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Reviewed by:
  • Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717–1927
  • William D. Moore
Builders of Empire: Freemasons and British Imperialism, 1717–1927. By Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 400 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Over the past twenty-five years scholars have made great strides in documenting the role that Freemasonry played in the Atlantic world during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In her many publications, historian Margaret Jacobs builds upon the seminal work of Frances Yates to explicate the fraternity’s contribution within the European enlightenment. Steven C. Bullock’s Revolutionary Brotherhood (1996) limned the brotherhood’s impact upon the development of the United States during the period of the American Revolution and the nation’s new republic. Douglas Smith’s Working the Rough Stone (1999) examined Freemasonry within the society of eighteenth-century Russia. Cécile Révauger has published extensively concerning the relationship between Freemasonry and religion in Europe and the United States. Each demonstrates that Masonic history, rather than being an arcane antiquarian pursuit, provides important insights for understanding intellectual and political developments that have had far-reaching international implications.

Although Freemasonry expanded into a global phenomenon in these centuries, the emergent scholarship largely has been limited in scope to Europe and the United States. Scholars interested in Freemasonry in other parts of the world have found themselves reliant on the Victorian, celebratory, Anglophile histories of Robert Freke Gould.

Jessica L. Harland-Jacobs’s Builders of Empire expands the new Masonic history by ambitiously examining how the fraternity functioned within the British Empire over a period of more than two hundred years. She argues that Freemasonry was one of the first global institutional networks, and, as such, linked Britons to one another and to indigenous men throughout the crown’s regions of influence. The author’s argument is built upon an impressive range of data drawn from an astounding variety of locations including Australia, South Asia, Canada, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Based upon institutional archives, published Masonic proceedings, lodge minutes, and fraternal periodicals, Harland-Jacobs provides a nuanced analysis of Freemasonry that recognizes the dialectical relationship between Masonic activities and the changing world in which the brotherhood functioned. She indicates that British Freemasonry transformed from a cosmopolitan and universalist organization in the eighteenth century into a largely Protestant, respectable, imperialist institution with close ties to the English monarchy by the 1870s and 1880s. [End Page 148]

The study opens with an elegant discussion of how Freemasonry spread around the globe between 1727 and 1816. Four Grand Lodges based in the British Isles—the Grand Lodge of Scotland, the Grand Lodge of Ireland, the “Ancients,” and the “Moderns” (the latter two both based in London)—alternately competed and cooperated in establishing lodges wherever British Masons found themselves sojourning. Military lodges, commonly associated with army regiments, were particularly important in establishing Freemasonry as a global presence during the eighteenth century. Harland-Jacobs’s account of the fraternity’s spread makes the compelling argument that the fraternity grew organically because it met the social and economic needs of its members rather than because the officers of the Grand Lodges developed an articulated and premeditated plan to extend influence.

Harland-Jacobs’s discussion of the ramifications of the tension between the fraternity’s ideology of egalitarian brotherhood and the empire’s hierarchical, racialized ethos, which sought to differentiate between the rulers and the subjugated, forms one of the most compelling components of this work. The tension that existed between what she terms “brothering” and “othering,” she contends, illuminates the crucial period of British imperialism between 1840 and 1870. Freed slaves in the Caribbean, Muslim, Hindu, and Parsi believers in India, and African-American members of the Prince Hall Masonic order in the United States all sought recognition from British Masonic officials of their claims to legitimacy for inclusion within the brotherhood. Harland-Jacobs intricately describes how the parameters of who would be accepted into the fraternity changed over time and place. Frequently, policy makers near the imperial center acted more liberally in admitting indigenous people than their brothers on the political periphery.

Although anchored in Masonic primary sources, Builders of Empire...