Gypsies and Caravan Dwellers in the Netherlands

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Gypsies and Caravan Dwellers in the Netherlands

ETHNONYMS: Buitenlandse Zigeuners (foreign Gypsies), Nederlandse Zigeuners (Dutch Gypsies), Woonwagenbewoners (caravan dwellers)


Identification. Gypsies and caravan dwellers, often seen by the Dutch population as members of one and the same group, have been in an isolated position since the nineteenth century. They are distinct from the general population in terms of their way of life and housing (a caravan). The most important difference between the two groups is that most caravan dwellers are indigenous Dutch, whereas Gypsies came from elsewhere. For different reasons both groups chose a mobile life-style during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Dutch Gypsies can be divided into Sinti (82 percent) and Roma (18 percent). The Sinti, coming from Germany, France, and Belgium, entered the Netherlands in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Roma (mostly Lowara) arrived around 1900 from Romania and Hungary. They left these countries about 1860 and before coming to the Netherlands first traveled through Germany, France, and Scandinavia. Both groups settled more or less permanently and obtained Dutch citizenship. Apart from these Dutch Gypsies we can distinguish the so-called foreign Gypsies, who left Eastern Europe from 1960 on and stayed for some time in Italy and France. From there small groups annually roamed throughout Western Europe, also visiting the Netherlands. Because they were considered unwanted aliens everywhere, the Dutch government decided in 1978 to legalize a limited number.

Demography. There are about 800 foreign Gypsies living in the Netherlands. The number of Dutch Gypsies is estimated at 2,700, 90 percent of whom live on caravan sites. The total number of caravan dwellers is about 20,000.

History and Cultural Relations

The history of Dutch Gypsies can be divided into three periods. The first period, from 1420 to about 1750, began when a small group of wandering people appeared in the Netherlands. They said they were pilgrims from "Little Egypt" and were soon called Egyptenaren (Egyptians) and heidens (heathens). In the beginning they were received reasonably hospitably. This attitude changed around 1500 when government policy toward them became increasingly repressive. They were accused of being spies for the Turks and were prohibited from dwelling in the Netherlands, as well as in surrounding countries. Heidens caught by the authorities were to be punished and banned. Their sheer presence was enough for persecution. This policy was also motivated by accusations that they troubled the population by begging, stealing, and fraud. Toward the end of the seventeenth century the persecution intensified, resulting in their being driven to criminal acts. By then the authorities had become overtly violent and in some provinces a reward was offered for every heiden, dead or alive. As a reaction to their outlaw status, the Gypsies formed gangs and their crimes became more and more serious. This escalation of violence ended in an attempt at extermination. Those who escaped went into hiding or fled to surrounding countries, such as Germany and France.

The second period, from 1750 to 1868, was one during which the authorities were convinced that there were no longer any heidens living in the Netherlands and therefore did not maintain any specific policy regarding them. The negative image of the group, however, was kept alive by diverse sources and the memory of the "stealing and murdering heidens" remained.

The third period, from 1868 to the present, began when Hungarian coppersmiths (also called Kaldarash) and Bosnian bear leaders (Ursari) and their families entered the country in 1868 and the government reacted negatively. The foreigners were immediately "recognized" as heidens, a term soon replaced by the new label "Zigeuners" (Gypsies). The Kaldarash and Ursari were thought to possess the same vices as their presumed predecessors, the heidens. The stereotypes of the authorities were so deeply rooted that, although the Hungarian coppersmiths and Bosnian bear leaders were self-sufficient and appreciated by the population for their skills and services, the central government defined them as unwanted aliens. The military police, among whose duties was the guarding of the borders, was instructed to remove all Zigeuners as soon as possible. Most of the Kaldarash and Ursari were, however, only passing through, on their way to the United States. After the turn of the century they appeared only sporadically. From 1900 onward their place was taken by the Lowara, a subgroup of the Kaldarash, who had changed their profession to horse dealing and who had managed to obtain German, French, and Norwegian passports. The Lowara were not immediately "recognized" as Gypsies, since they did not conform to the dominating "Hungarian image." Although they earned enough money through horse dealing, the central authorities nevertheless looked upon them as parasites. Contrary to the Kaldarash and Ursari, the horse dealers settled in the Netherlands and succeeded in obtaining a firm footing with the cooperation of municipal authorities. After some time (around 1930) the "Hungarian image" faded in importance and the Lowara were definitely regarded as Gypsies. At the same time a fourth group, the Sinti, specialists in music and other forms of amusement, were also labeled as Gypsies. They appeared to have been living for generations in the Netherlands already, but up to that time they were not regarded as Gypsies.

