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From Britain to India: Freemasonry as a Connective Force of Empire



Cet article se propose d’explorer le rôle de la franc-maçonnerie dans l’émergence d’une continuité impériale entre la Grande-Bretagne et son Empire indien. Il fait valoir que les loges maçonniques contribuèrent à faciliter la circulation des hommes, de l’information et des idées d’un bout à l’autre du vaste réseau maçonnique qui se fit jour dans la deuxième moitié du 18e siècle. En tant qu’espace de sociabilité, les loges contribuèrent également à la création d’un espace familier, un réservoir de britannicité qui contribua à faire que les Britanniques se sentent chez eux, et ainsi à une mesure d’interconnectivité au sein de l’espace anglo-indien. Étudiée sous l’angle d’une force transnationale liant la métropole à la périphérie coloniale, la franc-maçonnerie permet d’unir ces deux espaces au sein du même cadre analytique

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“[…] we are also of all Nations, Tongues, Kindreds, and Languages.
Constitutions of the Free-Masons

1From the very origins of its creation, freemasonry turned its attention to the ‘wider world’ as shown by the contents of its Constitutions (Anderson 63). This may explain why it was so closely associated to the British Empire. In India, masonic lodges spawned in the wake of the trading agreements and territorial expansion carried out by the East India Company. Thirteen years only separate the creation of the Grand Lodge of England, the first masonic governing body, from the constitution of the first lodge on the Indian subcontinent. In 1729, Captain Ralph Farrwinter, an officer of the East India Company, was appointed Provincial Grand Master for East India in Bengal, and warranted the first Indian lodge East India Arms, No. 72, based in Fort William, Calcutta (Firminger 6).

  • 1 Provincial Grand Lodges were created to supervise the activity of masonic lodges on a regional basi (...)

2From there, and as the British secured their position across the Indian subcontinent, freemasonry spread to the presidencies of Madras and Bombay where Provincial Grand Lodges were formed in 1752 and 1758, respectively.1 The three main Indian centres of masonic activity were now in play. The emergence of this masonic network raises a number of questions. How can the rapid development of this British institution on the Indian subcontinent be accounted for? What made freemasonry so appealing to colonial agents? How did this vast masonic network function and communicate? Why were masonic lodges so effective in channelling information? Was this process instrumental in binding together colonial India and the mother country?

3In 1883, John R. Seeley wrote that “the history of England [was] not in England but in America and Asia” (Seeley 13). With this provocative assertion, taken from his The Expansion of England, Seeley sought to encourage his fellow historians to take on the history of the British Empire and include it in the purely domestic historical narrative that had dominated the field so far. Ironically, he contributed to the emergence of an entirely new field know as imperial history, somehow even more remote from the domestic history of Britain. In recent years, however, there have been several attempts to blend both histories into an integrated narrative, from Armitage’s Ideological Origins of the British Empire (2000) to Andrew S. Thompson’s The Empire Strikes Back: The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century (2005), which explores the role of Empire in shaping British society. Much in the same vein, this study explores the role of freemasonry as a structuring network that facilitated the circulation of men, information and ideas between the motherland and the Indian Empire, thus contributing to bringing those distant territories closer together as “an identifiable political community” (Armitage 7).

1. The emergence of a vast interconnected network

4In the last two decades of the 18th century, the number of lodges opened on the Indian subcontinent increased tenfold. The register of the Provincial Grad Lodge of Bengal reveals that by 1793, 11 lodges had been created in the province of Bengal (Indian Correspondence HC 17/B/28a). While six lodges were operating in Bombay, the remaining five were spread out throughout the province, most notably in the cantonments of Berhampore, Cawnpore and Chunar. In Madras, the register for the year 1789 mentions the existence of 8 lodges, 3 in the city of Madras, 2 in St. Thomas Mount and 2 in Trichinipoly. Freemasonry was not as prosperous in the province of Bombay as only 2 lodges seem to have been in existence (Gould 191). By 1871, there were approximately 15 English lodges and 4 Scottish lodges in Bengal; 12 English lodges in Madras; 11 English Lodges and 12 Scottish lodges in Bombay (The Freemasons’ Magazine and Masonic Mirror 217). The exportation to and rapid expansion of freemasonry in India bears testimony to the development of networking and wider phenomenon by which the British exported their cultural institutions and forms of sociability from the mother country to the colonial periphery. This occurred mainly in the second half of the 18th century, according to Peter Clark’s work on associational activity. Interestingly, the fact the first lodge was opened in India as early as 1730 would tend to suggest that freemasonry pioneered the emergence of the imperial networks which Magee and Thompson refer to as “the software of Empire”, composed essentially of “kinship structures, religious institutions, ethnic societies, and fraternal organizations” (Magee and Thompson 16). But then how can the early development of the masonic fraternal organization across India be explained?

