THE GYPSY IN AMERICA
The Gypsies of the Brazil
THE Romá of the North American Republic are well known, and their emigration is of modern date. During the wars between England and France which followed the great Revolution many of them exchanged a wandering life for the service of the country, having been either kidnapped or impressed, or having taken the shilling. Of course, after obtaining a passage to the American colonies, they deserted the army, found friends, and settled in the country. The half‑bandit bands of Scottish Gypsies were mostly broken up in this way.
On the other hand, South America is very little known; and yet the part with which I am most familiar, the Brazil, is full of Gypsies. When Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic (A.D. 1492) issued the exterminating edict against Moors, Jews, and Gitanos, the latter slunk into hiding‑places; they were again proscribed by Charles V. (A.D. 1582); and Philip III. (A.D. 1619) issued from Belem in
Portugal an order for all the Gypsies to quit the country within six months—an order renewed by Philip IV. in A.D. 1633. There was some reason for this severity. The “masterful beggars” had made themselves infamous by turning spies to the Turks and Saracens; and if the general prejudice against them was unfounded, it rested at least upon a solid foundation—their hatred of the Christian Busno, Gacho, or non‑Gypsy. Thus every maritime city of the Brazil to which the exiles were shipped presently contained a Gypsy bairro, or quarter, the Portuguese Moreria (Moorery) corresponding with the Spanish Gitaneria, and not a little resembling the Ghettos of the Italian Jews. For instance, the Rocco, now the handsomest square in superb Rio de Janeiro, was of old the Campo dos Ciganos—the Gypsies’ Field. The “Egyptian pilgrims” thence spread abroad over the Interior, where their tents often attract the traveller’s eye; and some of them became distinguished criminals, like the Gypsy Beijú, one of the chief Thugs, whose career, ended by hanging for the murders which long disgraced the Mantiqueira Mountains, I have described in the Highlands of the Brazil (i. 63).
Wandering about the provinces of S. Paulo and Minas Geraes, I often met Gypsy groups whose appearance, language, and occupations were those of Europe. They are here perhaps a little more violent and dangerous, and the wayfarer looks to his revolver
as he nears their camp at the dusk hour; yet they are hardly worse than the “Morpheticos” (lepers), who are allowed to haunt the country. Popular books and reviews ignore them; but the peasantry regard them with disgust and religious dread. They protest themselves to be pious Catholics, yet they are so far the best of Protestants, as they protest, practically and energetically, against the whole concern. Their religion, in fact, is embodied in the axiom: “Cras moriemur—post mortem nulla voluptas.” We may well believe the common rumour which charges them with being robbers of poultry and horses, and with doing at times a trifle in the way of assassination.
On May 3, 1866, when riding from Rio Claro to Piracicava Saõ Paulo, I visited a gang of these “verminous ones”; and attended by my armed servants, I spent a night in their tents. The scene was familiar: the tilt‑tent swarmed with dark children, the pot hung from the triangle, and horses and ponies for carriage, and perhaps for sale, were picketed about. The features and complexion were those of the foreign tinkler; the women, besides trumpery ornaments of brass, coral, and beads, wore scarlet leg‑wraps; and some of the girls were pretty and well dressed as the memorable Selina, of Bagley Wood, Oxford. Apparently they were owners of negro slaves, possibly runaways. According to the Brazilians, they are fond of nomes esguisitos (fancy
names); Esmeralda and Sapphira are common, and they borrow from trees, plants, and animals.
Their chief occupations are petty trade and fortune-telling, when they reveal for a consideration all the mysteries of “love and law, health and wealth, losses and crosses.” They also “keen” at funerals during the livelong day, and drink, sing, and dance through the night—a regular wake. I could not induce them to use their own tongue, yet they evidently understood me. This desire to conceal their Gypsy origin I have frequently noticed elsewhere. It is probably a relic of the days of their persecution. Fortunately in most civilized countries to‑day the Gypsy can count equal rights with other men.