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Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717-1927

Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717-1927

by Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs

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They built some of the first communal structures on the empire's frontiers. The empire's most powerful proconsuls sought entrance into their lodges. Their public rituals drew dense crowds from Montreal to Madras. The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons were quintessential builders of empire, argues Jessica Harland-Jacobs. In this first study of the relationship


They built some of the first communal structures on the empire's frontiers. The empire's most powerful proconsuls sought entrance into their lodges. Their public rituals drew dense crowds from Montreal to Madras. The Ancient Free and Accepted Masons were quintessential builders of empire, argues Jessica Harland-Jacobs. In this first study of the relationship between Freemasonry and British imperialism, Harland-Jacobs takes readers on a journey across two centuries and five continents, demonstrating that from the moment it left Britain's shores, Freemasonry proved central to the building and cohesion of the British Empire.

The organization formally emerged in 1717 as a fraternity identified with the ideals of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism, such as universal brotherhood, sociability, tolerance, and benevolence. As Freemasonry spread to Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australasia, and Africa, the group's claims of cosmopolitan brotherhood were put to the test. Harland-Jacobs examines the brotherhood's role in diverse colonial settings and the impact of the empire on the brotherhood; in the process, she addresses issues of globalization, supranational identities, imperial power, fraternalism, and masculinity. By tracking an important, identifiable institution across the wide chronological and geographical expanse of the British Empire, Builders of Empire makes a significant contribution to transnational history as well as the history of the Freemasons and imperial Britain.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Ambitious and absorbing . . . a careful, measured accounting of the broad Imperial scope of British and Irish Masonry, based on impressively wide-ranging archival research and serious engagement with recent historiographical debates.—Journal of Modern History

Brings long overdue recognition to the importance of Freemasonry to the culture of the British Empire and provides a firm foundation upon which other scholars can build.—Journal of World History

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The University of North Carolina Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8078-3088-8

Chapter One

A Vast Chain Extending Round the Whole Globe

* * *

In 1785, the Reverend Joshua Weeks explained to Masons gathered to hear his St. John's Day address in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that they possessed a "key" that would give them "admittance to the brotherhood" anywhere in the world. "Were the providence of God to cast you on an unknown shore; were you to travel through any distant country, though ignorant of its language, ignorant of its inhabitants, ignorant of its customs," he assured his listeners, the key would "open the treasures of their charity." The following year, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Grand Lodge of England issued a proclamation that revealed the profound accuracy of Weeks's remark. Freemasonry's reputation for taking care of its members had become so well known and its network so extensive that strange impostors were after its "treasures." Grand Lodge officials warned the English brethren that "many idle persons travel about the country, (some particularly in the dress of Turks or Moors) and, under the sanction of certificates, and pretending to be distressed Masons, impose upon the benevolenceof many lodges and brethren." The Grand Lodge described this practice as "disgraceful to the society and burthensome to the fraternity" and instructed lodges to bar such dissemblers from admission.

How did British Freemasonry became so important and so extensive over the course of the eighteenth century that cunning Englishmen resorted to the complex deceit of posing as Turks and Moors to infiltrate its network? What were the salient characteristics and primary functions of the institution they hoped to cheat? To answer these questions, we need to examine both its macrocosmic and microcosmic dimensions. A bird's eye view of the Masonic network reveals that the brotherhood was, from its beginnings, British (as opposed to English) in its origins and global in its scope. It was built as a result of the activities of four grand lodges, each responding with varying degrees of enthusiasm to the opportunities for global expansion presented by the growing British Empire. The Irish and one branch of English Masonry, the Ancients, were the network's primary builders; they were particularly effective in adapting Masonry's administration to facilitate global expansion and in opening the brotherhood's "treasures" to a wide range of men. And they were primarily responsible for connecting Masonry to that crucial institution of empire building, the British army. Examining the resulting network reveals this cultural institution's important role in the accelerating processes of globalization underway during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The microcosmic perspective, revealed in the operations of individual lodges, indicates that Freemasonry was fundamentally imperial in its functions and fraternal in nature. It buttressed British imperial power, in very public ways, by making its buildings available for official purposes, playing a prominent role in the ceremonial aspects of imperialism, and offering recreational outlets for British expatriates. It had an even more profound impact, however, as a result of the homosocial activities that took place within the private inner sanctum of the lodge. Here men underwent experiences designed to encourage convivial, intellectual, and spiritual fellowship and to nurture the growth of fraternal bonds. Freemasonry proved especially attractive and useful to men in inherently imperial occupations-merchants, colonial administrators, and British army personnel-who could call on their brethren for all manner of assistance as they moved around the empire. In both cases-public Masonic events and hidden fraternal rituals-women were as significant in their presence as in their absence. British Freemasons never allowed women to participate in their lodge rituals and conviviality, but they did embrace them as spectators of their public ceremonies, guests at the balls they hosted, and dependent objects of charity. In these ways even a primarily homosocial environment such as that created by Masonry reveals how masculinities are constructed and reinforced with women in mind.