5Part of the answer lies in the powerful organizational capacity of freemasonry as a transnational network, which operated on three levels: national, regional, and local. Initially, the Grand Lodges actively promoted the export of freemasonry to the Empire by granting warrants of constitution to the masons on the spot and providing the local lodges with material support. In October 1785 for instance, George Williamson, the Grand Master of Lodge n°2 of Bengal, wrote a letter to the Grand Lodge of England, in which he requested that the latest version of the Constitutions be sent to him, together with “one pedestal to be made entirely of solid mahogany in every part, as any other wood will be soon destroyed by the white ants” (Indian Correspondence HC 17/A/19). In his attempt at explaining the successful expansion of masonic activity, Peter Clark stresses that by contrast to other voluntary associations, its activities “were on a larger and more organized scale” while “they also mobilized powerful administrative support at grand lodge” (Indian Correspondence HC 17/A/19). Besides, although freemasonry adopted a strong federal organization, local lodges enjoyed a fair level of autonomy, which allowed them to adapt to the unstable colonial context, most notably to go into abeyance in times of war and be reborn in times of peace, sometimes in different locations. This is a specificity of Indian lodges that was often put forward by Indian masons in the 18th century: “It cannot be unknown to you that the residence of persons in this country is very precarious […] and that societies are consequently subject to fluctuating, presenting in progressive and sometimes rapid succession their rise, decline, and extinction or renovation” (Indian Correspondence GBR 191 AR/1334). The Carnatic Military Lodge No. 355, for instance, went into abeyance at the beginning of the Second Anglo-Mysore War, in 1780, and rose from its ashes in 1784, when the war was over. The Masonic network thus partly owed its success to the incredible adaptability of its structures.

6However, no invention was as significant as the ‘Provincial Grand Lodge’ in extending the network and ensuring the permanence of British freemasonry in India. Faced with a dramatic increase in the number of lodges under their immediate supervision, the metropolitan Grand Lodges reached a point where they had no choice but to create an intermediate body. The Provincial Grand Lodge of Cheshire, founded in 1725, was the first to serve this purpose. Freemasonry’s structural adaptability allowed it to adjust readily to new geographies. The Provincial Grand Lodges of Bengal, Madras and Bombay soon became vital intermediaries between local lodges and the mother Grand Lodges. They channelled information across the Anglo-Indian Masonic Empire effectively, while coordinating the activity of local lodges, providing them with an indispensable degree of cohesion. When the Duke of Cumberland, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, appointed George Williamson to the office of Provincial Grand Master of Bengal, in 1787, he did so “for the purpose of cementing the Brethren and more easily communicating with the Grand Lodge” (Firminger 61). The task was rendered extremely difficult by the vastness of the jurisdictions they were entrusted with. By the early 1820s, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal was expected to provide supervision to nine ‘country lodges’ located at distances ranging from 150 to 800 miles away from Calcutta (Indian Correspondence HC 17/D/6).

