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The Journal of Intercultural Studies, 5(4):61-64 (1984).

Judith Okely
The Traveller Gypsies
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983. pp. xii +254.

One problem that has beset the study of Gypsies from the very beginning is what a Gypsy actually is. The position of the aficionado has usually been very different from that of the local borough council; while the former has thought in terms of “purity of blood” (early works on Romani genealogy talked about “pedigree”), the latter has tended to regard the population as a social, rather than an ethnic phenomenon, and as such one to be dealt with using social measures. One definition under current (1967) British law maintains that “a Gypsy is a person leading a nomadic life with no fixed employment and no fixed abode;” a letter to the press from an angry citizen complained that “they are very much detested and feared . . . even the true gypsy glamorised by George Borrow was never liked” (The Surrey Advertiser, 19:iv:77). These people are the British Romanies with which Okely’s book deals, and her stand regarding their identity, especially from an historical perspective, underlies much of her approach to the subject. Indeed, it is a frequently-recurring theme throughout the book, and one is left realizing, after reading it, that its author never anywhere presents a clear definition of what a Gypsy actually is.

The study is divided into twelve chapters and a conclusion, and is written in a well-structured and scholarly way. Chapter One deals cursorily with the history of Gypsy Studies and with popular misconceptions about Gypsies (pursued in more detail in Chapter Two), and with the ‘Indianness’ of the people and the exploitation of that notion. Chapter Three includes valuable material on her field-working experiences, and should be read in conjunction with the same discussion in Sutherland (1975). Chapter Four discusses the place of the British Gypsy in the economic structure, and includes data on work alliances and Gypsy-gorgio (i.e. gadjo, non-Romani) work contacts. The issue of identity is raised again in Chapter Five, Chapter Six deals with maintenance of the boundaries between Gypsy and gorgio (and includes as one illustration of this the very different attitudes each has towards certain animals—with the curious omission of monkeys, mention of the very name of which is believed by some Romanichals to bring bad luck for the rest of the day); the same chapter, perhaps the best in the book, deals with the Romani concept of Mokhadi cuvvels, things considered taboo, unclean or otherwise ritually impure—and usually associated with gorgios and the gorgio way of life - an area touched upon again in Chapter Eleven.

Chapter Seven presents a realistic picture of the attitudes prevalent among the settled (gorgio) population towards Gypsies, the Romani way of life and the various means of livelihood, and of the different ways gorgios deal with providing (or denying) accommodation for that population. Interestingly, the same perception of the “true” Gypsy, as opposed to the “Tinker” or non-Romani itinerant, in terms of the literary image at least, is shown sometimes to have a bearing upon the decisions of gorgio policy-makers. In Chapter Eight, Okely deals with the reality and the myth of the Gypsy as “Traveller,” and wisely points out at the very beginning that “Gypsies do not travel about aimlessly, as either the romantics or the anti-Gypsy suggest” (p. 125). Chapters Nine and Ten deal in a concise way with kinship, marriage choice, husband-wife relationships and children. The role of women in British Romani society is explored in Chapter Eleven, with a good discussion of the difference between the widespread non-Gypsy stereotype and the actual thing, and the reasons for the existence of that stereotype. The most disappointing chapter is probably the last, Chapter Twelve, where death, superstition and religion are discussed; disappointing because these areas are not dealt with in sufficient depth.  Their closer examination would have underscored the non-European aspects of Romani identity which she argues against.

The concluding remarks contain a statement which might well have appeared at the beginning of the book: “Outsiders have projected onto Gypsies their own repressed fantasies and longings for disorder . . . this study has confronted such fantasies” (p.232).

Judith Okely’s pragmatism, evident in this quote, has led her to play down the biological (but not the ethnic) criteria for legitimate Gypsy identity, even to the extent of dismissing the established fact of the Romani language.  When referring to this, she puts the word in quotes: “language” (pp. 6,7,10). Other statements reflecting this stand include “many forms of Romanes might be classified as Creoles or pidgins” (p. 9), and in particular “It may be the case that groups of people brought or appropriated some linguistic forms, Creole or pidgin related to some earlier Sanskrit in the movements along the trade routes between East and West, but it does not follow that all ‘real’ Gypsies or Travellers are the descendants of specific groups of persons allegedly in India nearly a thousand years ago. It is of course exciting that such linguistic links can be made between some Gypsies and ‘magical’ Asia (pp. l2-13).”

