New & Now
1798 French Blockade to be commemorated with largest ever re-enactment event
The Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta steps back in time to offer an authentic glimpse of the past

Adriana Bishop

Until the fictional time-travelling machine becomes fact, we can only imagine what life was really like in the distant past. But for one group of history buffs, they not only imagine it but recreate it to such an authentic degree that it truly comes back to life.

Marco Muscat

The Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta (HRGM) is the largest of its kind on the island, and was first set up 20 years ago to put together a performance commemorating the 200th anniversary of the French Blockade in Malta. 

Exactly 220 years to the day since that momentous chapter in Malta’s modern history, the HRGM is once again preparing to re-live the past with a series of events across several localities on both Malta and Gozo culminating in June in the biggest re-enactment ever to be staged on the island. It will also be the largest “armed force” to parade in Valletta since the 1970s, albeit not with “real” soldiers.

But, make no mistake about it, these are not performances in the traditional theatrical sense, these are not actors, their lines are not scripted or rehearsed. And those are not costumes they are wearing. These re-enactors dedicate their lives to recreating past events with as much accuracy and detail as possible to, quite literally, relive history. And it’s all “just a hobby”. 

The past in the present

Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta

“As a member of the re-enactment group I feel I live two lives,” explains Martin Degiorgio, the chairman of the event organising committee and one of the HRGM founding members. “In my daily life I am often thinking about my weapons or some equipment I need for the re-enactments. When I put on the uniform, I forget all about my present life and I literally go back in time.”

HRGM has 75 dedicated members hailing from all walks of life with ages ranging from children to pensioners, but they all have one thing in common - a passionate interest in all things history.

“Some of us may be history enthusiasts while others are interested in the military aspect. Some love the uniforms, others are more into battle tactics or weaponry. Some like the glamour aspect. Women mostly form part of the high society group. But for all of us this is just a hobby. A hobby that we do with passion. This is not our day job,” says Martin. 

Members go through a rigorous application process including a 12-month probation period before being fully admitted in the group. They spend on average €2,500 or even more on their re-enactment clothes (not costumes!) and equipment out of their own pocket. The clothes are museum quality and are custom made to specific historic detail.

“Our clothes are hand made by artisans. We even make sure that the material used is authentic and of the right type and quality for that period of history. For example our military coats are made of pure wool, and there is only company in the UK that still produces real pure wool material, and has been doing so since the battle of Waterloo,” explains Martin.

Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta

“The cloth for my soldier’s uniform came from the UK but it was hand made in France. The buttons were made in the Czech Republic, the hat was made in Germany. The shoes were made in the UK. These were custom made because soldiers’ shoes in those days did not have a left and a right. All shoes were the same and could be worn on either the left or the right foot. In fact soldiers were given three shoes so they could rotate them and have a spare one. And that is exactly the type of shoes we use for our re-enactments.”

The attention to historically accurate detail in the clothes is staggering. Trousers are made with just one inside seam and not the modern two while sleeves are cut one inch higher than the edge of the shoulder exactly as they were done two centuries ago. 

“We do a lot of our own research especially for events that are specific to Malta. Some of our members are historians who have gone through old documents and records including soldiers’ manuals. We have learnt how soldiers lived and behaved, how much they earned, what food they ate, what type of tobacco they smoked. We learn everything about the character. We don’t have a script. We simply act as if we live in that period of time. We relive the lifestyle of the period,” says Martin.

"We have learnt how soldiers lived and behaved, how much they earned, what food they ate, what type of tobacco they smoked. We learn everything about the character."

“We light fires using flint instead of matches. Our food and cutlery are exactly the type used in those days. We don’t serve potatoes because these had not been introduced in Malta at the time. If we cook beef, it is cooked in the same way it would have been cooked in those days. We only make limited exceptions for modern day comforts.”

And such dedicated role play can last anything from half a day to a whole weekend or more, as re-enactment events are not just staged over a couple of hours. And during that whole time, the participants remain in full character throughout, day and night. 

Re-enactors may speak Maltese if it was historically appropriate for the period event being re-enacted. “I play the part of a French soldier. In 1798 only 20 per cent of the French army spoke French as we know it today. Many soldiers hailed from across Europe, including Malta, but military drill commands were only given in French so we too do them in French. We even sing in French from an extensive repertoire,” explains Martin.

220th anniversary commemorative events: 5th - 10th June

The French Blockade of Malta, between 1798 and 1800, was a tumultuous chapter in our history, marking the end of a long era under the Knights of St John, a short but intense period of unrest under the French and then the beginning of the British colonial period. 

HRGM will commemorate the 220th anniversary of the blockade with a series of lectures about different aspects of social history at the time and an exhibition. It will all culminate in a five-day re-enactment between 5th and 10th June across the Maltese Islands, involving not just the members of HRGM but also 550 re-enactors from 17 countries across Europe, Australia and North America. 

Mario Rodgers

“We will re-enact a number of battles in a dozen localities as well as certain historical episodes such as the surrender of Mdina to the French. There will also be dance displays and a chance for the public to visit the soldiers in their barracks at Fort St Angelo,” says Martin.

“We don’t rehearse for such an event. We are not actors. We want the public to see this as a spontaneous time warp. In the barracks they will see the soldiers at ease going about their day-to-day tasks as they would have done 220 years ago.”

The only training the re-enactors get is in the use of weapons, for safety reasons, and in drill movements. “In Napoleonic times it was very important for the army to move in tight, disciplined formations and we reflect that in our performances. Soldiers have to follow a complex set of rules. On the day they are not given many instructions beforehand, but orders are given as the battle evolves,” continues Martin.

By his own admission, this is Martin’s favourite period to re-enact. “The Napoleonic period was a very meaningful era in history. The French Revolution was being exported with its ideas across Europe. Within a generation of Waterloo, people everywhere were rising up against regimes and many monarchies had to introduce changes, giving more power to the people thus introducing a more democratic modern Europe. There was a very high code of honour even on the battlefield and how prisoners were treated. In defeat, armies were allowed to retreat and rules were observed,” says Martin.

And if he could get hold of that time machine and travel back, who would he want to meet? He answers without hesitation: “Julius Caesar. He was a revolutionary. He tried to remove the old order to give more power to the people. He was the person who most symbolised the glory of the Roman Empire, a leader of men who inspired his soldiers.” 

Adriana Bishop
Written by
Adriana Bishop
A former journalist and travel PR executive, Adriana divides her time between her adopted home Switzerland and her forever home Malta where she enjoys playing the ‘local tourist’ re-discovering favourite haunts and new attractions on every visit.

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