7As surprising as it may sound, the Provincial Grand Lodges of India were generally able to gather and centralize most of the information relative to the lodges under their jurisdictions. In fact, they managed to provide the metropolitan authorities with detailed accounts concerning the state of individual lodges within their supervision. The proceedings of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal for 1819 provide a good illustration. The dispatch sent to the Grand Lodge of England comprised details about the 21 lodges within the province (Firminger 181). Besides, the news sent to the Grand Lodge of England was not solely limited to masonic matters. When Terence Gahagan, of the Provincial Grand Lodges of Bengal, wrote to the Grand Lodge of England, in 1791, he wrote a long account of the latest happenings of the Third Mysore War (1789-1792) and most notably mentioned: “Tippu Sahib having commenced hostilities against our old and faithful ally the King of Travancore”, “several bodies of horse detached from Tippu’s army […] infest all our public by-roads at present”, and “[the] Grand Army moved towards Lord Cornwallis in order to give him an opportunity of joining and heading it, which he has done a few days ago near Madras, when he arrived the 12th December last” (Malden 37). Many members of the lodge were officers of the Indian army, which accounts for the availability of such information and the desire to share it. The three main structures of the network – the Grand Lodge, Provincial Grand Lodge and the local lodges – were connected through a vast chain of correspondence. Local lodges had always been expected to make regular returns to the Grand Lodges, in order to forward their fees, membership lists, and periodically report on their activity. At the turn of the 18th century, under the Unlawful Societies Act (1799), this customary practice became a legal obligation, as the Grand Lodges were required to list the names of all members and visitors participating. Indian lodges were not exempt, and the exchanges of correspondence that ensued, which now constitute valuable material for the study of colonial freemasonry, formed the very nerves of the masonic communication network. They provided cohesion and connectivity to distant limbs of the same body. Despite the obvious distance-related hardships, the masonic official correspondence network was paramount in knitting together the local and metropolitan masonic forces at work. As expressed by Natasha Glaisyer, in her insightful study of networking in the British Empire, “It is letters that perhaps provide the best (and most tangible) evidence of the interconnectedness of Empire” (Glaisyer 451-476). The Masonic correspondence network is a case in point.

2. The circulation of men and information

8“Owing to the constant changes that must naturally occur in a country like this, where most Europeans are but dwellers for a few years the position of Freemasonry with us must perforce very greatly fluctuate” (The Freemasons’ Magazine 217). This report sheds light on two of the main specificities of the British population in colonial India. Firstly, it was rather limited, especially when compared to that of the settlement colonies. At the end of the 18th century, Calcutta numbered approximately 6,000 European residents, Madras 3,000, while Bombay had a little more than 1,000 (Clark 422-423). Secondly, the British population was defined by the high mobility of its members. Britons in India were permanently ‘on the move’. Unsurprisingly, the composition and activity of local lodges mirrored this particular context. In 1788, Lodge Star in the East No. 67 reported 86 members, 34 of whom were listed as “absent from Calcutta” (Indian Correspondence HC 17/A/34). In his Speech on the East India Bill (1785), which came as a severe indictment against the East India Company and its so-called ‘nabobs’, Edmund Burke had also underlined this aspect of the British presence in India when referring to the “birds of prey and passage” (Révauger and Porset 587-589). Besides, many local masons travelled to and from the presidency towns and the mother country. On their return home, they often literally became news dispatchers, being personally entrusted with the correspondence of the Provincial Grand Lodge. In 1799, for instance, George Williamson, the PGM of Calcutta, entrusted his brother with the letters addressed to the Grand Lodge of England (Indian Correspondence HC 17/B/31). Moreover, one of the explanations provided by John Chamier, PGM of Madras, to account for the “fluctuations in Masonic affairs”, was “the Departure of Persons for Europe” (Malden 37).

