nomads,” refers to historical groups of people that lived in tight communities either amongst or in close proximity to mainstream urban and rural societies, and whose movement was often the result of discrimination, expulsion, or escape from enslavement. This group most adequately describes the experiences of the Roma of Europe, the Irish Travellers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the legendary wandering Jews from biblical times to recent history. It should be noted that this division of nomadic groups is not absolute or exclusive – for example, ethnic mobility can also be attributed to economic motivation, though these economic reasons are more often than not tied to discrimination.
Thus, the motivation for travel is usually propelled by either the nomad’s disdain for the sedentary lifestyle, or by sedentary society’s contempt of the nomad. These different motivations for mobility contribute to the diverse traditions and ways of life experienced by nomadic groups and individuals. Nomadic groups vary in a number of ways, including their physical mode of travel, whether they travel individually or in communities, how often they travel, how they maintain financial security while traveling, and in the structure of their mobile homes. The typical sedentary suspicion of nomads as a singularly dirty and thieving group of transients serves to stereotype the idea that there is a normative definition of nomadic society, but does little to highlight an understanding of the motivations and traditions of the nomads themselves.
The way nomadic and sedentary societies are defined by each other goes even beyond a theoretical principle of dependence on the existence of the other. This paper will argue that, in a very concrete way, the traditions and cultural nature of both sedentary and nomadic societies – that is, how they define themselves – are often the direct results of how they have been practically defined by their opposite. Drawing primarily from the experiences of the European and North American Gypsies (Rom), as well as from the supporting case study of American hobos and tramps, we will examine the historical progression of these diverse nomadic traditions to determine to what extent the nomad’s definition of its own culture is derivative from the definition attributed to it by sedentary society. We will also explore the way the tension between nomadic and sedentary societies is fueled by the mutual antagonism each holds for its opposite. The two case studies of Gypsies and of hobos will serve as both comparative and contrasting examples of the historical development of modern nomads that exist in constant friction with sedentary society.
b. Gypsies and Hobos
This paper will examine the historical examples of hobos and Gypsies in North America and Europe to demonstrate the way two different types of nomadic groups have live, identified, and developed their cultures vis-à-vis the expectations and definitions set forth by sedentary society. These nomads differ in their motivations for travel, their method of travel, and in the spatial and societal structures they create for themselves. The family and community was an important aspect of Gypsy life, while hobos tended to live a life of solitude and independence. Gypsies usually traveled in openly spaced mobile homes like caravans and vans, carrying with them portable shelters, while hobos were famous for hopping freight trains and hitchhiking, often finding sleeping spots without proper shelter or bedding. The community of Gypsies was based on shared kinship and ethnic relations, while the relationship amongst hobos was based mostly on shared social values. Yet, despite these differences, both groups were considered to be threats to the moral equilibrium constructed by sedentary society. Both were viewed as dirty, thieves, dishonest and amoral. Parents warned their children to mind their manners and do what they are told, lest they turn into a hobo one day; children were also warned to watch out for kidnapping bands of Gypsies. The two groups of nomads were romanticized by sedentary society as dangerously underground and asocial, one a fanciful tribe of swarthy wanderers, the other the ultimate representation of what happens to those who fall from the path set forth by society.
Despite the legends of free-flowing amorality, both Gypsies and Hobos live according to constructed traditions. Both groups sought to deceive those outside their own culture to maintain the security of their own life-styles. Hobos attempted to appear even more downtrodden than they were when begging for their day’s meal, while Gypsies perpetuated the stereotypical idea of themselves as unhygienic when in truth, their strict rituals of purity and pollution, similar to those of Judaism and Hinduism, would have put any self-claiming clean citizen to shame.
In examining the distinct and specific traditions of hobo and Gypsy societies, a number of questions stand out regarding the origin and development of these traditions. For instance, which came first, nomadic traditions and identity, or societal discrimination? Is the Gypsy method of keeping a complete separation from non-Gypsies, or Gadje, a response to thousands of years of discrimination? Would hobos have chosen traveling without destination if not as rebellion to a society defined by an ethic of working and settling down? Considering that the majority of Gypsies today are not nomadic, is mobility integral to the definition of Roma identity? Could the standard model of civilization exist without its parasitical exceptions, such the Gypsies and the hobos?
We will examine in detail the history and traditions of Gypsy and hobo culture, giving particular focus to the way these cultures emerged and developed within sedentary society. We will consider the social and religious traditions of each group, including kinship, language, rituals, and methods of traveling, eating, and finding shelter. Using these criteria, we will attempt to determine if the study of nomads in relation to sedentary society is useful, or if the differences between nomadic societies are too great to allow for this sort of categorical examination. Moreover, we will use these examples to argue that while the experiences of hobo and Gypsy societies are unique to themselves, the traditions of both cultures developed in direct response to the constrictive definitions imposed on them by mainstream antagonisms.
c. Spatial relationships
To truly understand the co-dependent relationship of nomadic and sedentary societies, which is based on a serious power structure whereby the political and economic advantage of sedentary society ostensibly gives it control over nomads, it is necessary first to consider the spatial structures each society occupies and uses in mediating its opponent. The nomadic method of traversing and essentially nullifying physical limits is logically engendered by state constructed boundaries. In turn, the very boundaries that define sedentary society are created to control deviant exceptions such as nomadic societies.
Each society occupies a spatial arrangement that essentially defines its activity. In their “Treatise on Nomadology,” Deleuze and Guattari offer a spatial theory quite useful to our study. According to these authors, sedentary society occupies a completely bounded and striated space, whereby every level is controlled in an organized and planned fashion. Alternatively, nomadic society occupies a smooth space, where movement is free and flowing. The authors explain that the distinction between these spaces is analogous to the difference between the games of Chess and Go. In Chess, each space is carefully arranged according to mathematically defined horizontal and vertical lines, where every character has a specific role and movement allotted to it, with no exception – Chess offers regulated movement within a closed space. In Go, the space is smooth, and unregulated – it is, “war without battle lines…a question of arraying one’s self in an open space…the movement is not from one point to another, but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, without departure or arrival.” Nomads seek strength in de-territorialization, where “space is occupied without being counted,” while the State seeks its strength in territorial control, “where space is counted in order to be occupied.” Nomadic space is meant to be exterior to the interiority of the state – it is meant to be a space free from control.
The notion of a completely smooth and unregulated smooth space, however, cannot truly exist, because by its nature of being an alternative to striated space, it is still constructed within the boundaries of the State. Smooth space, to which Deleuze and Guattari give the examples of the steppe or the sea, is always flanked by parallel and striated space, such as the forest or agriculture. Deleuze and Guattari themselves point to this paradox: “… but being “between” also means that smooth space is controlled by these two flanks, which limit it, oppose its development, and assign it as much as possible a communicative role.” The exteriority of nomadic space, therefore, is still spatially constrained by the interiority of sedentary society. While “Go” is a game based on smooth space, it cannot be played without a board, which is by definition a bounded object. In this way, the co-dependent relationship of sedentary to nomadic society is sideswiped by the victory of sedentary society, inherent to its spatial control. Sedentary society has the freedom to regulate nomadic space, to determine when, how, why, and if, nomads are to be free or mobile. With this power it can also monitor the structure of nomadic space, to further striate smooth space according to its own desires and advantages.
The relationship here, while still co-dependent, is unbalanced. The State requires nomads to occupy its striated space, to serve its own needs. The nomads, on the other hand, rely on the State to determine their own freedom and movement, as they construct their alternative smooth space within the striated boundaries of sedentary society. In this way, Deleuze and Guattari’s explanation is faulty in its consideration of nomadic space to be completely without aim or direction. Since the boundaries of the nomad’s theoretical smooth space are constructed by sedentary society, it should follow that the aim or direction of nomadic society are to some extent developed in consideration of its place within sedentary society – their aim and direction is not absent, but of a different type than those of sedentary society.
