Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717-1927
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.
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Freemasonry and British Imperialism, 1717-1927
By Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs
Freemasonry’s rise, its grand lodges, distinguished members, and even military connections have long been the subject of historical scrutiny. Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs, however, has accomplished something more audacious and interesting in Freemasonry and British Imperialism. She demonstrates convincingly that Masonry, despite its cosmopolitan and early revolutionary associations, ultimately worked hand-in-hand with colonial interests to shape a notion of British imperialism which, at its height, sought to transcend geography and indigenous identities. It sought to do this, Harland-Jacobs argues, by augmenting imperial splendor with Masonry’s own “ornamentalism” and providing social, cultural, and practical benefits to British citizens engaged in foreign trade and colonization.
Harland-Jacobs became curious about Masonry following a lecture she attended on the United Irish Rebellion of 1798. Freemasonry, she came to realize:
…presents an excellent way to evaluate the contribution of cultural institutions to the historical process of globalization. Freemasons established one of the first global institutional networks that not only linked far flung Britons to one another but also brought Britons into contact with other European imperialists as well as indigenous men throughout the formal and informal empires. An analysis of Freemasonry makes it possible to identify various characteristics that enable institutions to function on a worldwide basis and promote globalization… We should therefore seek the history of globalization not only in the trading networks and empires of the early modern period...but also in the cultural institutions that connected men across the global landscape of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Harland-Jacobs traces the Order through its development as an Enlightenment social club, as a means of connectivity, support, and personal advancement for British Masons abroad, and, following the American, French, and failed Irish Rebellion of 1798, as an organization which aggressively affirmed its loyalty to the Crown with public demonstrations, orations, charity, and military service. “Whether living in Dublin, Montreal, or Calcutta,” Harland-Jacob suggests, “a man gained a keen awareness of the empire by belonging to Masonry.”
Harland-Jacobs marshals an impressive array of source material, creating a sweeping view of British Masonry over more than two centuries. Of particular interest are the relationships and conflicts between Irish, Scottish, and English Masonry as they spread through the Empire (such as the admission of former convicts into Irish lodges in Australia) and the attempt to integrate indigenous men into “British” Masonry while, at the same time, maintaining power identities of “ruling” and “subject” peoples. Harland-Jacobs concludes her history with the Empire’s dissolution looming on the horizon. She quotes Indian Mason and writer K.R. Cama as reminiscing, “One of the happy results attainted by introducing natives into Masonry has been that of bringing them to closely associate, socially, with their European brethren – I was almost going to say, masters.” That Masonry continues in India and other former colonies to this day, despite such conflicted feelings, is a testament to its true universalism and the gifts it offers worthy brethren.
It is impossible to recommend this book enough. Builders of Empire should be required reading for anyone interested in British imperialism and Masonry in particular. Nor could I, having read it, consider my personal Masonic library complete without it. Builders of Empire contains information on Irish Masonry, for instance, I’ve read nowhere else. “Thank you” Professor Harland-Jacobs for this important contribution to Masonic scholarship.
Book Review By Robert Blackburn at: http://www.bonisteelml.org/book_review.htm
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