9Masonic lodges were perfectly suited to this highly mobile colonial society. Originally a craftsmen’s guild, freemasonry was designed as a structure that could accommodate itinerant professions. Therefore, it adopted a set of rules and regulations that made it possible for the lodge to operate as its members moved from one building site to the next (Prescott 6). This structural flexibility was complemented by a set of dispositions later adopted by the Craft to facilitate the mason’s mobility. The Grand Lodge of Ireland was the first to introduce the ‘masonic certificate’, allowing the mason to be recognized as such in unfamiliar settings (Harland-Jacobs 25). This piece of personal identification acted as a passport, offering instant recognition and a right to assistance to its holder. Combined to the ‘right of visitation’, one of the main landmarks of the Order, the mason could travel the extensive masonic network in the most effective way. In the words of Ronald Hyam, “it [freemasonry] acted as an international mechanism offsetting the problems of travel and distance” (Hyam 298). The importance of masonic membership in facilitating the circulation of men from Britain to India ought not to be underestimated. Men were, after all, and in the words of Adam Smith, “of all sorts of luggage the most difficult to be transported” (Smith 189). No one expressed the effectiveness of masonic membership as well as John Grant, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Calcutta, when he visited the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bombay, in 1846: “A fortnight ago, I arrived here an entire stranger in Bombay, and now, as if by the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, I find myself surrounded by devoted friends and brothers” (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 126).

10In British India, where the hardships were many, masonic membership clearly had a strong integrative function. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the British who were sent to serve under the banner of the East India Company were well aware of the benefits that could be derived from being a mason. The fact many of them joined a lodge on the very eve of their departure for India, tends to confirm the practical nature of their initiative. The circumstances in which Sir Charles Napier, one time commander-in-chief and then Governor of the province of Sind (1843-1847), was initiated into freemasonry are quite representative of this trend. The minutes of his initiation in Doyle’s Lodge of Fellowship No. 86 (Guernesey) in June 1807 read as follows: “Emergency meeting. Major Charles James Napier entered, passed, and raised, he being about to leave the Island” (Gould 148). In fact, Napier sought masonic membership on the eve of embarking for Lisbon, where he was to integrate the 50th infantry division. He most likely knew how beneficial it would be in the long military career he had ahead of him. In fact, the practice of joining a lodge before leaving the mainland was so commonplace that in 1784, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Madras wrote a letter to the Grand Lodge of England to complain about it:

We think it our indispensable duty to acquaint the Right Worshipful Master the Grand Lodge, that with concern we have seen persons possessed of certificates granted by regular lodges, who we are sorry to say are utter strangers to any knowledge of freemasonry, proceeding from their being precipitately made, passed and raised, on the eve of their departure from Europe, to the great discredit of the Craft. (Indian Correspondence HC 19/A/19)

11Mobility within the Anglo-Indian masonic network was further facilitated by the letters of recommendation written either by the mother lodge or the Provincial Grand Lodge. In 1791, when Colonel Eccles Nixon, a member of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Calcutta, returned to Europe, he did so with a masonic recommendation that mentioned “an honourable service of 26 years” and the fact he possessed “these principles that constitute the Good Man and Freemason” (Indian Correspondence, HC 18/A/45).

12Lodge returns are an interesting source of information concerning the socio-economic background of the Britons who joined. The overwhelming majority were administrators, military men or merchants of the East India Company. In a letter to the Grand Lodge of England, dated 1799, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Madras accounted for the drop in masonic activity within the province to “the change of situation of many of the best informed members, who being in the civil and military service of the Honourable Company were often unexpectedly called away to distant situations” (Indian Correspondence, HC 18/A/45). All three categories of members played a major part in diffusing information in the sense that they were key political and economic actors who often travelled extensively across the Masonic network. Based on this account, it becomes tempting to suggest that masonic membership offered great opportunities in terms of access to the great variety of intelligence transiting through the masonic network. Besides, the high concentration of merchants amongst Indian lodges turned them into a highly prized social venue for the quantity of up-to-date commercial information made available, especially regarding the East Indian market. In his fascinating study of the commercial world of the 18th century, David Hancock established that merchants had to “improve and raise the level of commercial communication […] to keep in touch with the collection and distribution networks of existing peripheral areas, but also to penetrate those of new areas” (Hancock 37). According to its membership list, lodge Perfect Unanimity No. 150, based in Madras, brought together merchants operating in England, America, Pondicherry, the Isle of France, Denmark, and China (Indian Correspondence, HC 18/A/36). One can easily imagine that it offered the kind of commercial opportunity mentioned by Hancock. Freemasonry’s extensive network combined to the trust and respectability patterns that defined masonic fraternalism must have facilitated the meeting of potential new trading partners hailing from all parts of the world.