Rather than consider nomads to be without purpose or direction, it is more useful to examine the structure of nomadic space within that of sedentary society. For example, the characteristic lifestyle of the hobo was ostensibly to travel without destination. But the direction of a hobo could not be considered as free from a starting or ending point, but rather as coming from and deliberately going away from, the striated space of sedentary society. While a hobo did not have a destination point, he always chose to go east or west. The hobo’s space was smooth, in that it existed exterior to, but nevertheless within the boundaries of, sedentary and mainstream society. The hobo deliberately chose his lifestyle in cultural opposition to mainstream society, and went underground – not away from sedentary society, but as an alternative element within it, re-appropriating the space that confined him. Likewise, the Gypsy’s mobility was determined by the boundaries set for it by sedentary society. Gypsies moved when they were told they could not settle, and settled when they were told they could not move. Even Gypsies that were not perpetually nomadic could not be defined as sedentary because their culture was defined by its transience. The word Gypsy is equated with wandering, and their traditions, so distinct from mainstream society, reflect this generalized designation – the space they have historically occupied was a smooth space of their own construction, albeit within the boundaries of the striated State. Even when settled, Gypsies maintained a code of laws, language, and way of life distinct from sedentary society, as a way of keeping themselves as unbounded as possible by the State, despite geographic restrictions. The space occupied by nomads like Gypsies and hobos was therefore of its own construction, but within the limits of the state, limiting the total freedom and autonomy that theoretically define smooth space.
II. The Gypsies
When the term “Gypsy” was coined in fifteenth century England, it was used to describe a community of dark-skinned travelers and itinerants, members of a particular mobile tribe. In the last two centuries the term, fraught with negative connotation, has come to represent any social vagrant, not just the Rom. The transition from “Gypsy” as an ethnic and linguistic category to “gypsy” as a social classification has served only to increase the stereotypical idea of the Rom as a dirty, asocial bunch with an aversion to work and a hunger for travel, and downplays their particular historical culture and traditions. In truth, the Romany-Gypsies are a nation of their own, comprising a number of tribes that have been subject to persecution and foreign control from the beginning of their existence, including enslavement, forced mobilization, sedentarization, assimilation, and genocide.
Since for most of their history, the Gypsies have been a widely illiterate group, the literature on Romany history, particularly from the mouths of the Rom themselves, is quite limited. Neither their language nor a true glimpse into their culture was documented prior to the nineteenth century, making theirs a wholly oral tradition. In addition, since the illiteracy of Gypsies means that Romany historical memory usually goes back only two or three generations, the lack of literature makes it difficult to piece together a historical documentation of the formation of Gypsy identity. The 1888 appearance of the Gypsy Lore Society, a body of academics whose journal is composed of articles on Romany history, folklore, and language, increased the scholarly interest in and attention to Romany traditions. Also, the rise of the Romany nationalist movement in the second half of the twentieth century contributed to a growth in literature, mostly concerning human rights. While there are some autobiographies by Gypsies themselves, most of the information available on Gypsy history comes from secondary sources.
Although Romany traditions are undoubtedly unique and particular to Gypsy culture, their historical development must be viewed in relation to external influences. While now a separate ethnic entity, the original Romany tribe was formed of people who shared a similar occupation and societal class, not a distinct line of kin. As this section will elucidate, many of the characteristics particular to the Rom, such as their nomadism and their strict laws of pollution and separation from non-Gypsies, developed directly in relation to the inequitable laws imposed on them by the sedentary societies through which they passed. The development of Gypsy traditions is inseparable from the discriminatory paradoxes that marked their history, whereby the Rom were forced to migrate and then punished for nomadism, forced into segregation and then punished for their separate way of life, and subjected to genocide and then deemed responsible for their fate because of their “asocial” behaviour.
a. Historical migration: a millennia of persecution
According to most historical traditions, the Rom first appeared in Europe in the eleventh century. Their origin remained ambiguous to the countries through which they passed, however, until the eighteenth century, when a Hungarian linguist noticed a remarkable similarity between the Romany dialect and Indian languages and sent a research team to India to investigate the origins of the Gypsy language. The linguist asked three Indian students to compile a list of one thousand words, which he then read to a group of Hungarian Gypsies, who understood nearly the entire list.
Before this discovery, the Gypsies in Europe were considered an exotic tribe with an unknown background. As a largely illiterate group, the Gypsies carried little historical documentation with them. Because of their ambiguity, they were arbitrarily “assigned” places of origin by the countries they passed through. They were called Atsincani upon their arrival in Georgia in 1100, believed to be members of that heretical sect of wizards. From this root came the general European designation of the group, such as Tzigane in France, and Zincali in Spain. They were given the name Gypsy in sixteenth century England, when they were mistaken for Egyptians because of their dark skin and arrival from the East.
While some historical legends recount the Gypsies’ first northern appearance in Central Asia in the fifth century, the main tradition of Roma history documents the Gypsies as having grouped in Northern India and traveled northbound between the fifth and tenth centuries. The construction of Gypsy historical documentation is based on evidence tying their language and occupations to ancient India. Although little detail of their origin is actually known, tradition holds that in the fifth century a band of Indian musicians, dancers, and entertainers called the Dom were sold as gift to a Persian prince to entertain the Persian downtrodden. According to the Persian poet Firdausi, the prince begged the Indian Maharajah to search amongst his subjects for “persons capable by their talents of alleviating the burden of existence and able to spread a charm over the monotony of work.” The Maharajah picked the Dom, a group of mixed-kin untouchables who ate meat and worked at metal, unlike the religious Hindus in the region. These minstrels were given corn and livestock in order to survive the variety of locations they would be designated, and be able to entertain the Persians at no cost. But within a year, the Dom had neglected their agriculture, and consumed the corn seed themselves. This made the prince so angry, that he “commanded that their asses and musical instruments should be taken away, and that they should roam the country and earn their livelihood by singing.”
In tenth century Persia, the Dom split into two groups, the Ben Gypsies who traveled south into the middle-east, and the Phen Gypsies who traveled north into Armenia. The group’s language largely adapted to Armenian, and their name altered to Lom, the Armenian “L” replacing the Sanskrit “D”. When Byzantine soldiers raided Armenia in the early eleventh century, the Lom moved north into Greece, picking up the “R” prefix of their name along the way and becoming the Rom. The Gypsies then wandered in Greece for a century, earning a living with carnival trades like snake-charming and fortune-telling, and by the end of the fourteenth century were widely dispersed in villages throughout the Balkans.
In the Balkans, the Rom were treated with little hospitality, mainly because their dark appearance and foreign tongue coupled with the continuous threat of Ottoman presence made many natives suspicious of all arrivals from eastern lands. When the Turks did invade, they divided the rising Gypsy population into nomadic Muslims and settled Christians. While many Gypsies converted to Islam to ensure security by having the same religion as the occupying Turks, the majority chose to remain settled as Christians. For example, in 1500, there were 283 Gypsy households documented in the Bulgarian town of Filibe/Plovdiv, 90 of who were registered as Muslims, and 193 as Christians. Gypsies retained a low-level status, forced to perform menial labour for the Turks, considered un-professional and un-affiliated. They were denied living quarters in the urban areas, forced to erect whatever kind of shelter they could outside the city limits and thus losing access to a secure livelihood. While technically all Muslims were supposed to be free from Turkish tax, Gypsy Muslims were nevertheless taxed nearly the entire amount that non-Muslims were, and Christian Gypsies were taxed more than other non-Muslims. In A History of the Gypsies in Eastern Europe and Russia, David Crowe describes the experience of the Gypsies in Bulgaria as one of constant discrimination. He points to the village of Derekuoi, where Gypsies were not allowed to settle for more than three or four years at a time. They were overcharged for food and use of land, and when the time came for them to evacuate they were either forced to move on, or their huts were burned to the ground.
By the thirteenth and fourteenth century, Gypsies were spread throughout Eastern and Central Europe. In most of these countries, the Rom continued to work in music and metal. In places like Hungary, the initial presence of the Gypsies did not bring immediate discrimination – in fact, they were highly regarded for their musical skills, and appointed as royal servants, allowed to serve in the Hungarian army, and some were even given travel permits. But as in Bulgaria, the onset of Ottoman expansion heralded the suspicion amongst natives that the dark Gypsies were Turkish spies. Throughout the changing empires of central Europe, Gypsies were caught in a paradoxical situation. Because of their minority status they were forced to pay enormous taxes to the Turks, even though most had no land or profession to sustain themselves. Since they could not pay, Gypsies were evicted from cities and forced either to settle on the outskirts of town away from any possible livelihood, or travel to find sustenance, though the restriction on travel permits made migration illegal and difficult. This discrimination continued through to the seventeenth century and into the Thirty Years War, when wartime devastation increased the number of Roma flooding into Hungary. Ordinances were passed giving Hungarian officials more allowance to pass anti-Gypsy legislation and further harass the illegal Gypsy nomads, while at the same time preventing these Rom from settling and working legally amongst Hungarians. Crowe explains that while most of the laws in Hungary were directed at “foreign, nomadic Gypsies”, all Rom who passed through Hungary at the time were actually subject to this discrimination because the contradictory laws which limited Gypsy occupations and settlement essentially forced all Gypsies to become nomadic.
