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Squaring the Triangle: Freemasonry and Anti-Slavery

Dr. Geoffrey Cubitt, University of York

Freemasonry has not figured prominently in most of the displays and debates on slavery and abolition in 2007. Yet the society was an important eighteenth century institution and one whose extensive archives have the potential to offer interesting - and sometimes unfamiliar - insights into social processes and relationships that shaped the Atlantic world of which slavery and abolitionism were prominent features. This review of the exhibition at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry begins to uncover this complex and sometimes ambiguous history.

As well as being an age of slavery, slave-trading, slave resistance, abolitionism and eventual abolition, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were an age of burgeoning Masonic sociability in Britain, and indeed right across the Atlantic world. The creation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 gave a degree of organizational co-ordination to a network of Masonic lodges that by the end of the 1730s was already embracing the Caribbean and the North American continent. Merchants, colonialists and military men, caught up in the eighteenth century's larger dramas of imperial expansion and economic exploitation, were prominent both among the agents and among the beneficiaries of this Masonic expansion. An interest is Freemasonry - in its networks of social connection, of philanthropy, of information - thus offers an intriguing prism through which to view many of the salient themes and issues in the period's history. The histories of transatlantic slavery, of abolition and emancipation, can all be illuminated from this angle.

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry, housed within the monumental premises of Freemasons Hall in London's Great Queen Street, has recently received significant Heritage Lottery Fund support for a project to catalogue (and it is hoped, in due course, to digitalize) many of its early archival holdings, and one result of this has been to add around 700 documents relating to Freemasonry in the Americas and Caribbean to the on-line catalogue. This exhibition, which forms the Library and Museum's contribution to the current bicentenary of the Act of Abolition, also seeks to showcase the kinds of benefits to historical knowledge that may arise from this cataloguing project.

Showcasing is the appropriate word. In its presentation, this is an old-fashioned exhibition, firmly constrained by its location in the central area of what is basically a Masonic research library. The exhibition features a row of horizontal display cases, mainly filled with books and documents, with none of the interactive opportunities or audio-visual effects that vie for the attention of visitors at some other bicentenary displays. It is also probably the only one of the 2007 slavery or abolition exhibitions that visitors have to sign their names twice (first at the entrance to the building and again on penetrating to the library) to get into. Such conditions of viewing may have a deterrent effect on passing trade, and some of those who persevere may be disappointed by what they find. This is not an exhibition for those who feel that presentations on this subject ought to offer imaginative evocations of the horrors of the middle passage, the backbreaking atrocities of the plantation system, or the deeper cruelties of slavery in general. Nor does if offer a strong organizing narrative for those who seek education on the historical logic and chronology of transatlantic slavery as a system, and of the movements and resistances that produced its eventual demolition. Nor does it expose or explore the legacies of slavery within contemporary society or within the global economic system. Or the multiple forms of enslaved labour persisting in the world today. It does, however, offer an unfamiliar and at times illuminating and suggestive angle of approach to the complex social histories of slavery and emancipation, and to their implications on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the most part, the insights available here are social rather than political. Many Freemasons were, of course, active as individuals in the political campaigns for and against the slave trade, and for and against the eventual emancipation of the enslaved. One section of the exhibition draws attention, for example, to the prominent role of the Duke of Sussex (son of George III and Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England from 1813-1843), first as a pro-slavery opponent of the Slave Importation Restriction Bill in 1806, and then as a supporter of anti-slavery viewpoints in later decades. The same display also highlights another royal freemason, Frederick Duke of Gloucester, whose anti-slavery opinions were reflected in his role as patron of the African Institution. The Masonic involvement of two abolitionists from the north-east of England, James Stanfield and William Hutcheson are also revealed. On the American side of the Atlantic, Benjamin Franklin is cited as another whose Masonic affiliation was combined, at least in later life, with a vigorous anti-slavery commitment. Occasional documents offer hints also of a more collective kind of investment in the anti-slavery cause. The case is mentioned, for example, of lodges in Kent seeking guidance on the legitimacy of contributing to the costs of funding an anti-slavery bill, and of the Gravesend lodge whose change of name to 'Lodge of Freedom' may perhaps have been influenced by the publicity given to the abolitionist campaign. Reference is made also to the prominence of Freemasons' Hall, one of London's leading public venues, as the site of numerous meetings organized by anti-slavery organizations in the decades after abolition. But Masonic lodges were themselves debarred by their constitutions from holding or participating in political or religious controversies, and Masonic sources therefore contribute relatively little to our knowledge of the terms in which political battles over slavery were fought out, or of the political organization of pro- or anti-slavery campaigns. The handful of Masonic lodges that would later name themselves after Wilberforce would be forging a mental association between Masonic and abolitionist causes that could not have been asserted at a time when debates over slavery and abolition were the stuff of current politics.