13Masonic membership thus created a sense of mutual obligation that could supplement and reinforce the existing trading networks. In fact, trust was deemed so important by the brethren that their monthly masonic periodicals, such as The Scientific Magazine and Freemasons’ Repository, often included a section entirely devoted to the latest bankruptcies and disbarred members. In commercial ventures, trust was of the essence, and shared masonic membership could act as a form of guarantee. The establishment of the first joint stock bank of Madras, in June 1788, is a case in point. Out of the 8 founders of what came to be known as the Carnatic Bank, one of the first British private banks of India, at least five were masons. This further confirms that masonic membership could serve as a form of backing for commercial ventures. More generally, it tends to confirm that freemasonry acted as an imperial network that “operated supra-nationally” and “connected private, unofficial, and provincial interests in Britain with their overseas contacts and communities” (Magee and Thompson 16).

3. Masonic sociability and the imperial continuum

14The third and final part of this study seeks to explore the idea according to which the masonic network, by means of the people, information and ideas which transited through it, contributed to creating a social and cultural continuity between the mother country and the Indian Empire. Much has been written about freemasonry as a form of assistance to mobility and more particularly to emigration. But colonial lodges were also instrumental in creating a familiar environment, a reservoir of Britishness that could contribute to making Britons feel at home by creating a sense of belonging to a British community, cultural and political, that transcended the distance separating Britain from its Indian Empire. When they sought employment in India, the British left behind a world of great sociability, a world in which a man’s cultural life and social status were determined by how “clubbable” he was, in the words of Samuel Johnson. Freemasonry was an integral part of this phenomenon. In a speech he delivered in 1776, William Dodd, the Grand Chaplain of the Grand Lodge of England, thus emphasized “that man [was] being formed for society and deriving from thence his highest felicity” (The Freemason’ Magazine 16).

15As masonic lodges spawned across India in the wake of the East India Company’s expansionist policies, they contributed to exporting this sociability by emulating their metropolitan counterparts. With the Battle of Plassey (1757), by which the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies were defeated, the East India Company became the paramount European power in India. The presidency capitals of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay grew rapidly and became the three main centres of British India’s associational activity. According to Peter Clark, Calcutta soon became the “leading overseas arena for British-style sociability and associations outside North America” (Clark 423). Of course, masonic lodges were not the only form of sociability on offer in colonial India. Towards the end of the 18th century, a growing number of coffee houses and punch houses were created alongside several clubs and societies. The Noble Order of Bucks (1777), the Catch Club (1784), the Asiatic Society of Bengal (1784), the Bombay Literary Club (1804), the Calcutta Turf Club (1809), the Bombay Byculla Club (1833), and the Madras Cosmopolitan Club (1873) were also rather successful within the presidency towns and contributed to the “growing Anglicization of the lifestyles of British merchants and officials” (Clark 428). In fact, many of these clubs and societies shared the same members and contributed to federating the colonial local elite. William Hickey (1749-1830), who served in India as a lawyer of the East India Company, was a member of a masonic lodge, but also of the Noble Order of Bucks and of the Catch Club.

16However, none of these clubs and societies could claim a network as extensive as freemasonry or such a high degree of connection with the local respectability. In terms of social capital, which Bourdieu defined as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition”, freemasonry in India was rather impressive (Richardson 241-258). Several Governors-General, including the Earl of Cornwallis (1786-1793), the Marquess of Wellesley (1798-1805), the Marquess of Hastings (1813-1823), and the Marquess of Dalhousie (1848-1856), were also high-ranking masonic officials. Besides, joining a masonic lodge involved both local and international networks. What’s more, high-ranking administrators were almost always invited to masonic events, as in the case of the Chevalier de Fresnes, who was Governor of the French factory of Pondicherry, in 1790 and again in 1792. When he landed in India, William Hickey was perfectly aware how much he could benefit from joining a masonic lodge as expressed in his Memoirs: “Upon my arrival at Bengal, Masonry happened to be much in fashion […] the [lodge] distinguished by the title of ‘Number Two’ being considered the most select […] I became a member” (Hickey 312).