In the 1930s the anti-Gypsy policy was intensified and many Lowara and Sinti were registered as such. This made it easy for the Dutch authorities to pick them up during World War II and deliver them to the Nazis. Because of their presumed race, 245 of them were finally sent to Auschwitz. Only 30 of them survived. Together with family members who managed to go into hiding they returned to the caravan sites after the war and tried to continue their way of life. This became more and more difficult as the government encouraged a sedentary life-style and discouraged free traveling. Moreover, the recollection of the cooperation of Dutch authorities at the time of the Nazi raids in 1944 greatly increased their isolation from Dutch society.

We know very little about the history of Dutch caravan dwellers. People began to live in caravans for the first time around 1880. Some of them did so because that type of dwelling made it easier to practice their ambulant professions, such as basket making, knife grinding, and chair mending; others ended up in caravans because of a housing shortage. In general they traveled within a limited region. During the twentieth century they have become a distinct subcultural group in the lower strata of Dutch society.


In the past, almost all caravan dwellers and Dutch Gypsies lived in so-called woonwagenkampen (caravan camps), mostly in immobile caravans. Only in the summer did some of them use a smaller mobile caravan and leave the sites for some time. A minority of Dutch Gypsies also lived in houses. The foreign Gypsies used to live in caravans and tents, but after their legalization they were placed in houses in ten municipalities throughout the country.

After the war the concept of integration gained increasing acceptance among government officials. The opportunity to travel was minimized and the majority of Gypsies and Caravan dwellers found themselves, socially and economically, living on "a dead-end street."

Traveling nowadays has only a symbolic function for them. The option of a caravan is obviously discouraged. Only the children of caravan dwellers can officially get a new permit to live in a caravan. But the reality is that they can find a house in a certain municipality or neighborhood more readily than an official site in a caravan camp. In the long run the goal of the government is sedentary housing. This is best illustrated by its policy toward foreign Gypsies, who were put up in houses from the moment of their legalization in 1978.


In contrast to the negative stereotype of Gypsies, the history of the Kaldarash, Ursari, Lowara, and Sinti in the Netherlands makes it clear that they fulfilled a useful economic function and in general were able to provide for their livelihood. The Kaldarash were praised for their skill in mending copper and tin objects, especially kettles. They not only worked for the rural population, but also received orders from local shopkeepers and industry. In the twentieth century they worked for bakers and dairy factories. They did not have a monopoly position in their trade; their nomadic life-style was too unpredictable. Nevertheless they were successful until World War II. The Ursari earned a good living by their performances. They taught their bears, and sometimes monkeys, to dance and do all kinds of tricks. These activities were especially appreciated by the rural population, because it was a welcome distraction from their monotonous daily life. This can be deduced from the sometimes impressive wealth of the Ursari and also from letters sent by local authorities who pleaded in their support against the accusations of the central government. Because of a ban on performances with bears during the Nazi occupation, the Ursari exchanged them in the 1930s for monkeys and street organs.

The history of the Kaldarash and Lowara in the Netherlands shows that the prevalent opinion that Gypsies hold on to traditional and outdated professions is false. It is likely that as a result of the diminishing demand for the services of Coppersmiths at the end of the nineteenth century many Kaldarash shifted to the horse trade. In the following decades they became known as Lowara. This is an illuminating example of economic adaptation, as this market was booming in western Europe and remained important until World War II. The Lowara more or less controlled the trade in cobs at the Dutch horse fairs and made an important contribution to this economic sector. The Sinti were mainly show people and concentrated on juggling, acrobatics, music, and dancing. In the course of the twentieth century many felt forced to restrict themselves to music and became popular musicians in cafés, pubs, and restaurants. Apart from this they traded in violins, which they also made and repaired.