The eighteenth century reign of Queen Maria Theresa brought further discrimination to the Gypsies. This prejudice can be viewed as an attempt to eliminate the empire of the Gypsy sub-culture. Gypsies were forced to settle, though it was still difficult for them to find work among the native population work; intermarriage between Rom and the general population was explicitly forbidden; and a mandate was issues ordering all Gypsy children over the age of five to be removed from their families to be placed with non-Gypsy families to ensure a Roman Catholic upbringing. The coronation of Maria Theresa’s son Joseph II brought renewed discrimination to the empire, this time in the form of forcing their assimilation into a newly uniform Austro-Hungarian empire. Gypsy community activities and panhandling were outlawed, the number of Romany musicians was limited, and Romany men and women were forced to sleep apart to keep them from procreating. Joseph II explained that the purpose of this integration was to, “’strive as far as possible to turn Gypsies into human beings and Christians and then to keep them within the state as useful objects.’” The rules imposed by both mother and son represent the contradictory methods many European countries used throughout history to destroy the Gypsy culture. For instance, Gypsies were forced to sedentarize, though continued discrimination made it nearly impossible for the Rom to sustain themselves while settled. Both intermarriage and intra-marriage were explicitly forbidden, demonstrating the state attempt to eliminate Gypsy procreation in all manners. This vague attempt at assimilation, that is forbidding all separate Gypsy community activities, proved meaningless amidst the laws that continued to segregate the Rom as an ethnically separate and inferior group.
This kind of discrimination was not the worst of anti-Gypsy legislation in central Europe. In seventeenth century Germany a series of ordinances were passed calling for the mandatory hanging of all males over age 18 who had “committed the crime” of being born Gypsy. As a method of expelling all Gypsies from the land, the German monarch Charles VI passed a subsequent ordinance in 1725 calling for all Gypsy males found in the country to be killed instantly, and for the ears to be cut off all women and children. Because Gypsies were also forbidden to carry travel documents, as a way of preventing their re-entry, Romany refugees from Germany were forced to flee illegally westward.
In Romania, where the Rom were brought as a gift to a Moldavian monastery in the fourteenth century, Gypsies were subject to immediate and long-term enslavement. By the fifteenth century, the increasing population of Rom served as house and field slaves. This institution of slavery became further engrained through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, till the majority of Romania’s slaves were Gypsies. By the time Romania fell to Ottoman control, the Rom were treated with the same sort of discrimination to which they were subject in other Ottoman occupied lands. But, they were able to retain their occupations as smiths and musicians, giving those slaves who were fiddlers for the royal family some freedom of movement. By the eighteenth century, with the fall of Wallachian and Moldavian autonomy, the situation for the Rom actually improved minimally. Any vagrant Roma was declared immediate property of the state, which, to some degree, was less oppressive than belonging to a private owner. Any lenience for the Roma was short-lived however, amongst the changing hands of autonomy. Throughout, Romanian officials kept a close watch on Rom slaves, implementing further segregation. In 1766, marriages between Gypsies and non-Gypsies were completely outlawed, subjecting perpetrators to fines or forced divorce. The explicit segregation of Gypsies could be viewed as the state attempt to maintain a solid base of slaves – the enslaved occupations of the Rom played an important role in Romanian life, acting as the sole artisans for the Boyars, as cooks, bakers, smiths, labourers, musicians, and masons. The Romanian folk culture of music and dance at this point was based nearly entirely on the Rom, with a large majority of the country’s fiddlers being of Romany descent.
When the Gypsies were emancipated in 1856 along with other Romanian peasants, they led an unprecedented migration out of the new Romanian kingdom, for fear of further enslavement. But like in Russia, the emancipation of the peasants brought minimal relief to those whose history of enslavement entitled them to the low status of social and economic outcasts. Further, the near immediate ban on nomadism that followed emancipation, whereby Rom were routinely denied travel documents, led many of the newly freed Gypsies right back to the estates they had left, begging their former masters to re-hire them. Large Romany settlements were formed around the traditional estates and monasteries that had previously enslaved the Gypsies. A large segment of the Romany population still led a nomadic lifestyle despite the restrictions, traveling in bands of one to fifteen families and picking up agricultural odd jobs. For many of these nomadic Gypsies, mobility was less a choice than a consequence of the economic and social inequalities that ravaged many Romanian peasants after emancipation. By 1895, the size of landholdings had surged to great proportions contributing to a decrease in local and private farming, leaving approximately 20 per cent of Gypsies without land or secure farm jobs.
The Gypsy migration westward marked the significant socialization of their culture by non-Gypsies, whereby they joined a growing lower class of various social vagrants and itinerants who were subject to routine discrimination and criminalization. Mention of the Gypsies’ arrival in England began roughly between the late fifteenth and sixteenth century, just as England began its repressive measures on the growing population of tinkers and vagabonds. The Rom were initially documented as appearing and being attired “like the Egyptians,” hence the variation, Gipcyons, and its derivative, Gypsies.
The arrival of the Rom in England demonstrates an instance of what would later become a significant part of their tradition, namely deceiving non-Gypsies about the truth of their culture and origins. Here the Rom appropriated the name “Egyptians,” telling people that they originally came from a place in the south of England called, “little Egypt.” According to the annals of the Gypsy Lore Society, most of these Rom came to the British Isles after their expulsion from countries further east. Gypsies who refused to settle were expelled from Spain in 1499, from Germany in 1500, and from France in 1504. In their first years in England, they were given sums of money to entertain, but by 1530, the Gypsy Lore Society explains that these “Egyptians” had become “an intolerable nuisance in England.” An act was passed denouncing the Roma as a deceitful group, and banning their further immigration into England.
Afore this tyme diverse and many outlandysshe [foreign] people callynge themselfes Egyptians, using no Crafte no faicte of Merchaundyce had comen into this Realme and gone from Shyre to Shyre and Place to Place in greate Company, and used greate and subtyll and crafty means to deceyve the People…. From hensforth no suche Psone be suffred to come within this the Kynge’s realm [sic].
Subsequently, Gypsies were forbidden from entering and settling in England, while simultaneously denied passports or license to travel out because of their lack of citizenship. Gypsies born in England who promised to abandon their “idle” lifestyle in favour of baptism and honest work were given permission to stay, yet they remained a main target of suspicion in many cases of murder, and were severely punished for the smallest transgressions, such as panhandling. The late sixteenth century repression on all vagrancy brought further discrimination and arrests to Rom who were hanged simply for “calling themselves by the name of Egyptian,” as well as to anybody who deigned to “consort” with the likes of these “Egipcyons. These laws, which initially were aimed at the “Egyptian” immigrants in England, soon extended to “all tynkers wandering and p’tending themselves to be Egipcyons, or wandering in the Habite, Forme, or Attyre of counterfayte Gypsies,” in the Poor Law Act of 1596. The Vagrant Act of 1784 furthered the social categorization of all vagrants as gypsies by declaring that, ““all person pretending to be Gypsies, or wandering in the habit and form of Egyptians, or pretending to have skill in palmistry, or pretending to tell fortunes,” were to be dealt with as rogues and vagabonds.”
This socialization of the Roma into a category with other vagabonds demonstrates the character of Gypsidom becoming solidly equated with common criminal activity, vagrancy, and nomadism. Gypsies had arrived in England because they suffered discrimination and expulsion in all the countries in which they had passed through prior, condemned for their nomadism yet severely restricted from settling and working. While they were punished for choosing a life of petty crime and nomadism, wandering was initially less of a choice than a lifestyle forced upon them by societal discrimination. They were forced to either settle in places with little access to livelihood, or told to quit the premises while systematically denied travel documents to ensure their safety in a subsequent location.