17More generally, no other form of sociability could offer as many advantages as Masonic lodges did their members. In India, from the constitution of the first lodges all the way into the 19th century, freemasonry held centre stage in the growing colonial public sphere (Clark 327). Masonic lodges organized processions, cornerstone layings, and banquets on an unequalled scale, receiving wide coverage in the local Indian newspapers. For instance, the masonic procession that took place for Saint John’s Day in Calcutta, in 1786, was covered by the Calcutta Gazette: “We understand a very elegant supper and ball will be given in the course of next month by the Society of Free and Accepted Masons […] we hear the brethren will walk in procession to the old court House” (Firminger 96). Most masonic events were advertised in the press. In the province of Madras, local lodges went as far as to advertise their meetings in the Madras Times (Malden 166-168). The editor, Charles Allen Lawson, was probably not too difficult to convince, as he was a mason himself. Freemasonry’s central position within the colonial public space conferred masonic lodges primacy when it came to fostering a sense of cultural continuity based on reciprocity, material support, and shared cultural references.

18In fact, reducing the social and cultural distance between Britain and the Raj was a two-way process. The so-called ‘empire lodges’ were first constituted in London so as to provide an “oasis of Indian experience” to those who had been involved or were still involved in India and the Empire. One of the first lodges of the kind was named lodge Eastern Star No. 95 and was constituted in London, as early as 1802, “in the interests of the Honourable East India Company’s Navy” (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 152). For such a highly mobile class of Britons, the masonic lodge could then provide a structure binding men together around a common imperial experience, especially as such forms of imperial sociability seem to have been in high demand. In his Memoirs, Hickey mentions the Jerusalem Coffee House in London, which he describes as “the general resort of all those who had anything to do with India” (Hickey 97). Lodge Eastern Star enjoyed utmost popularity, and was soon followed by other like-minded initiatives such as Empire Lodge No. 2108 (1885), Empress Lodge No. 2581 (1895), and the Anglo-Colonial Lodge No. 3175 (1906) (Harland-Jacobs 251). Empire Lodge included several former officials of the Indian Civil Service, including Henry Thoby Prinsep (1792 - 1878), who had been Grand Master of the District Grand Lodge of Bengal. At the consecration of the lodge, in 1886, the Reverend J. S. Browning, concluded the ceremony by declaring:

I believe the future of this lodge may be a most useful one. It will afford to our colonial brethren, whether home permanently or on holiday, many opportunities […] to convey […] the assurance that the Mother Country glories in the fact the sun never sets on an English lodge. So, brethren, we complete tonight another link in that great Masonic chain of affection which passes round the universe and binds together with the strongest bonds of fraternal love, England and the colonies of the English Empire. (The Freemason 2)

19Empire lodges were thus highly instrumental in bridging the gap between the mother country and colonial India. Founded a few years later, in 1895, Empress Lodge No. 2541 served very much the same purpose of celebrating the imperial cult. As a matter of fact, the lodge was opened as part of the celebrations of the Empire of India Exhibition, which took place the same year and was organized by the famous impresario Imre Kiralfy (1845-1919), who was also a member of the lodge. In his inaugural speech, the Grand Master stated that the lodge was “one more proof of the affectionate loyalty with which every English subject regards the gracious lady who rules over this vast empire” (The Freemason 3). It seems obvious now that empire lodges fostered the consciousness of their members of belonging to an imperial continuum through a form of transnationalism, defined by Magee and Thompson as “living in and identifying with more than one country of place” (Magee and Thompson 10). Freemasonry was particularly well-suited to the emergence of such a feeling because of its universal ideal that encouraged its members to turn their attention to the wider world.