Indeed one of the obvious indications of this exhibition is that Masonic affiliations were ones that cut across any simple distinction between pro-slavery and anti-slavery interests. In Liverpool, for example, membership of the Merchants' Lodge included owners and investors in slaving vessels like Thomas Golightly, along with others who supported the city's abolitionist MP, William Roscoe. In some contexts, Masonic contacts may have helped to solder the connections on which a successful involvement in the business of slavery and the trade in slave-produced commodities depended; in others, it may have been part of the networking through which anti-slavery campaigns could develop.

Some of the most interesting sections of the exhibition deal, however, not with slavery and abolition as such but with the evident demand for the advantages of Masonic membership on the part of free (but in most cases previously enslaved) black men, and with the often ambiguous and inconsistent responses that this demand encountered. How many men of African descent actually entered the ranks of Freemasonry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can only be guessed, since lodges did not generally record the ethnic affiliation of those they admitted. But though freemasonry in theory paid no attention to the colour of a man's skin, the reality, in societies that had transatlantic slavery as an integral part of their social and economic structures, was plainly often different. The Book of Constitutions of the United Grand Lodge, issued in 1815, restricted eligibility for admission to Masonic lodges to the 'free born', effectively disqualifying the formerly as well as the currently enslaved. Only from the 1830s, as lodges in the Caribbean sought guidance on how to handle the escalating demand for admission that had followed the Emancipation, did pressures build for the revision of this clause, which was finally amended to refer to 'free men' in 1847. One showcase in the exhibition documents this development. Another traces the history of Prince Hall Freemasonry, the movement of separate black Masonic lodges that developed in America following the granting of a warrant to Prince Hall and other black freemasons for the foundation of the African Lodge in 1784. Both before and after the 1830s, the patterns of inclusion and exclusion that black aspirants to Masonic status had to negotiate were complex and elusive: different Masonic obediences applied different norms, not always consistently, and men accepted into the Masonic family in one region might find themselves shunned in another.

Perhaps the most revealing, but also the most tantalizing sections of the exhibition, highlight, albeit in a fragmentary way, the traces of individual black Masonic experiences. For some, Freemasonry seems indeed to have offered avenues and markers of social advancement; Stephen Dillet, for example, whose career took him from Haiti to the United States (where he himself owned slaves) to Nassau in the Bahamas, where he served as the island's coroner and postmaster and became its first black elected representative, became a Masonic Deputy Provincial Grand Master in 1857. Others appear more fleetingly in the record, in ways which suggest a more chequered experience. Thomas Smith is known to us as black only because he was so identified when he became a recipient of Masonic poor relief in 1814. Daniel Miller's eligibility for Masonic membership was questioned when he was admitted in a London lodge in 1808; he left as cook on a ship bound for the Caribbean shortly afterwards. Lovelace Overton, a black trumpeter in the King's Dragoon Guards, admitted as a freemason in England in 1825, found himself refused entry to the lodges he sought to visit after his return to Barbados in 1823. Having investigated without success the possibility of founding a separate black lodge, he returned to England shortly afterwards.

Cases such as these offer glimpses of a history whose larger outlines remain elusive. The same can perhaps be said of 'Squaring the Triangle' more generally - a discreet and understated exhibition whose strengths lie chiefly in the suggestiveness of detail and in the revelation of the multiple ways in which the effects of slavery and abolition were felt and worked out. It is to be hoped that the exhibition will prompt a further use of Masonic sources to explore these questions. This might also act as an impetus to raise other questions, for instance were Masonic Lodges themselves ever the purchasers or employers of enslaved labour?


The above review of 'Squaring the Triangle: Freemasonry and Anti-Slavery' offers a starting point for debating some significant issues in the histories of slavery and abolition, and in the way those issues are presented in museums and exhibitions. What can such an exhibition teach us - about Freemasonry itself, about the social world in which slavery and abolitionism developed, and about the patterns of social inclusion and exclusion that they engendered? What problems arise in presenting and reflecting upon these histories? If you have thoughts to contribute, on these issues generally, or on the exhibition or the review more specifically, please email the 1807 Commemorated project team -

Sean Creighton, - I was delighted to see the freemasonry and anti-slavery paper on the new 1807 Commemorated website. There is a paper on Black Freemasonry on the website of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at Sheffield University, written by Andrew Prescott and I. This helped trigger some of the subsequent work on this topic. We both supported the application for funding by the English Grand Lodge Library and Archive to do its black freemasonry project last year, which is written up in the Autumn issue of Record Keeping. I am doing some further research work on Lovelace Overton who features in that article as part of follow-up to the Tyneside Remembering Slavery project I was freelance worker for last year. The volunteer researchers are continuing through a North East Slavery & Abolition Group. The first newsletter can be seen on the Tyne & Wear Archives website.
- posted 12 March 2008

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