Despite the paradoxical laws forbidding Gypsies from both traveling and settling in European countries, the Roma population in Europe remained in tact. By the twentieth century, more than a million Gypsies lived in Europe, and a significant migration had begun to South and North America. In the twentieth century, amidst increasingly oppressive laws against minorities in central and eastern Europe, a spark of Romany self-awareness and unity began to emerge in the form of journals and conferences, particularly in Romania where the largest population of European Gypsies lived at the time. A conference was convened in 1930 Bucharest with the slogan of “United Gypsies of Europe,” and a national Romany flag was adopted. Soon thereafter, the General Association of Gypsies of Romania was formed, with the purpose of countering discrimination and promoting traditional Gypsy professions while helping Romanian Gypsies find steady income. But as the decade progressed, the Romany quest for unification and self-awareness was quashed with the rise of Hitler and the beginning of the most explicit form of ethnic and social elimination the Gypsies had suffered in nearly a thousand years of European persecution.
The actions taken against Gypsies mirrored those targeting Jews, once again turning the Rom into official outcasts. Gypsies were ordered to settle down, and were arrested if they did not oblige. The laws against the Gypsies were issued as a form of “protective custody” designed to protect citizens from harmful persons. A 1942 decree described harmful persons to include, “Anyone who, without being a professional or habitual criminal, endangers the public through his asocial behavior, beggars, vagabonds, Gypsies and persons traveling as Gypsies, prostitutes, persons with infectious diseases who do not follow the regulations of health police…and work shy persons.” In 1930, a Norwegian journalist suggested that all Gypsies be sterilized, an idea which was passed as a law in 1933, just after all Gypsies’ civil rights were revoked in Germany.
From January 1934 onward, Gypsies were selected for transfer to processing camps, at the same time a law was passed forbidding all Germans from marrying “Jews, Negroes and Gypsies”. In 1937, a camp was set up at Buchenwald for “pure” Gypsies with completely homogenously Romany genetic makeup, while other nomadic Gypsies and part-Gypsies were sent on concentration camps along with Jews. In 1938, Gypsies were rounded up around Germany and Austria on the basis that the Gypsy blood posed a threat to the Aryans.
An estimated 250,000 Gypsies were killed in the Holocaust, or Parajmos, as it is called in Romany, comprising nearly 25 percent of the entire European Gypsy population. After the fact, Gypsies still suffered immense discrimination throughout Europe, not the least of which was the categorical denial of their receiving any sort of economic retribution for their suffering during World War II. This denial was made on the same basis as that issued to homosexuals, namely that the Gypsies were sent to concentration camps because of their asocial behavior, not because of racial cleansing. Despite this, there is much evidence to the fact that German action against the Gypsies was based on an ethnic, and not merely social classification. Repeated decrees identified solely Jews and Gypsies in the category of alien peoples in Germany, with the Gypsy problem overtly classified by Nazi racial hygienists like Adolph Wurth as “primarily a racial question…The Gypsies are not of German blood, nor can they be considered of German blood.”
Further, the required sterilization of Gypsies, and their subjection to Dr. Mengele’s experiments demonstrates that the racial component of their imprisonment was significant. The criteria for determining who was Gypsy was even more far-reaching than the determination of Jewishness at the time: where Jews were determined to be such if they had at least one Jewish grandparent, people were deemed Gypsies if at least two of their great grandparents were even part-Gypsy. Historian Ian Hancock posits that, “If the criteria for determining Jewishness had been applied to Gypsies, some 18,000 (nine-tenths of the total number of Gypsies in Germany at that time) would have escaped death.”
At first, the laws condemning Gypsies to death excluded those with “pure’ Romany ancestry, namely, those who could be preserved for historical purposes, and also to some extent, sedentary Gypsies. But the definition of sedentary was vague, as was the distinction of purity, and in the end, even many of these “exempted” Gypsies faced the same fate as the others. Sybil Milton expressed that regardless of the social elements involved in distinguishing between dangerous and non-dangerous Gypsies, “it is clear that defining an entire ethnic group as anti-social and criminal is a classic example of racism.”
While in some respects, the experience of the Gypsies in World War II was part in parcel with their entire history in Germany, whereby they had been subject to capital punishment for their Romany identity for centuries, it also represented the fatal culmination of the paradoxical discriminatory laws against the Gypsies that had forced them to adapt “asocial” behaviour. While the basis for discrimination against Gypsies tends to highlight their “social characteristics” as nomadic and petty criminals, these attributes should be viewed as the direct results of the ethnic discrimination they suffered throughout their continuous expulsions and harassment since their arrival in Europe. In India, the Dom were grouped together based on occupational, rather than racial similarities, but since their exit from South Asia they have comprised a uniquely ethnic Romany nation. Their occupations as itinerant musicians, metal workers, fortune-tellers, and craftsmen emerged from external prohibition against joining mainstream economy. They were forced to travel because they were forbidden from mixing with the general population, yet it was their nomadism that was used an excuse for discrimination against them. In an article for the Gypsy Lore Society’s journal in 1946, a Hungarian Gypsy named Mateo Maximoff asked why the Gypsies were forced to suffer at the hands of the Nazis, consciously pointing to the inextricable relationship of the social and the ethnic for the Gypsies.
Was it because we love freedom? …What we Gypsy survivors desire is: complete liberty – that is the right to travel freely in the pursuit of our various trades, which would mean that facilities to cross frontiers should be extended to all Gypsies except those who have a bad record in the past. Then our motto might well be: ‘travel, work, and freedom.’
Maximoff added that regardless of discrimination, the Gypsies have proven that they could not be destroyed, because despite the hatred against them, throughout their history they contributed so much to the world. “Our race is part of nature,” he said. “We bring joy and gaiety to the villages through which we pass, because wherever we go we carry with us that element of mystery which intrigues the whole world.”
b. Gypsy culture: community and traditions
In order to determine whether the Gypsy culture developed organically and independently, or in response to treatment of the Rom by sedentary society, it is important to consider their current traditions in relation to the restrictions placed on them and to the definitions attributed to them by sedentary society. To non-Gypsies, some of the primary defining features of Gypsy culture are nomadism, begging, and the appearance of living in squalor – yet ironically, much of the Gypsies’ actual traditions, such as their strict rules of cleanliness, are direct opposites of how they are perceived by sedentary society. In the previous section, we discussed the contribution societal discrimination made to Gypsies’ nomadism and itinerant occupations. In this section, we will focus on how Gypsy traditions, particularly of the separation between pure and polluted, as well as their preservation of cultural secrecy, might have developed from the same sort of discrimination.
Although nomadism has come to characterize the Gypsy tradition amongst non-Gypsies, or Gadje, as they are called in Romany, we will argue that Gypsy self-identity is based primarily on their distinction from Gadje, rather than on their nomadic lifestyle. While a large element of Gypsy self-identity is derived from a notion of free movement and living, it is also based on an encompassing historical tradition called Romanipen, or Romania, which serves more as a religious code than as a guide for nomadism. Romanipen is based on the code of marime, which literally translates to mean either pollution or rejection. Like in the Hindu and Jewish traditional versions, marime essentially defines every aspect of Gypsy life, including how one washes undergarments, the inner-workings of spousal relationships, and interactions with non-Gypsies. The overwhelming similarity of Romanipen to Hinduism and Judaism is not merely coincidental; it can be traced to the Rom’s origin in Hindu India on one level, and to their coexistence alongside European Jewry as mutual societal outcasts for hundreds of years.
Like many cultures that maintain separation, the Gypsies consider themselves as not only distinct, but in many ways superior to Gadje. This consideration is often manifested in a pejorative way to non-Gypsies, and plays a definitive role in Romany self-identity. Even the Gypsy word Gadjo, which literally translates to mean country bumpkin, compared to the word Rom, which can be defined as man, demonstrates their consideration of themselves to be more civilized than non-Gypsies, bringing an ironic twist to the typical Gadjo perception of Gypsies as barbaric. Gypsies create a direct barrier between themselves and non-Gypsies because they believe that since Gadje do not observe the strict code of marime, they are impure. This deliberate separation extends beyond an aversion to assimilation. Gypsies have laws governing even the simplest interactions with Gadje that prevent any sort of impure mixing. Most Gypsies attempt to dissuade Gadje from either learning about or joining the Roma culture. For example, Jan Yoors, a Gadjo child who ran away with the Gypsies at age 12, explained in his autobiography that while the Gypsy children were open to his company, the elders initially made a decisive effort to make him uncomfortable and drive him away from the camp. Likewise, many Gypsy ethnographers describe the difficulties they have in learning about Gypsy culture, explaining that many Gypsies deliberately teach Gadjo anthropologists incorrect Romany words or definitions, or lead them astray about their culture. Anthropologist Marlene Sway explains that officially, the reason for this misinformation is based on the belief that the Gypsy religion loses elements of its uniqueness if too much information is shared. Yet with retrospect to the Gypsies’ historical development, it also plausible that it is the result of a natural suspicion of any mainstream society out of concern that should the truth of the culture be revealed, it will allow for continued forced assimilation and an attempted dissolution of Gypsy culture.