The Network's Hub

As Freemasonry spread throughout the empire, it became an expansive network that connected men across vast distances. In fact, the model of the network is very useful for understanding Freemasonry during this expansionary phase of its history. A network is an interconnected system; more specifically, it is an interrelated group of people who share interests and concerns and interact for mutual assistance. While some networks operate only on a local scale, others, like the Masonic network examined here, function concurrently on a variety of levels: local, national, regional, and even global. Freemasonry's multilayered, supranational network comprised several interrelated elements. Individual brethren and the local lodges to which they belonged constituted the most basic units of the network. Provincial grand lodges were its regional nodes and metropolitan grand lodges its central hubs. A shared Masonic ideology, a Masonic lingua franca, and complex administrative structures and policies linked these elements together.

Close attention to the institutional development of this network over time and across space reveals that historians of Freemasonry, whether amateur or professional, have not paid sufficient attention to the British dimensions of the brotherhood's history, particularly in the eighteenth century. Masonic historians have written separate histories of Freemasonry in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Academic historians have focused on Scotland in the search for Freemasonry's origins and, for the eighteenth century, studied aspects of English and Welsh Freemasonry. As yet, no work examines how the three jurisdictions interacted and influenced one another, not only in the British Isles, but also in the empire. Though it is certainly possible and reasonable to discuss "Irish Freemasonry" or "English Freemasonry," to ignore "British Freemasonry" is to miss a critical dimension of the brotherhood's history. This British dimension is evident in the nature and functions of its nascent administration and in a schism that divided the Masonic world-with great consequences for its spread through and role in the British Empire-between the 1750s and the early nineteenth century.

The building of a Masonic administration that facilitated the growth of the global network would not have been possible without the establishment of metropolitan grand lodges. In 1717 four Masonic lodges assembled at London's Goose and Gridiron alehouse to form a grand lodge, to which each English lodge would belong and send representatives. Originally motivated to congregate for social reasons, members of the young Grand Lodge soon became anxious to control the proliferation of lodges. To this end, it distinguished between "regular" and "irregular" Freemasonry. Only by gaining permission from the Grand Lodge for its formation could a new lodge secure inclusion in the approved List of Lodges, a compilation published initially in 1723. Lodges that did not submit to the authority of the Grand Lodge were considered irregular and their members called "clandestine" and banned from visiting regular lodges. The Grand Lodge also started to extend its authority into the English counties and beyond Britain's shores and in the process became the central node in a nascent Masonic network. As such, it performed a variety of governing functions including standardizing Masonic practices, setting up guidelines for the establishment of new lodges, enacting legislation to guide members and lodges, overseeing the membership, and administering a charity fund. Freemasons in Ireland and Scotland followed the English example with the establishment of the Grand Lodge of Ireland in Dublin (1725) and the Grand Lodge of Scotland in Edinburgh (1736). The three grand lodges were separate entities and, early on at least, they did not coordinate their administrative efforts. But British Freemasonry in this period was standardized enough to make the practices of any of the three systems recognizable to members of the other two jurisdictions.

The grand lodges performed other centralizing administrative functions that facilitated the network's expansion. They collected fees and dues and served as the highest authority in matters of Masonic jurisprudence. They guarded Freemasonry's gates by keeping track of lodges and members. And they devised, printed, and circulated basic statements of the guiding principles and regulations of Masonry. In 1723, the prominent London Freemason James Anderson, a Presbyterian minister (who had been educated at Marischal College in Aberdeen), composed the first published edition of English Freemasonry's constitutions. Anderson offered a history of the brotherhood and explained recently codified policies that were to govern members and lodges. Discussing the Freemason's relationship to the state, religion, general society, and the institution, the Constitutions included a detailed code of behavior, known as "The Charges of a Free-Mason." "The Charges" provided instructions and general regulations for lodge procedures, such as the admission of members, election of officers, chain of command, and Masonic ceremonies. John Pennell, an Irish Freemason, devised a set of constitutions in 1730 based on Anderson's, but even more tolerant in its handling of religion. With little variation in wording and procedures, future editions published in the British Isles and abroad reflected the grand lodges' success in standardizing the basic principles and policies of British Freemasonry.