20This social and cultural continuity was also strengthened by masonic periodicals, especially during the 19th century. They acted as a connective force by reporting on masonic events across the Empire. The subscribers of masonic periodicals could thus read about the doings of their brethren and familiarize themselves with the names of the Order’s main colonial actors. The issue of The Scientific Magazine and Freemasons’ Repository for November 1797, thus featured articles about Scotland, England, North America, India, Jamaica, China, Tenerife, South America, and France (The Scientific Magazine, and Freemasons’ Repository 171). Another popular periodical, The Freemasons’ Magazine, aimed at improving “fraternal communications and correspondences [between masons] […] circulating through distant climates” (Clark 302). These periodicals, which played a vital part in disseminating metropolitan and colonial news, enjoyed wide circulation throughout the masonic network. Lodge Humility with Fortitude No. 229, based in Calcutta, subscribed to The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review as early as 1836. The lodges of Madras even founded their own masonic periodical, The Madras Freemasons’ Herald, as early as 1847. The Madras lodge Social Friendship No. 420 launched this initiative and the masons of the other presidency towns warmly welcomed it (Ars Quatuor Coronatorum 175). Later on, another periodical called The Indian Freemason was circulated in the hope that “we [the masons if India] from the centre of Indian Freemasonry may read of the doings of our Brethren at the farthest points it reaches, East, West, South, or North in the Indian Empire” (Harland-Jacobs 245). The periodicals of the 19th century were particularly effective in fostering this imperial masonic awareness in so far as they were more numerous and offered larger coverage. The imperial masonic connection was then complete. Masonic periodicals provided yet another space on which the mother country and colonial India could communicate. If masons across the masonic network could read about the doings of their brothers across the Anglo-Indian World, then they could share the sense of a common imperial identity.


21By the beginning of the 19th century, freemasonry had secured a permanent position in colonial India and formed an extensive network that facilitated the circulation of men, information and ideas across the imperial space. According to Peter Clark, when it came to the export of public sociability and voluntary associations, “nothing comparable occurred in any of the other European empires” (Clark 428). Freemasonry ought therefore to be considered as an object lesson in networking, not only because it was among the first voluntary associations to take root in the British Empire, but also because it grew to become one of the largest networks of institutionalized trans-imperial sociability. In the case of colonial India, it truly bridged the geographical and cultural distances separating it from the mother country, thus providing a degree of cohesion to the Anglo-Indian world. This is not to say the Indian periphery grew to become a perfect reflection of British society, much to the contrary in fact. The Indian colonial society developed its own specificities, an identity of its own, while the interaction fostered by imperial networks contributed to the emergence of an imperial identity that further tied together the metropole and the colonial periphery.

22Studied as a transnational force linking the metropole to the periphery, freemasonry allows the historian to set up a fruitful dialogue between the history of the British Isles and the history of the Raj. It also tends to confirm the theory best expressed by David Cannadine, that the British Empire was first and foremost "an entire interactive system, one vast interconnected world" (Cannadine 5). Once this has been established, the history of British India cannot be dissociated from the history of the British Isles, and freemasonry no doubt constitutes a relevant tool for the study of Empire as defined by Magee and Thompson, that is to say as “a series of interlocking networks or webs, which impacted as much on metropolitan as on colonial life” (Magee and Thompson 13). Neither the metropolitan forces nor the local forces at play were in themselves decisive. The study of masonic networks clearly has a lot to teach us about what held the British Empire together, both in their uniqueness and through their interplay with other networks, most notably commercial networks. It also has a lot to teach us about the role of cultural institutions in supporting colonial rule. Very much like the colonial club, which George Orwell described as “the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power” (Orwell 21), masonic lodges further united the ruling elite, promoted its values and interests, and made colonial power visible.

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1 Provincial Grand Lodges were created to supervise the activity of masonic lodges on a regional basis.

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Simon DESCHAMPS, « From Britain to India: Freemasonry as a Connective Force of Empire », E-rea [En ligne], 14.2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2017, consulté le 21 juillet 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.5853

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Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès
Simon Deschamps is a Senior Lecturer in British studies at the Université Toulouse - Jean Jaurès and is a member of the research group Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes (EA 801). His research interests include cultural imperialism, networking and globalization, fraternalism and forms of sociability, universalism and nationalism, and representations of power. His most recent publications include “Looking to the East: Freemasonry and British Orientalism” (2014) and “Cosmopolitisme maçonnique et politique coloniale dans l’Inde britannique” (2016).

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