After World War II, the Dutch Gypsiesboth caravan dwellers and foreign Gypsiesdid not occupy a stable position in the labor market, but they remained adaptable. However, because they were discouraged from traveling, they did not succeed in increasing their job opportunities. At present about 90 percent of the three groups receive social-security benefits. They try to supplement this income by all kinds of small-scale activities, such as selling automobiles, peddling, playing music, etc.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Until recently Gypsies used to live as extended families and therefore retained especially strong extended-family ties. Social-security benefits have made them more independent, however, and they have begun to adopt a nuclear family Structure. In addition to these family connections there also exist among the Roma work and travel units, which are more or less flexible economic entities, called kumpanias. They can include part of a family or a caravan camp.

With respect to marriage we know that only 5 percent of the Dutch Gypsies have married a non-Gypsy. The older Generation in particular stresses the importance of endogamy.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The position of Gypsies and caravan dwellers in the Netherlands can only be understood in the light of the role of the Dutch judicial authorities in the last century, when they had the authority to label widely different groups as deviant. Thus the necessary conditions for the label of "Gypsy" were: traveling as a family, an overtly nomadic lifestyle, and a foreign origin. Begging and a poor appearance were of secondary importance. Around the turn of the Century the call for jurisdiction to restrict the number of people living in caravans, foreigners as well as natives, became stronger. This led to the Woonwagenwet (Caravan Act) in 1918. The dominant idea behind this legislation was that caravan dwellers were antisocial, refused to work, and bothered the inhabitants of the country. The only difference between the Dutch caravan dwellers and the Gypsies was that the former were considered a domestic problem, the latter a problem that concerned aliens. Because of the institutionalization of the policy toward aliens around 1930, all groups that fulfilled these conditions were considered undesirable. Because the nomadic way of life was seen as outspoken antisocial behavior, the government emphasized the alleged indecent and immoral aspects of such groups. Cohabitation by adults was easily associated with unbridled sexuality, and it was assumed that their children would come to no good and continue the deviant life-style of their parents. This view corresponded with the general stigmatizing of so-called antisocials, who in the twentieth century faced constant attempts to "civilize" them.

During World War II this attitude reached its peak. The Dutch call for special camps to resocialize caravan dwellers was welcomed by the Nazis. Because of their racial ideas, however, they differentiated between antisocials and Gypsies. Consequently, the latter group was sent to a concentration camp, while the others escaped this fate.

Political Organization. Gypsies are not really integrated into the formal system of Dutch society. Even among themselves, they generally form alliances only on an informal basis. In the fight for the legalization of foreign Gypsies, however, they founded the pressure group Vereniging Rom (1977). Later followed the Vereniging Lau Mazirel (1982), the Internationaal Romano Comité (1986), and the Landelijke Vereniging Sinti (1989). The caravan dwellers have set up two organizations: Landelijk Platform Woonwagenbewoners en Zigeuners and Landelijk Overleg Woonwagenvrouwen.

Religion. No anthropological field research has been done in the Netherlands on the cultural aspects of Gypsies and caravan dwellers. We only have some information about their Religious beliefs. Dutch Gypsies in general adopted the religion of the region where they settled. Almost all of them became Roman Catholics. About one-third recently converted to the Pentecostal church, spreading from France, whose influence among European Gypsies is increasing. A separate "Gypsy mission" has been founded with its own organization, journal (Leven en Licht ), and meetings. Among the foreign Gypsies we can discern Muslim and Eastern Orthodox beliefs. The Dutch caravan dwellers are predominantly Roman Catholic.


Cottaar, Annemarie, Leo Lucassen, and Wim Willems (1988). "Een zwerver verdwaald: Balans en perspectief van het onderzoek naar Zigeuners en Woonwagenbewoners in Nederland." In Zigeuners in Nederland: Cultuur, geschiedenis en beleid, edited by P. Hovens and R. Dahler, 113-144. Nijmegen and Rijswijk.

Lucassen, Leo (1990). En men noemde hen Zigeuners. De geschiedenis van Zigeuners in Nederland: 1750-1944. Amsterdam: Stichting beheer IISG: SDV Uitgeverij.

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