The Gypsy barrier to Gadje is also manifest in the restrictions against interactions with Gadje, limiting the Gypsy-Gadjo relationship to business alone. Gypsy tradition prohibits Rom from marrying or engaging in any sexual contact with Gadje, and even from allowing Gadje to take part in Gypsy celebrations. Sway describes the example of Gypsies in California who only allow a select number of Gadje, usually business associates, to attend their weddings. Even more particularly, Gypsies usually refrain from any physical contact with Gadje, who do not observe the same code of cleanliness. Gypsies rarely eat at restaurants, and if they do, they try to avoid using the establishment’s utensils, preferring to eat food with their hands. Similarly, many Gypsies reserve a single cup in their houses for use by Gadje alone, to avoid contaminating their dishes with the touch of non-Gypsies.
The Gypsy code of marime is based on a dichotomous separation of pure and polluted. For example, the upper half of the body, especially including the head, is pure (wuzho), compared to the lower half of the body, which contains the polluted sexual organs. In addition, there is a notion of the pure interior, which includes hygiene and the inside of the home, and the polluted exterior, which refers to the outdoor sites around Gypsy dwellings, and anything else that comes into direct contact with Gadje. Contrary to popular opinion about Gypsies living in decrepit squalor, while the outdoors may appear unhygienic, Gypsy homes are usually meticulously clean and orderly on the inside. It is forbidden to mix the pure and the polluted in any way, which is another explanation for the Gypsy reservation against unnecessary interactions with impure Gadje. On a hygienic level, this means that Gypsies cannot wash their undergarments with dishtowels, or even clothes pertaining to the upper body, and hygienic tools like toothbrushes are not to be brought into contact with food preparation areas. Like in Judaism and Hinduism, sexual contact between husband and wife during and immediately following menstruation is forbidden, and unique to the Rom culture, women’s clothes, deemed impure during menstruation, must be washed separately from all other laundry. Quite contrary to the stereotype of Gypsies as sexually promiscuous, men and women cannot engaged in any sort of sexual activity before marriage; even dating is forbidden, because it could lead one to being marime. Marriages are usually arranged by the parents based on factors like economic benefits for each family. Gypsies generally marry very young, though in recent years the typical age has risen, and while divorce is accepted, it is not without consequences to the de-virginized women whose dowries and thus attractiveness to potential husbands is much lower. Women must dress modestly, with skirts covering the entire marime area until mid-calf, though there is no mandatory covering of the breasts, which are considered wuzho, and thus not sexual objects.
Although for centuries, Gypsies adopted the religions of the countries through which they passed, this was largely for appearance only, to gain societal benefits. Gypsies have their own religion, in which they worship a monotheistic god called Del, or Duvel. The Gypsy religion is unique in practice, but it is clear that it developed alongside numerous influences to which it is remarkably similar, particularly Judaism. Like in the Semitic religions, Gypsies circumcise their sons, not because of a particular covenant, but as many American Gypsies told Sway, because “we have always done it that way.” The Gypsy religion also parallels Judaism and Hinduism in its laws against bringing harm to animals. Like in Judaism, Gypsies cannot kill animals for any reason other than food; and like in Hinduism, Gypsies maintain a period of vegetarianism during times of mourning. Sway describes the example of a Gypsy child who during her fieldwork stopped her from stepping on an anthill. “Please don’t kill them,” said the child. “Ants are good luck to the Gypsies. They really can’t hurt us anyway. We can sit somewhere else and talk.” According to Sway, Gypsies believe a defining difference between themselves and Gadje is their aversion to committing any acts of violence. Gypsies also mourn their dead in ways to similar to Jews, by holding three day funerals (parallel to the seven day Shiva period), and by setting an official mourning period of one year after the death, holding funeral ceremonies at interval times throughout the period (parallel to the Jewish eleven month period of saying Kaddish).
The Gypsies’ method of keeping themselves separate from Gadje is largely manifested in the kris, or Romany system of justice. Like the Jewish Beth Din, the kris serves as the legal system for all aspects of Gypsy life, from violating the marime code to any sort of criminal activity. For Gypsies, the rulings of the kris are considered before any state-run legal system, as they pertain directly to their unique way of life. For instance, Sway’s description of cases she had seen brought before the kris touched on violators of the marime code, transgressions that mostly included either inappropriate sexual conduct or mixing with Gadjo. She describes the case of a nineteen-year old girl whose crime had been to join the job corps, and of a young man’s similar misguided transgression of joining the United States’ Marines. Both were convicted of marime for their engagement in the Gadjo lifestyle. The punishment for being marime usually involves the entire family; when one member is convicted of polluting his or her self, the family suffers by losing its place in the community both economically and socially, never again to be fully accepted.
The family is the basis of Gypsy life, as it determines both the communal and economic structure within which the Rom live.
Today, there are approximately thirteen Gypsy tribes, or kumpanias, each which are then divided into vitsas or extended families, the body that traditionally comprised the Gypsy traveling caravan. Each kumpania has a head-chief, or Rom Baro (big man), who serves as the spiritual and legal guide for the tribe. Sway’s study of American Gypsies in 1980s California describes the vitsas as being an economic unit, often arranged so that every family member is in some way involved in the women’s fortune-telling businesses. “Gypsies are very practical people; to them kinship means identification with the side of the family that offers the best financial opportunity,” she explains. Sway found that in 1988 there were approximately a million Gypsies living in the United States, most of whom she described as maintaining traditional Gypsy occupations, such as fortune-telling, or other itinerant businesses like traveling western movie caravans. The cooperation of the family as an economic and communal unit is essential to the Gypsy tradition, though historically, forced sedentarization and bans on nomadism deliberately split families up to keep them from collective itinerancy. Sway’s study found that most American Gypsies maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle, whereby they either collect welfare or work in one location for the winter, before resettling elsewhere for financial improvement in the summer. She explains Gypsy nomadism to be entirely the result of economic concern, whereby the “primary motivation behind the Gypsies’ frequent movement is their drive to exploit new markets for their skills and services after present markets have been depleted.”
Sway’s study discovered that the primary American Gypsy occupation is fortune telling, which requires frequent resettlement to be successful. Complementary to Deleuze and Guattari’s spatial theory, Sway found that Gypsies have their own underground map of the United States, drawn by tribal chiefs charting “economic territoriality” and possibilities across the country. Each community has a different map of their particular geographic area, though these maps also correspond to a larger map of the country determined by tribal chiefs. In the Gypsy map, the country is divided into rural and urban areas, which are in turn separated into downtown and shopping zones, thus determining the economically lucrative parts of town. Economic territoriality ensures a strategic placement of Gypsy businesses in specific area, for two distinct purposes: one, to ensure demand from the Gadjo population; and two, to help other Gypsy businesses succeed by making sure not to interfere in their economic territories. In this way, Gypsies map a country based on a concern for setting their own rules and territory amidst the boundaries already set by sedentary society. True to the theory of Deleuze and Guattari, the Gypsy map demonstrates the nomadic smooth space setting itself within the sedentary striated space. The Gypsy map, while particular to the Rom community and subversive to sedentary society, is nevertheless dependent on mainstream boundaries and traffic zones to provide areas of business.
While Gypsy traditions are unique to their culture, they are clearly definable by their relation to non-Gypsies. The code of marime sets guidelines for the proper Gypsy way of life, which is posited in opposition to the impure Gadje lifestyle. Many Gypsy traditions, including rituals and music, are comparable to Judaism because both groups existed in a similar social status in eastern and central Europe. The Gypsy creation of an entire legal, economic, and religious system with non-Gypsy space, coupled with their severe aversion to mixing with Gadje, demonstrates a response to a history of discriminatory exclusion and forced assimilation. Sway notes that most Gypsies hold a negative image of non-Gypsies precisely because their only associations with Gadje are either television debaucheries, or interactions that put Rom in compromising positions. By avoiding contact with Gadje, Gypsies are able to maintain an upper hand against their oppressors. They maintain a strict level of cleanliness and modesty, while allowing themselves to appear dirty to Gadje to avoid giving away the secrets of their culture. They respond to forced itinerancy by deceiving sedentary society either with fortune-telling businesses, or begging.