As Freemasonry grew in popularity, the institution became vulnerable to outsiders who sought to take advantage of the benefits reserved for members. After all, the successful operation of the network depended on the ability of complete strangers to identify and trust one another. The Constitutions instructed: "You are cautiously to examine [a strange brother] in such a method, as prudence shall direct you, that you may not be imposed upon by an ignorant false pretender, whom you are to reject with contempt and derision, and beware of giving him any hints of knowledge." The problem of impostors led the grand lodges to issue repeated warnings, like the one quoted at the beginning of this chapter, to guard their lodges, secrets, and funds. But placing such a burden on individual brethren was risky and, especially once lodges began proliferating worldwide, impractical.

Irish Masonic authorities were the first to address the problem of how to recognize brothers who were strangers by issuing certificates to individual brethren. Demonstrating that in its origins the brotherhood was a fundamentally British institution, the English and Scottish Grand Lodges readily adopted this and other Irish strategies for governing Freemasonry as it spread within and outside the British Isles. A certificate identified a man as a regular Mason to whom a lodge could legitimately offer the benefits of membership. In essence they operated as passports in the Masonic world and were especially important for brethren who traveled from one outpost of the empire to another. Lodge No. 241 in Lower Canada granted six certificates "to Brethren who were on the point of leaving for England" in November 1790. In 1792 Lieutenant John Ross, recently arrived in Plymouth from Gibraltar, revealed the importance of these documents by urging the English Grand Secretary to send certificates that he had requested "some time ago." His regiment would be embarking for Ireland as soon as the transports arrived, and he did not want to depart without the certificates in hand. Though responding innovatively to the problem at hand, the Irish authorities had devised only a partial solution: certificates were not always necessary for admission to a lodge, and they could be forged.

Since lodges could not rely entirely on the authenticity of certificates or the trustworthiness of those presenting themselves as Freemasons, the true test of a brother's Masonic credentials was his knowledge of passwords, symbols, and rituals. A member gained more and more knowledge of the society's rituals and teachings as he progressed through the various stages of Freemasonry. Upon successful completion of each degree, he received secret recognition words and committed new rituals to memory. Practices developed in the metropole were exported to the colonies, so men throughout the empire who had proceeded through the three degrees of Craft Masonry shared the same basic knowledge. Taken together, the rituals, teachings, passwords, and handgrips constituted a Masonic lingua franca spoken in both the metropole and the colonies. Masonic knowledge itself became the key to both admission to lodge meetings and access to benefits. As the Reverend Weeks quoted above observed, Freemasons were "Masters of a secret language, by which they can make themselves known to each other at a distance."

The grand lodges developed sophisticated strategies for ensuring the integrity of their network, but in the 1750s the emergence of a rival English grand lodge, known as the Ancients, and the schism that followed rendered Freemasons' ability to identify legitimate brethren increasingly difficult. The schism created disorder and instability, but it also resulted in Freemasonry's transformation into a more broadly based and more thoroughly British institution and actually contributed to the proliferation of the global Masonic network. During the schism Freemasonry became a dynamic organization that could adapt to various circumstances and draw members from a wide range of men. As a result, the nodes of its network multiplied rapidly.

The emergence of a rival grand lodge in England was due primarily to the activities of Irish Masons in London, where Irish Freemasonry once again exercised a transformative influence. During the 1740s, agricultural crisis combined with a population explosion in Ireland to create conditions of dearth, disease, and famine that provided the fuel for the satiric commentaries of Jonathan Swift (who is believed to have belonged to a London lodge) and the compassionate inquiries of George Berkeley. Thousands of Irishmen crossed the Irish Sea to find work in London. Freemasons among them naturally desired to continue their membership in the fraternity, and their decision to establish their own lodges, rather than joining existing lodges in the metropolis, had great consequences for the nature of Freemasonry and its spread throughout the empire. Suffering from inefficiency, overextension, and ineffective leadership in the 1740s, the original English Grand Lodge had become lax. It did not bother to challenge the existence of these new lodges. By the 1750s Irish migrants had established six of their own lodges. In 1751 a group of eighty to a hundred Masons representing these Irish lodges gathered at the Turks Head Tavern in Soho. Their object was the establishment of the Grand Committee of the Most Ancient and Honourable Society of Free and Accepted Masons-in short, the setting up of a supreme Masonic authority to rival the "Premier" Grand Lodge of England. Within three years the number of lodges affiliating with the Ancient Grand Lodge (as it came to be known) had grown from the original six to thirty-six. Englishmen (and some Scots) from the middling ranks-artisans, semi-professionals, and tradesmen-began to join Ancient lodges.


Excerpted from BUILDERS OF EMPIRE by JESSICA L. HARLAND-JACOBS Copyright © 2007 by THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA PRESS. Excerpted by permission.
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Thoroughly researched, richly illustrated, and clearly argued, this work makes a solid contribution to British and British Empire history. . . . Essential.—CHOICE

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Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs is associate professor of history at the University of Florida.

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