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Reviewed by:
  • Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717–1927
  • Vahid Fozdar
Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717–1927. By Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Jessica Harland Jacobs’ Builders of Empire explores the reciprocal relationship between British imperialism and the institution of Freemasonry over two centuries. She argues that eighteenth-century Freemasonry’s transformation from a cosmopolitan and politically inclusive institution into a loyalist, Protestant, white, middle-class fraternity had, by the early nineteenth century, made it a fit instrument and key bulwark of British imperialism. In turn, the imperial government, through officials and royal family members who were Masons, helped protect and extend the Masonic network throughout the empire. Masonry also nurtured in its members overlapping and compatible identities-respectable middle-class, national, and imperial-that helped consolidate a diverse empire through bonds of sentiment. Unlike P.J. Rich’s works examining Freemasonry, British imperialism, and the public school system through the prism of ritualism (e.g, Elixir of Empire and Chains of Empire), Builders of Empire seeks to uncover the complex symbiosis that existed between imperialism and Freemasonry.

Tracking a single institution like Freemasonry in both the metropole and the colonies over a period of two hundred years, claims Harland-Jacobs, “presents a viable way to ‘do history’ outside the restrictive framework of the nation state” (8). Following Thomas Metcalf and others, she does not view imperialism only as a creator of difference or solely as an “affinity-builder” (e.g., David Cannadine). Rather, Masons in the empire “had to negotiate a disjuncture between their universalist ideology… and their duties and assumptions as imperialists” (239).

Harland-Jacobs writes lucidly, and each chapter transitions smoothly into the next. However, her habit of using one endnote to cite multiple and disparate sources for a whole paragraph can be confusing. Also, in some instances, endnotes reveal that events in the text that appear to have transpired closely in time actually happened years apart, causing the reader to arrive at skewed conclusions. Another frustration is the book’s dearth of numbers-crucial to supporting the large claims being made. Total lodge figures for the year 1887, and a few tables tallying lodges in the empire (3–5, 242–244, 255) do not reveal how many men participated in this institution, since as few as seven Masons could found a new lodge. Indian lodge membership-which could be sizeable, as the author notes (52)-was also very unstable. Other numbers reveal little: “Of the approximately one hundred lodges at work in India during the early 1870s, at least one-fifth included indigenous members” (230). That could translate to twenty Indian Masons in all of India: a gross underestimate.

Harland-Jacobs’ best sections are on Britain, Ireland, and Canada, and a fair amount of the book is taken up with developments there (not surprising, since her doctoral dissertation was on Freemasonry in Britain and North America from 1751 to 1918). Yet even Canada was divided by much more than the class resentments or Anglophone-Francophone rivalry that she discusses. There existed intra-Protestant strife, too. And well into the twentieth century Canadian Orangeism (under the Grand Orange Lodge of British America) appears to have been more Protestant, more loyalist, and much more politically significant than Freemasonry. Also, the author does not sufficiently interrogate the changing nature of loyalism. Maintaining it in the white dominions, for example, required concessions by the imperial metropole that led to home rule and, finally, the 1931 Statute of Westminster. Without these, would Masons have stood apart from their fellow colonials as loyalist holdouts? Even Harland-Jacobs acknowledges that they pioneered their own version of home rule by establishing sovereign grand lodges from the 1850s onwards. Not only fraternal sentiment, but the promise of parity implicit in brotherhood made white settler, Caribbean black, and Indian Masons loyal to the empire. When parity was not forthcoming, loyalism waned, as in India.

The book’s two most problematic areas are India and religion. India is crucial for any empire-wide analysis of Freemasonry, but here it undermines Harland-Jacobs’ thesis that Freemasonry became a white, Protestant phenomenon in the nineteenth century. Mid...

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