Mihai Scrobotovici and Dr. Anca Sprenger, French & Italian
Fragmented into multiple vassal principalities, Romanians had no country of their own until the 20th century. In the 19th century, French revolutionary ideas catalyzed Romanians’ aspirations for political unity and independence, producing the Revolution of 1848 in the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia. Unfortunately, the revolution’s nationalist characteristic has long overshadowed another significant revolutionary goal, namely the abolition of slavery. My study aimed to shed light on Romanian abolitionism by understanding to what extent it was a direct echo of French revolutionary discourse. Thanks to its diaspora of young intellectuals educated and living in France, 19th-century Romania was under noteworthy French influence. Thus, I explored the roots of Romanian abolitionism as it materialized at the peak of French influence in Romanian art, culture, literature, and politics. Until mid-19th century, in both Moldavia and Wallachia, private individuals, the state, and even the Christian Orthodox Church owned Gypsy1 slaves. By 1856, Moldavia and Wallachia had emancipated their entire slave populations.
I consulted a vast array of literary sources as well as digitized archives and documents on abolitionism.2 In order to test my hypothesis, that Romanian abolitionism is a direct echo of French revolutionary thought, I employed a five-step approach: (1) Given the Vatican and Constantinople’s sway over European politics, and given the moral questions surrounding slavery, I analyzed the influence of religion, organized or not, on French and Romanian abolitionism; (2) I studied the roots and catalysts of French abolitionism; (3) I reviewed the history of French-Romanian relations and French influence on Romanian society; (4) I researched slavery and abolitionism in the Romanian principalities; and (5) I assessed the prevalence of slavery, abolitionism, and antiabolitionism in the Romanian press of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Until the 18th century, Greek3 and Latin were the Romanian elite’s linguæ francæ. Romanians’ adoption of French culture as their own resulted from an amalgam of events and experiences. More notably, “Romanians were gradually introduced to French culture […] through reading French classics in Greek translation.” Ironically, by the 19th century, the French language had replaced Greek as the elite’s lingua franca almost entirely. French Enlightenment had captivated Romanians insomuch that nobles “rushed to employ French secretaries, tutors, and jeunes filles au pair to teach their children parlor French.” Between 1837 and 1838, of all foreign titles entering Moldavia, approximately “3% were English and Italian, 17% were German, and 80% were French” (Quinney 2007: 448–449). In fact, French culture became so influential in the Romanian states that many local periodicals printed both Romanian and French issues.
By mid-19th century, most Romanian students were attending French schools. Thus, the Romanian aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and intellectuals became essentially Francophile and, in every sense of word, even Francophone.4 Romanian scholar, historian, and writer Pompiliu Eliade observed that, while most of Europe treated the French with antipathy or suspicion, Romanians referred to France as, “Our older sister” (Eliade 1898: 280). In describing French influence on Romanian society, he stated that,
Rarely the action of one people over another was more complete, more pervasive, more enveloping than the French influence in Romania… It can be recognized in all the manifestations of the Romanian mind, in politics as well as in law, in literature as well as in the administrative design, or in social life (Eliade 1898: vi).
Later, in an age when Bucharest had been nicknamed “Little Paris,” Charles Drouhet wrote that, “If there is a country where the French traveler does not feel homesick, it is very well Romania” (Drouhet 1920).
In 1839, the Romanian Student Society of Paris was founded, its membership consisting mostly of future revolutionaries who would also contribute to and participate in the French Revolution itself. The society’s honorary president was none other than prominent French abolitionist and politician Alphonse de Lamartine (Cabac 2007: 145). At its Paris headquarters, Romanian writer and revolutionary Nicolae Bălcescu presented his Overview of the Present State, the Past and the Future of the Homeland, under the slogan “Patrie, Fraternité, Liberté” (Homeland, Brotherhood, Liberty). In the overview, he called for “a social reform of the Romanians, based on the sacred principles of justice and equality, which ought to lead our efforts” (Conrad 2003: 15). And thus was the Romanian 1848 Revolution program born and devised.