They maintain a traditional lifestyle based on kinship and marriages arranged around tribal finances to ensure the continuation of their communities amidst a modernizing and increasingly assimilated sedentary society. Just as sedentary society depends on Gypsies to affirm its belief in its own superiority, Gypsies can only maintain their distinctness by keeping a concerted distance from Gadje. In creating their own smooth space, Gypsies exist both interior and exterior to the striated space of the State. They live within the boundaries of sedentary society, but with a completely distinct lifestyle. The smooth space of the Gypsies is thus defined by their re-appropriation of the stereotypes used against them, using their differences as an active defensive boundary between themselves and the State, as a method of protecting themselves from the discrimination and oppression that defined their history,
Like Gypsies, the experience of social vagrants, which can include hobos, tramps, and vagabonds, represents a prime example of an historical nomadic group whose traditions and mobility are primarily defined by its opposition to sedentary society. While not all social vagrants deliberately chose a life of itinerancy as a direct alternative to the constrictions of sedentary and mainstream society, there are many for whom vagrant mobility was a conscious counter-cultural decision. In the United States, there have been deliberate anti-sedentary movements since colonial times. Historical examples include the hawkers and peddlers of early America who consciously opposed the “ideal” American lifestyle in favour or going “on the road;” followed by the hobo culture of the Gilded Age through the mid-twentieth century who chose the same adventurous route, this time riding the newly constructed railways in lieu of being professionals or sedentary workers; and the subsequent on-the-road generations of beatniks and hippies whose decision to traverse the country was part of the counter-culture which stood in defiance of the rules of the establishment.
Many of these nomads chose to leave a life of comfort and even affluence in favour of adventure and perpetual poverty. They followed wanderlust to go on the road, or chose itinerancy out of dissatisfaction with the rules and regulations of mainstream society. Others were driven by a lack of economic opportunities available to them in sedentary society, choosing the route of the “economic nomad” to find financial success. This study will focus primarily on the example of the American hobo culture whose itinerancy was motivated more by a passion for an alternative lifestyle than by economic necessity. We have chosen hobos as the second case study to further demonstrate the influence of sedentary society in nomadic self-identity in a mobile group who, unlike Gypsies, initially chooses transience because of its desire for adventure and counter-cultural beliefs.
a. Choosing the road
The history of hobos in the United States goes back to the country’s founding. The original hobos were men who were viewed as rebels to the founding fathers’ dream because of their alternative application of the concepts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Richardson Wright’s 1927 history of the early American hobo, Hawkers and Walkers in Early America describes a culture of young men who deliberately denounced education and elite society, equating happiness with adventure. Wright opens his study with an anecdote of an early walker, emblematic of the budding hobo movement.
A cloud hung over the domestic peace of the Bronson Alcott home. Having educated the embryo Transcendentalist to the point where he was ready to enter Yale, his parents and other doting relatives sat stiffly in their chairs pondering his future. They were about to state just what it was they wanted him to do and to become, when, speaking his own mind, into this august council, young Bronson tossed a bomb. Yale was a nice place, he said, but he’d much rather take to the road…. Their fond plans baulked, the family uttered a feeble protest or two, and succumbed to his entreaties. Thereby Yale lost a brilliant son and the ranks of peddlers gained a picturesque and persistent recruit.
The early American hobo was motivated by the easy economic opportunity and adventure offered on the road. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many of the young men who left their comfortable homes took up lucrative itinerant occupations like trunk peddling, going door-to-door selling almanacs, tin-ware, pottery, and other knick-knacks. Their financial successes went hand-in-hand with their image as reckless adventurer, their stories and gossip as useful as their heavy stocks. These “Yankee peddlers” could make anywhere from thirty to 200 per cent profit on their sales, and were considered the picture of literary romantics. But despite their romantic appearance, these peddlers were considered a detriment to civilized American life. Former Yale President Thomas Hamilton’s 1833 treatise, Men and Manners in America, describes the way itinerants were viewed by the elite in sedentary society: “’The whole race of Yankee peddlers in particular are proverbial for dishonesty. They go forth annually in the thousands to lie, cog, cheat, swindle, in short, to get any possession of their neighbour’s property in any manner it can be done with impunity.’”
Other itinerants in early America included the traveling ministers, who moved to spread the word of Protestant Christianity during the American Revolution and the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century; the artists of the nineteenth century who capitalized on the newfound comforts of the rising elite classes; and the itinerants who traversed westward from New England to discover untapped economic resources in greater America.
The American hobo movement came into full swing in the Gilded Age following the Civil War, 1870-1920, with the emergence of “hobohemia,” a massive underground world of itinerant workers and travelers. The years immediately following the Civil War initially brought a period of industrial depression and joblessness to the United States, and with it a migration of homeless men looking for odd jobs, seasonal outdoor labour, and occasional wage-earning.
With the onset of the Gilded Age and the prospective of quick economic prosperity a few years later, this fortune-thirsty migration continued. Like their predecessors, many of the hobos of the Gilded Age were young men motivated either by the possibility of economic adventures on the road, or by the road itself. What distinguished the new generation from the old was the sheer mass in the numbers of men who took to homelessness, and formed the country’s first proverbial Great Army of Tramps. The word ‘hobo’ came into use in the 1880s on the Oregon Short Line railroad after the mail carriers that used to call out “ho-boy,” as the train approached. Soon after, the name became the designation for the men who would freely ride these rails, not carrying any mail, and later became the indiscriminate designation for any sort of itinerant vagrant. Early twentieth century sociologist and foremost hobo scholar Nels Anderson defined the hobo as any sort of migratory worker, and his defiantly non-working, adventure-seeking counterpart as a tramp. While hobos were technically migratory workers, most of the transients who considered themselves hobos were less concerned with earning a quick and solid fortune than with finding daily subsistence – they were not merely working, they were professional tramps. The quick rise in numbers of homelessness was dubbed the “tramp crisis” of the 1870s, inspiring middle-class worries and a simultaneous increase in police stations.
Hobos and tramps were considered lazy and indolent, a nuisance and danger to working class society. According to historian Todd DePastino, hobos were disliked primarily because they prospered by the sweat of another man’s brow, consuming instead of producing, which was contrary to the work-ethic ideals encompassing America at the time. A New York Times article in 1877 expressed this dissatisfaction, saying, “if the tramp nuisance is ever brought to an end in this country, it will not be by a return to prosperous times...good times will only make things easier for him.” According to DePastino, an additional danger was the belief that tramps, “threatened the delicate balance between workplace and home, public and private, men and women, that the middle class had long considered crucial to a healthy social order.” They were considered dirty, criminal, and depraved compared to the standards set by mainstream society that detailed “the good life” as one based on working hard to achieve the American dream. By the 1890s, the army of tramps had grown into a thriving underground subculture. True to the theory of Deleuze and Guattari, hobos set their own smooth space within the striated space of the working world, like Gypsies re-appropriating the stereotypes used against them to create a solidly distinct sub-community within mainstream society. Hobos had their own “lingo,” method of transport, institutions, and neighbourhoods, though all were set within the boundaries of mainstream society.
In 1894, Jack London wrote his revolutionary diary-novel, “The Road,” documenting his own experiences traveling as a bum across America in protest of structured work and on a quest for youthful adventure. At only 16 years old, London had already become a veteran “oyster pirate,” cruising along the California coastline, stealing oysters from legal sailors. When he met some young hobos, he quit his job shoveling coal and his oyster pastime, and joined the hobos over the “hill” of the Sierra Nevadas to go on the road.
I became a tramp – well, because of the life that was in me, of the wanderlust in my blood that would not let me rest. Sociology was merely incidental; it came afterward in the same manner that a wet skin follows a duckling. I went on “The Road” because I couldn’t keep away from it; because I hadn’t the price of the railroad fare in my jeans; because I was made that I couldn’t work all my life on “one same shift; because – well, just because it was easier to than not to.
For London, the road was not about making money, but about living freely within an alternative community. His account delves into the experience of the hobo subculture, describing in glorious detail the rushes of the road, the trials and tribulation of traveling without a job and without a home. Like most of the hobos of his day, London traversed America hopping freight trains by catching “blind’ cars: sometimes “decking” the train and riding flat-bellied on the top; other times holding on to the sidebars before shimmying into an empty “Pullman” (boxcar) or ice-car; and other times riding the rods or gunnels underneath the body, holding himself barely inches off the track. After a few years of traveling this way, London had become an expert, a “profesh,” but he describes a fellow hobo’s fatal first experience hopping a train, when instead of decking the car, he went under and ended up “with both legs off.” Indeed, between 1901-1905 alone, more than 25,000 train trespassers were killed in a similar fashion, thousands more severely injured.
