Thursday, 8 July 2010

Romanian negroes

Transylvania can scarcely be considered an aristocracy any more than America can. The native Indians and negroes of America—the free negroes of the North, I mean, for Transylvania knows nothing so degrading as absolute slavery—occupy the place of the gipsies and Wallacks of Transylvania ; the rest of the inhabitants of both countries enjoying nearly equal rights.
Hungary and Transylvania by John Paget (1839)

This wonderful book is now available on never to be sufficiently esteemed Google books. It brings back memories of my wasted undergraduate years. It is better says Chamfort to misspend your youth than to do nothing with it and the latter was my case. At Cambridge, alas, alas, I couldn’t find even an ounce of self discipline to do the amount of work (and I am not sure whether it would have been even so very much) to have taken my first and spent the rest of my life perhaps as a bachelor Cambridge (better Oxford) history don. I did spend much time in the University Library’s Mussolini fascist precincts reading Hungarian history, which made up one twentieth of a possible question about the 1848 revolutions. Eastern Europe stirred me very deeply and I decided to adopt Hungary as my country (vague recollections of attractive Magyar Post stamps, paprika, hussars and boisterous polkas?) I read Paget to give me the background to the 1848 Hungarian war of independence which I am ashamed to say I studied from a Hungarian nationalist point of view identifying the Hungarians with the cause of unionism in Ireland and the Romanians with Fenians. I was very struck by Paget’s descriptions of nomadic Wallachs. Knowing Wallachia was a province of Romania I assumed he was describing Romanians as picturesque savages. Only years later did I learn he was talking about not Romanians but their cousins the Aromanians, distributed around the Balkan peninsular who have now lost their nomadic character.

In this quotation Paget does use the word Wallacks to refer to Romanians. Any Englishman who visits Sibiu or Cluj is immediately aware that these are Protestant ascendency towns in Ireland. The comparison with negroes is more pointed. I hesitated to put the quotation on my Facebook page and quickly took it down not wanting to inflame anti-Magyar feeling among my Romanian Facebook friends or have them think I was deprecating the Romanian race. Romanians are extremely sensitive about their national honour and do not always have a post-modern attitude towards negroes.

How wonderful and dangerously addictive a thing the internet is. I discover that Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew who travelled through south-eastern Europe and the Middle East between 1159 and 1173, alludes to the Vlachs in The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. He claimed that they enjoyed some measure of independence on their Valachian mountain tops.


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  2. Well, you've already had the opportunity to see that Romanians are a bit (too) sensitive about these things. We (Romanians) would like to be "almost equals" to Hungarians and/or Gypsies, but just to have "them" be compared to Indians or Afro-Americans.

    Anyway, the comparison between these six "nations" (Euro-Americans, African-Americans, Indians on one side and Romanians, Hungarians and Gypsies on the other hand) will always be disputed. Historically, both Romanians and Hungarians want to be considered the local population and the others as newcomers - although that does not change much in the present.

    Well, I would like to let you know that neither Romanians, nor Hungarians, nor Gypsies are all extremists. Just a bit sensitive and "autistic".

  3. I like Romanian a national pride - we have little of it alas in England and this is a tragedy. Paget is very, very good.