After the French Revolution, Bălcescu tore a piece of velvet from King Louis Philippe’s throne and mailed it to his friend Vasile Alecsandri as a symbol of the revolution that would soon touch Romanians also. Inspired by the 1848 events in France, French-educated Romanians returned to their homeland, where they reiterated the same progressive ideals and ignited a memorable 1848 Revolution in both Moldavia and Wallachia. By mid-19th century, Romanian national assemblies consisted mainly of young, ambitious, Francophile intellectuals, most of whom had attended French schools (Kogălniceanu 1908: 45).
The legislative processes behind abolitionism followed a similar blueprint, with gradual implementations, in both France and the Romanian principalities. First, France banned the slave trade. Second, the government required improved labor and living conditions for all slaves. Third, slave owners had the right to a state-provided reimbursement for each freed slave; abusive owners would lose this right. Fourth, all slaves became officially free after the picking season, so as to avoid financially harming plantation owners and the economy. Moldavia and Wallachia followed similar steps. First, their governments freed all stateand church-owned slaves. Second, new laws improved slaves’ labor and living conditions by requiring that slave owners treat them humanely. Third, the two states provided reimbursements to owners for each freed slave; abusive owners would be denied any reimbursement. Fourth, all slaves became officially free at the end of significant, seasonal labor projects to facilitate an economically sound transition to freedom.
It is worth mentioning that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Romanian press published numerous reports on slavery, the slave trade, colonial life, and abolitionism from the entire world, and not just from France— interestingly, Romanian journalists also covered related North-American events extensively. It is based on my other findings, however, that I conclude that Romanian abolitionism was a direct echo of French revolutionary ideas. The evidence lies in the indisputably strong French influence on 19th-century Romanian art, culture, literature, and even politics. Furthermore, on Romanian revolutionary thought, Alexandru G. Golescu emphasized it was from France that his fellow Romanian activists had “suckled of the milk of freedom” (Tomi 2009: 58). Finally, not only did the French and Romanian abolitionist programs follow the same outline, but, as per Romanian revolutionaries’ own accounts, the Romanian Revolution of 1848 was inspired, conceived, and planned in the French Revolution’s very epicenter, Paris.
1 Gypsies, or Roma, represented the vast majority, if not all, of the slaves in Romania. Thus, in Romania, the abolition of slavery is referred to as “the emancipation of the Gypsies.” As in the West, the practice of slavery in Romania contained an ethno-racist component—having immigrated from Indo-Pakistan, the Roma had darker skin, while autochthonous Romanians were Caucasian. In order to avoid confusion, I should clarify that the terms Roma and Romanian are not cognates, as there is no etymological relationship between them.
2 For the sake of clarity and efficiency, I translated all non-English citations provided in this report into English.
3 Especially due to the Phanariote (Greek) rule established by the Ottoman Empire over Moldavia and Wallachia.
4 They, including Berlin-educated Kogălniceanu, wrote their personal letters, journals, and books in French.
- Cabac, Ludmila. 2007. “L’influence française dans les pays roumains au XIXe siècle.” La Francopolyphonie: Langues et identités 2, no. 1 (March): 140–146. Kishinev: Free International University of Moldova
- Conrad, Jean-Yves. 2003. Roumanie, capitale… Paris. Paris: Oxus.
- Drouhet, Charles. 1920. “La culture française en Roumanie.” La Minerve française 7, no. 33 (October 15): 169–192.
- Eliade, Pompiliu. 1898. De l’influence française sur l’esprit public en Roumanie. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
- Kogălniceanu, Mihail. 1908. “Desrobirea țiganilor. Ștergerea privilegiilor boierești. Emanciparea țăranilor. Cu o precuvântare de Vasile M. Kogălniceanu” [The Freeing of the Gypsies. The Removal of Noble Privileges. The Emancipation of Peasants. Including a Short Foreword by Vasile M. Kogălniceanu]. Biblioteca românească enciclopedică SOCEC, no. 25. Bucharest: Editura Librăriei SOCEC & Co., S.A.
- Quinney, Anne. 2007. “Cultural Colonies: France and the Romanian Imagination.” Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 11, no. 3 (August): 445–452.
- Tomi, Raluca. 2009. “Aboliționismul românesc la 1848. Influențe, trăsături” [Romanian Abolitionism in 1848. Influences, Features]. Revista istorică 20, no. 1–2: 47–61.