Realms of Sociability?

Empires and Freemasons in the Atlantic World (circa 1770s-1850s)

Jan C. Jansen

With roots in medieval and early modern stonemasons' lodges, modern ("speculative") Freemasonry took shape in early-eighteenth-century England. Rapidly spreading throughout continental Europe, Freemasons' lodges became a well-known element of sociability in Enlightenment Europe, a secluded world meant to facilitate the practice of the ideals of fraternity and humanity across social, national, and confessional boundaries. It is less known that within a few decades this secluded world transcended the borders of the European continent. At the end of the eighteenth century, a wide network of lodges was already in place stretching from Europe to North and South America, into the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Long before the rise of governmental and non-governmental international organizations, the Freemasons built one of the first non-religious institutionalized and stable networks with an intercontinental and global reach.

Empires - be they continental or intercontinental - constituted an important framework for the expansion of Freemasonry. My project aims at examining this connection between colonial empires and freemasonry. It focusses on the Atlantic World as a major region of Masonic expansion at the end of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. Starting from important hubs in the British and French Caribbean (esp. Jamaica, Barbados, Saint-Domingue/Haiti, and Guadeloupe) the project explores the international Masonic networks with their ramifications and connections to North America and Western Europe: What were the driving forces and dynamics of expansion? Which specific conflicts arose within as well as between the lodges? How did they intersect with political, social, and mental contexts? How were they used by different groups of actors?

Three analytical questions are essential to the project: First, it examines to what extent the lodges served as venues for imperial and/or transatlantic forms of sociability; second, by addressing the tensions between universalist ideals and numerous forms of exclusion, it sheds new light on the complex relationship between (Enlightenment) cosmopolitanism, slavery, and a (colonial) "civilizing mission"; and third, it explores if and in which way(s) the lodges functioned as an infrastructure through which ideas and forms of organization were transmitted across long distances and cultural boundaries.