by George Cassar and Denis Darmanin published by
There have been many instances down the years when researchers put together a country’s history from information gleaned from tiny matter, such as pieces of documents and cloth. Two respected researchers of Malta’s history have homed in on the island’s long history by focusing on an item which is also tiny and yet ever-present – buttons.
Buttons Parade, by George Cassar and Denis Darmanin, deals with Malta’s military and civilian uniform buttons and those who wore them ‒ from the 18th to the 21st centuries. It is an account woven into the history of Malta’s uniformed military and civilian corps and the socio-cultural and economic evolution of the island since the time of the Knights.
Buttons have evolved greatly through the ages, from simple, plain fasteners made of bone, to decorated ivory, gilt and silver, most often used as ornaments in elaborate uniforms, their make, as well as their decoration and symbols unravelling the history that they forged.
And then there is the thread that goes through the buttons worn by many of Malta’s uniformed personnel, the eight-pointed cross that identified anything Maltese from the Knights’ rule, through to the King’s Own Malta Regiment and down to the present armed forces and police.
Inevitably, the book starts off with a description of the evolution of the uniform button, the patterns, the process of manufacture, the all-important dies, the gilding that gave them their shine and the makers’ marks at the back, which, for the UK, are regulated by a 1796 law to guarantee the quality of the product and its gold and silver.
The publication goes into detail about the composition of the various military corps that occupied Malta and, most interestingly, the participation of the Maltese in them. Many Maltese, for example, were enrolled in the Order’s fleet, serving as crew or marine troops.
Uniforms were colourful at the time – with no attention given to camouflage – and the book is replete with detailed drawings and descriptions by Darmanin of the different attire worn by knights, officers, soldiers and sailors, gleaned from written descriptions, paintings, even ex-voto drawings and purchase orders.
Many of the Maltese who served in the Order’s forces and ended up fighting for the French in Egypt initially did so without a change of uniform until a new one was issued in 1799.
The touch of a button can open new vistas on the world
A brief but interesting period in the geopolitical scheme of things followed the ousting of the French from Malta, with some knights having elected Tsar Paul I as their grandmaster amid Russian pretensions for Malta. The book highlights drawings of the uniforms of the Russian Order of St John, found in the Hermitage Collection, as well as a selection of uniform buttons worn by officers and other ranks.
Early years of British rule
The book gives an absorbing account of the early years of British rule, the integration of the Maltese in British military units and the setting up of Maltese regiments. It recalls a significant, but not widely known event in 1807 when Maltese military artificers participated in the putting down of a mutiny among men from the Froberg Regiment – mostly Greeks, Albanians and Slavonians – who occupied Fort Ricasoli.
The Maltese artificers and some British soldiers managed to approach the fort in darkness, scale the walls and open the gates. Many of the mutineers died when they blew up the fort’s magazine, but several were captured and court-martialled. Ten were hanged at Floriana parade ground – where a shell fired by the mutineers from Ricasoli had landed. Other mutineers were later shot.
Not all Maltese soldiers endeared themselves, however. The book recounts how one particularly bad apple, Salvatore Sciberras of the Royal Malta Fencible Regiment (RMFR), was court martially eight times for ill-discipline, theft and desertion, among other military crimes. In 1847 he was ‘drummed out’ of his barracks at Fort St Elmo.
Incidentally, the book points out, in 1856 the centre motif of buttons worn by RMFR officers saw a return of the eight-pointed Maltese cross, a practice which would be followed by several other formations, including the Royal Malta Militia and the King’s Own Malta Regiment and the Royal Malta Artillery.
While the book is detailed in its history of the British military in Malta, it also places a spotlight on Maltese who served in British corps and ancillary units, including the Army Service Corps, the sappers and miners of the Royal Engineers, the Royal Signals, the Medical Corps and the Army Chaplains Department. Among the Maltese chaplains was Fr Edgar Salomone, who served in the Balkans in 1917.
In 1931, he became parish priest of Mġarr and his house in Triq Dun Edgar is the only known building in Malta constructed in the 20th century that bears the sculptured badge of the Army Chaplain’s Department on the lintel of each window on the facade, making it unique among British military buildings in Malta.
Civilians in uniform
But this is not just a book about the military. It delves deeply too into the history, uniforms and activities of the Malta police – from fighting crime to fighting the plague and directing traffic.
It features an interesting account of the history of the prisons and then delves into other uniformed corps, including Customs, the postal service, telegraphy, even the history of abattoirs and the uniforms worn by their officials.
Uniformed personnel also formed the long history of government charities and the Medical and Health Department, the latter going back to the time of the Knights Hospitaller... Medical duties continue to be performed today by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, St John Ambulance and the Malta Red Cross, the MMDA having unfortunately been wound up.
The Second World War saw the formation of the Air Raid Precautions and then came the Civil Defence Corps, whose role was recently taken over by the Civil Protection Department.
Buttons Parade, all 267 pages of it, is an absorbing read for all those with an interest in history. The touch of a button can open new vistas on the world, people using computers are told. Indeed, this book shows that has always been that way.
Congratulations also to Kite Publishers.