London maintained his subsistence on the road through an alternative form of working – begging. Usually, he would either stand on the street, or go door-to-door asking for a “hand-out” of a free meal, and a change of clothes. For better results, London would often spin a tale of a pathetic past to a sympathetic homeowner; he used the same technique to evade arrests. Hobos were a quick and easy target across America – in places where the “bulls were hostile,” (cops keen) hobos barely had an opportunity to defend themselves. No matter what they were doing, being dressed like a hobo and walking in the streets meant the crime had been committed. According to London, hobos were arrested not because they were actually criminals, but because it was the job of the police to act as though they were keeping society civilized. He described his own experience as the son of a sheriff, when a new textbook or a fresh meal was dependent upon his father’s “luck in the chase” of hobos. “It’s all in the game,” London explained. “The hobo defies society, and society’s watchdogs make a living out of him.” While hobos relied on sedentary society for money and free transportation, sedentary society relied on hobos to keep up the idea of an archetypal criminal, and with that, to keep sheriffs employed.
London’s description of the Gilded Age hobo has come to represent the quintessential image of the counter-culture nomad – a carefree and work-shunning bum whose occupation was the road. Itinerant men who chose transience as an alternative to the wage system characterized the hobo movement of the day. Whether this meant riding the rails like London, as a method of avoiding work and getting by day-to-day, or trespassing on the railroad system to find small jobs across the country, hobos were opposed to the mainstream system of wage labour. In the early nineteenth century, hobos jumped on board the labour movement, presented as the true proletariats for whom union organizers were fighting. In 1894, the great army of tramps took concrete and collective action, marching through the streets alongside the bourgeoning industrial labour movement, collectivized for the first time in what newspapers coined, “Coxey’s Army.” “No longer mere symbols or foot soldiers in the struggle against the wage system, hobos now possessed an independent political movement of their own, one that promised the emancipation of all labour.” The folk song, “Hallelujah I’m a bum,” came to characterize the battle of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for labour freedom, making hobos the movement’s unofficial mascot.
Whenever I get/all the money I earn/the boss will go broke/and to work he must turn. Chorus: Hallelujah, I’m a bum/Hallelujah, bum again/Hallelujah, give us a handout/to revive us again.
By this point, nearly every big city in American had a hobohemian section of town which hobos themselves called, “the main stem,” and later, “skid road.” While two/thirds of the main stem’s residents were migratory at any given time, the neighbourhood served as a cultural focal point for hobohemia. Centered downtown near the railroads and docks, and dotted with radical bookstores and saloons, the main stem had the working and anti-working class sharing the street with the elite in society, counter-culture amidst the mainstream. Hobos passing through any city knew they could come to the main stem to find a place to “flop” (sleep), whether on the streets or in cheap municipal lodging. It was here that the labour movement recruited its hobo archetypes, whether they were “bindle (blanket) stiffs” (working hobos who carried their worldly possession in a blanket) or anti-working bums. By the early twentieth century, “the main stem” had in many cities become a thriving underground. In Chicago, the underground extended aboveground, growing to such proportions that it earned the title of “Hobo Capital of the World.” According to Anderson, hobos flocked to Chicago’s main stem because that was where the employment agencies were. DePastino explains that the allure of employment centers “functioned less as a source of work for hoboes than as an infrastructure for housing, marketing, and transporting their labour to the hinterlands. As the greatest labour exchange in the country, if not the world, Chicago possessed thirty-nine different railroads radiating out to a periphery that included half the nation’s population.” To continue their underground world of migratory labour, hobos relied on the mainstream railroad and employments systems to give them access to transport and livelihood. For the organizing labour movement, the convenient location of hobohemia brought the oppressed proletariat en masse.
By the 1920s, as the main stem became mainstream and sedentary, firmly rooted now in the labour movement, hobohemia itself changed. According to DePastino, hobohemia began to fade as much as a result of the International Workers of the World (IWW)’s successful organizing as of technological modernization, such as the introduction of the automobile. The push to transport harvested produce in automobiles instead of boxcars as a cheaper and faster method of transport, increased a police crackdown on the hobos who had taken to hiding among the produce while riding the rails, thus bringing an end to the culture of hopping freights. By 1921, hobos were being arrested in the thousands by police on the railroads, ordered to either finds jobs or leave town. With the decrease of individual migratory workers came an increase in migratory family workers, who employers preferred because they seemed more reliable than hobo floaters. This did not signal an end to hobo culture, but an end to its free-spirited days. With the arrival of the Great Depression, the number of homeless people rose to unprecedented proportion, stuffing hobohemia, or the “hobo jungles” as they came to be called, with a new group of homeless people looking for a job. The distinction between the hobo adventurer and the laid off employee melted together, changing the face of hobohemia forever.
b. Hobo culture
The hobo culture, although also defined by its nomadism and its opposition to sedentary society, was remarkably different from the Gypsies’. Like the Gypsies, hobos were defined by a culture distinct and opposite from sedentary society: while the mainstream American ideal was based on production and living a settled life-style, hobos chose the transient and difficult life of migratory labour to ensure daily subsistence. Hoboism was a counter-cultural movement, which by definition requires a mainstream culture to oppose. To live as they chose, hobos relied on the institutions of sedentary society, finding alternative uses to mainstream transportation systems, currency, and streets – they made smooth the striated space of sedentary society by creating an entire sub-system within the boundaries of mainstream systems. Like the Gypsies, hobos subverted the map of mainstream society to create their own underground and separate geographic and economic system. They rode the railroads established by sedentary society, but never paid the fare, choosing instead to travel on the fringes of the train rather than in its designated seat-cars. They “flopped” in places not meant for sleeping, such as London’s experience sleeping with a group of other hobos atop a boiler system, and age-old stories of setting up camp beside the railroad tracks. They used the mainstream term “work” to refer to anything that will get them a dollar, be it physical labour or begging. They set up an underground society amidst the buildings and streets of the mainstream, re-appropriating the place to their own culture.
Unlike the Gypsies, hobo culture was a movement based on an ethic of every man working for himself, rather than on a collective kinship of one’s own economic success inextricably tied to that of the family. But the ethic of hobos was one of collective individuality meaning that even though the hobo’s primary concern was for himself, there was an underlying communal ethic whereby travelers would help each other to achieve their individual goals. Hobos were distinct from other homeless people in their self-designation. Theirs was not merely poverty, but the choice to live a life on the road. While there were countless examples of hobos merging together, in the end, the hobo was a lone traveler. Whereas Gypsies migrated in kumpanias and vitsas, traveling in caravans and setting up mobile homes in tents and vans, hobos traveled mostly individually and illicitly by railroad (and by hitchhiking in later years), setting up camp with minimal resources. There were some tramps, called bindle-stiffs, who carried with them a portable home of blankets and a change of clothes, but most hobos carried nothing with them, hoping fresh clothing could be attained through begging for a handout. London explains that while he would often begin his travels with other hobos, there was no obligation to stay together in the community – the hobo’s primary motivation was to get one’s self a ride, a meal or a place to sleep. He writes of waiting for “blind” cars to pass, and then jumping for them, whether his traveling partner could make it or not. London’s experience with the largest tramp army of the day, a 2,000-man entourage of hobos called “Kelley’s army” that traversed from city to city subsisting as
itinerants, perfectly demonstrates his individualist mentality.
While we were ahead, skimming the cream, and while the commissary was lost far behind, the main Army, coming along in the middle, was starved. This was hard on the Army, I’ll allow; but then, the ten of us were individualists. We had initiative and enterprise. We ardently believed that the grub was to the man who got there first, the pale Vienna to the strong.
This is not to say that all hobos sacrificed their fellow transient’s survival for their own comfort, but it does reflect the fact that the members of Kelley’s army were single adventurers combining forces, but still focused on their own needs. Hobos were usually unattached men, either entirely without families or having left their wives behind; they were intent on supporting themselves, not a clan. London explains that even in situations where hobos helped each other find success, the main goal was to take care of one’s self. While hobos could capitalize on the potential of the sedentary worker, they must maintain a certain respect for the fellow hobo. He uses as an example his first experience trying to beg for money on the street.