The idea of an Indian connection evidently bothers this author. On page 18 she writes of a “mythical Indian origin” being “invoked,” and on page 34 that “the notion of a bounded ‘race’ mistakenly fixes Gypsy identity in biology.” It’s a pity Hitler wasn’t of the same opinion. At the very beginning of the book (p. 2) she states that “the extent to which Indian origin is emphasised depends on the extent to which groups or individuals are exoticised”. Now it is understandable that in considering the majority of the British Gypsy and Traveller population, Okely would perhaps find it difficult to draw many connections between them and the Jats or Doms or Rajput warriors referred to in the literature on Gypsy origins; but it is precisely in this area that her scholarship is weakest. She makes very few references to earlier historical works, and is sometimes wrong in her statements concerning them (e.g. on page 6 she attributes the first English work on Romanies to Hoyland, 1816, rather than to Bryant or Marsden (both 1785). Her frequent reference to “Romany Creole” (p. 15), is traceable to this reviewer (Hancock, 1970), who is very likely responsible for her thus having misinterpreted the “mixed” nature of the Romani language and people. In fact most dialects of Romani preserve more or less of the native morphology, the restructured (these are not creolized) varieties such as those spoken in Britain, Scandinavia or Spain being exceptions. As I pointed out elsewhere (Hancock, 1977), the very considerable non-Romani ancestry of the British Gypsy population has probably accounted for the mixed nature of the Angloromani language. Okely’s interpretation of this and her involvement with the British situation in particular have led her sometimes to over generalize about “Gypsies” without sufficient regard either for Romani populations in other parts of the world, or even other “British Gypsy” populations, e.g. in Canada, the United States or Australia.

The people calling themselves “Travellers” in the United States, Canada, and Australia, include Irish Travellers, Scottish Travellers and Romanichals. All interact with each other, and may to some extent intermarry; but it is the Romanichals who regard themselves as the “real Gypsies;” however much some aspects of their social life and means of livelihood may overlap with their own, the Irish and some of the Scottish Travellers are gorgios, not Romanichals. Even Okely herself indicates (p. 66) that the Irish and Scottish Travellers use the word “flattie” for non-Travellers (from their own perspective), rather than “gorgio”—a word which, like it or not, has its etymology in Sanskrit. The groups are aware of their own identities, they have names for each other such as “nawkin” or “raff;” a Romanichal-run evangelical newsletter published monthly in Louisiana sometimes includes texts in the three different dialects of these populations. The literally insular nature of British society as a whole has blurred ethnic distinctions within the Traveller population to some extent, and it is not at all surprising that Okely’s informants, like Acton’s (1974), should harbour the same resentments towards Continental and other “foreign” Gypsies that the host society does to other nationalities. If Okely had conducted the same fieldwork in the United States among the Travellers in that country, the content of her book would have been similar in many respects to that of the existing volume, but her statements about Romanichal Travellers as opposed to non-Romani (Irish and some Scottish) Travellers would have been better defined. In clear contradiction to her statement that Gypsy identity is “mistakenly” fixed in biology by the non-Romani historians, her own definition of “Gypsy” (p. 67) states that

Gypsies [themselves] use the principle of descent as a self-ascriptive mechanism for continuity . . . Among the Gypsies or Travellers, a person must have at least one Gypsy or Traveler parent, reinforced by upbringing within a distinct community.

Evidently she believes that we are mistaken too.  If the wording had only read “Gypsy,” i.e. a person identifying himself as being of Romanichal (rather than Irish or Scottish or other) descent, the definition would have been clearer; once again, social criteria confuse ethnic distinctions; furthermore, although the self-ascription Travellers is common, the majority of Romanies are not in fact actual “travellers,” even in England; there are everywhere sedentary Romanichal communities, such as those in North Kensington and Battersea in London, for example.

A final word about the awareness of being part of a larger entity: Okely’s informants told her (p. 170) that they did not “. . . see themselves as part of an international movement, although they were always interested to hear about Gypsies elsewhere in the world.”  “Movement” was probably not a good choice of word here; there are Gypsy “movements,” some political, some evangelical, but the author was probably alluding to her subjects’ awareness of the Romani diaspora, and of the historical and cultural ties (in as far as she accepts that they exist) shared by them. Few Romanies are aware of, or are involved in, any kind of “international movement”, and that is how the situation is likely to remain, though it is growing. One might compare such attitudes, encountered now among Romanies, with similar attitudes encountered some decades ago among African Americans or Native Australians, and ethnocentric movements are certainly a reality for these latter now.

Overall, the book is a scholarly piece of work, and a useful addition to the growing body of worthwhile literature being written to counterbalance the huge amount of fantasy literature on the subject that has been appearing since the Victorian era. Perhaps her theorizing might have been better presented in a separate book, or journal article, and not interwoven into the sociological discussion. If it were her intention to present the one within the framework of the other to make her case, Dr. Okely has succeeded only in describing a heterogeneous population of Travellers, some of whom are Gypsies, and who live in the British Isles. In terms of Romanies in the wider sense, or in terms of British Romanichals in other parts of the world, her study remains unfortunately limited.


Acton, Thomas, 1974. Gypsy politics and social change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Bryant. Jacob, 1785. “Collections on the Zingara or Gypsy language”. Archaeologia, 7:387-394.
Hancock, Ian, 1970. “Is Anglo-Romanes a Creole?,” Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society, 3rd ser., 49:41-44.
Hancock, Ian, 1977. “The social and linguistic development of Angloromani,” Social Science Research Council on Sociolinguistics Working Paper No. 38.
Marsden, William, 1785. “Observations on the language of the people commonly called Gypsies,” Archaeologia, 7:382-386.
Sutherland, Anne, 1975. Gypsies, the Hidden Americans. London: Tavistock.