The first night, however, I couldn’t rise to it; and the result was that when the kids were ready to go to a restaurant and eat, I wasn’t. I was broke. Meeny Kid, I think it was, gave me the price and we all ate together. But while I ate, I meditated. The receiver, it was said, was as bad as the thief; Meeny Kid had done the begging, and I was profiting from it… I decided that it shouldn’t happen again.
Even in their individualist mode, hobos were intent on maintaining contact with each other, forming an underground community. Hobos were able to keep in contact with one another, and to inform each other about the conditions of travel while on the road by leaving notes for each other on the sides of water tanks. Hobos would leave hints in their lingo to tell their counterparts whether the bulls were hostile (police on the track), the roundhouse was good for kipping (sleeping), or if the privates were any good (residents of private home generous to beggars). Each hobo had a moniker or nom-de-rail that usually indicated where he was from, or what his nationality was – for example, London’s early moniker was Frisco Kid, and became Sailor Jack when he grew, indicating that he had once been a man of the seas. These common names gave hobos a sense of belonging to a community, whereby a person’s identity as a hobo was initiated when he chose a hobo moniker for himself. While on the road, hobos would often give each other advice, particularly the older hobos to the younger recruits, forging friendships for security, cheaper living, and to avoid loneliness. In the hobo jungles, where people would congregate while on the road, travelers could share food, stories, and company. According to DePastino, the sedentary nature of the main stem also kept the community of hobohemia together, giving transients a place to congregate and pass time in between travels.
Deemed by sedentary society as criminals, a large part of the hobo culture was its constant association with jails. According to anthropologist James Spradley, it was precisely the indiscriminate imprisonment of tramps that contributed to their criminal nature. Writing about the experience of Seattle’s tramps in the 1960’s, Spradley argues that it was the repeated incarceration of tramps that caused an increase in alcoholism in hobos, and not the other way around. His is a description of men who consciously choose to leave home for the road, only to turn alcoholic after being caught in a continuous cycle of being charged for drunk behavior. One of the tramps in his account explains that often, he was imprisoned for being publicly drunk, even if he had been sober. “This time I wasn’t drunk...Just wrong place – wrong time…cannot convince me that being drunk is a crime. Being broke is,” wrote the tramp. Spradley posits that while tramps were charged for public drunkenness, usually their only crime was just appearing poor. Spradley explains that this constant criminalization actively contributed to the tramp’s redefinition of himself as a criminal rather than a free spirit. “Whereas new self identities may be acquired throughout the lifespan, dramatic changes in personality can only occur if these former identities are subjected to radical manipulation. The jailing of tramps is not the only factor in their loss of their former self-conceptions and the acquisition of a new lifestyle, but it is certainly one of the most important.” Further, Spradley argues that the continuous criminalization of tramps did not contribute to their sedentarization or “rehabilitation,” but rather further perpetuated a cycle of criminal nomadism.
Whereas most Americans are drawn to a destination when they travel, urban nomads are pushed from a destination by these forces. In a multitude of ways, then, the practices of the police and courts, which are intended to control and punish, actually perpetuate the core of this culture – our nomadic style of life.
Like Gypsies, the unique culture of the hobos was in many ways defined by sedentary society. Hobos took to the road in protest of the mainstream society that required a certain level of employment, sedentarization, and law-abidance. Hobos shunned these three golden rules of the mainstream by choosing to subvert the sedentary way of life – they hopped freight trains instead of paying for a ride; they made their money begging or peddling goods; they worked when and where they wanted to, not to be constricted by the rules of urban employment; and they passed through town, rather than settling down. The community of hobos was formed by like-minded counter-culture transients who chose petty crime over being “civilized” and created a new civilization of their own based on a shared opposition to the mainstream. Their increased criminalization, like of the Gypsies, was the making of sedentary society who perpetuated a cycle of criminal activity by trying to subdue the seemingly criminal nature of transient homelessness.
The nomadic communities discussed in this study reflect two separate experiences of mobile groups developing their own self-definition in subversion of mainstream society. Gypsies, the quintessential nomads, or “universal vagabonds,” as Richardson Wright describes them, embarked on mobility not out of choice, but out of discriminatory necessity – their subversion was both initiated by society when they were brought together and sent to Persia, and maintained as a result of centuries of paradoxical anti-Gypsy treatment and legislation. While over the years nomadism became such an inherent part of their identity that they could no longer be considered sedentary even when settled, this self-definition developed from an outer source. Likewise, the underlying Gypsy tradition of separating clean from polluted, and moreover, themselves from non-Gypsies, can be attributed to the discriminatory nature of their past. Gypsies developed not as an ethnic group, but as a community of shared occupational values. From the Hinduism of their origin, to the Judaism with which they coexisted during their migration, Gypsies adopted a law of cleanliness that essentially protects them from the threats of assimilation and communal destruction. In severely limiting their interaction with Gadje, and in deliberately keeping non-Gypsies from knowing the truth of their culture, Gypsies maintain a level of independence and mystique that sets them apart and allows them to continue maintaining an alternatively smooth space in the striated space of sedentary society. The Rom depend on their differences from sedentary society to maintain their distinctly unique character.
Hobos also relied on sedentary society for their self-definition, because just as the civilized state cannot exist without the barbarian, so too, the barbarian cannot exist without the civilized state. Hobos choose their path in conscious opposition to the ways of sedentary society. In particular, hobo culture opposes the mainstream ideal of settling down with a family and steady job. The hobo is motivated by adventure and the allure of the road, choosing poverty over wealth, uncertainty over plans. This affront to the mainstream American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness turns the idea of the hobo into the quintessential idea of the unbridled criminal. Consequently, repeated imprisonment could lead the hobo to a new self-defining quality of being a criminal – the result not of his own criminal activity, but of mainstream misperceptions. Hobos also rely on the infrastructure of sedentary society in maintaining their own culture. Without the state’s railroad, the hobo would have had no way of traveling; without sedentary workers, hobos would have had no way of receiving hand-outs; without the mainstream, hobos could not have had a counter-culture underground. In this way, it becomes clear that while nomadic and sedentary societies seem to exist as complete opposites, their dichotomous relations require them to depend on each other for their own existence. The striated space of sedentary society, based on control and pattern, is defined by the notion of a mainstream civilization that could not exist without a subversive other. Likewise, the smooth space of nomads, an alternative to striation, requires the boundaries of sedentary society because its active subculture is dependent on reinventing mainstream institutions.
Since the second half of the twentieth century, there has been an enormous amount of activism from within both Gypsy and homeless communities demanding equal rights and fair treatment by the state. For the Rom, who have been repeatedly denied sufficient memorial or restitution for their losses in World War II, the fight has been based on achieving recognition for themselves as an ethnic and not merely social group. One character in the Canadian Romany activist film Opre Roma calls on viewers to call the group Roma, not Gypsy, to recognize that the group shares an ethnic base, and is not just a society of common itinerants. Likewise, the repeated criminalization of the poor has raised enormous consciousness among homelessness activists calling for governments to fight poverty, not the poor. And while the hobo culture as it existed in the Gilded Age has essentially faded, the idea of the new traveler has risen in its place – borderless individuals who use migratory labour and transience as a method of global connection. Rather than attempt to deny their differences, nomads have appropriated the misdefinition and misperception given to them by sedentary society to highlight and develop uniquely distinct cultures.
The relationship of sedentary and nomadic societies is indeed one of dependence and mutual influence. In the case of the Gypsies and of the Hobos, the subversive behaviour of the nomadic culture was perpetuated by the discrimination against them by sedentary society – these nomads created their culture within that of sedentary society, defining themselves against their oppressors. Sedentary society is not by definition discriminatory, but it is by definition the mainstream. Likewise, nomadic groups are not by definition criminal, but they are by nature subversive sub-cultures. Just as the mainstream is usually threatened by its subversive elements, sedentary society is threatened by the very existence of nomadic groups, though its own existence as mainstream is wholly dependent on its dichotomous sub-culture. Although sedentary and nomadic societies require each other to sustain their self-identities, their relationship of mainstream vs. subversive has historically demonstrated a perpetual cycle of discrimination and defiant opposition to one another.
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Table of Contents
On Gypsies and Hobos …3
Spatial Relationships …4
Historical migration: millennia of persecution …7
Community and traditions …17
Choosing the road …24
Hobo culture …30
A study of the nomadic-sedentary co-dependent relationship, using historical examples of the Gypsy-Rom and the hobos of the American Gilded Age
Copyright June 2005