Daily archives: April 29, 2014

Freemasonry and Empire

Five years ago I knew almost nothing about Freemasonry except that it is believed to be often a vehicle for corrupt fixes between businesses and the various arms of government, which I suspect is very probably true.  But what Freemasons did, or believed in, I had really very little idea.  Writing my book on Alexander Burnes required me to learn a great deal, because the Burnes family were not just very active Freemasons but had a profound international influence on the organization.

My conclusion about Freemasonry is that it became widely established as part of the spirit of rational enquiry that informed the eighteenth century enlightenment.  It had the same motivation as Unitarianism, which thrived around the same time  – it was striving towards a form of Deism that allowed people to move towards a belief in God while abandoning the obvious irrational mumbo-jumbo of Christian miracles and the divinity of Christ.  There are obvious parallels with the French revolutionary cult of the Supreme Being.  It was therefore very friendly to other monotheistic religions and looked to provide a kind of lowest common denominator religious synthesis.  The whole project was then dressed up in a great deal of “secret” ritual borrowed from crafts guilds.  That Freemasonry was so successful in aristocratic and educated circles was simple because it was they who also propelled the Enlightenment.

As time went on, for most members it became just a club to make good business contacts – the commitment of “brothers” to help each other in a secret society including a lot of the wealthy was originally well-intended but obviously bound to become a conduit of corruption. Most members would probably, from about 1820 on, have been very surprised by my analysis of its intellectual and religious origins.  They probably still would be today.  It’s just a club for most.

But what I was surprised to find, and of this I am certain, is that Freemasonry’s insistence that all members were equal, of whatever colour and creed, played a very important role as a counterweight to the increasing nineteenth century British Empire philosophy of racial superiority and religious and cultural arrogance.  Freemasonry actively helped turn the tide among the governing classes and directly impacted the increasing anti-colonial beliefs of the British governing classes from the 1920’s on.  A very high proportion indeed of British colonial administrators and officers were Freemasons.

We have a caricature view of Rudyard Kipling now; he was by no means the apostle of Imperialism he has somehow become in popular belief.  I know his soldier’s dialect writing is annoying.  I find it helps to speak it out loud.  But although it is sentimental, his poem The Mother Lodge does contain the germ of a very real truth about the impact of Freemasonry on the British view of race in India.  We’d say ’twas ‘ighly curious, An’ we’d all ride ‘ome to bed,
With Mo’ammed, God, an’ Shiva, Changin’ pickets in our ‘ead.  The same was true in Egypt, at least.  Remember many lodges operated on a far higher social level than the one described in this poem, and those too were mixed.

I appreciate this posting is going to annoy pretty well everyone.  Oh well.  No, I am not a Mason.

Humour me and read it out loud:

The Mother Lodge

There was Rundle, Station Master,
An’ Beazeley of the Rail,
An’ ‘Ackman, Commissariat,
An’ Donkin’ o’ the Jail;
An’ Blake, Conductor-Sargent,
Our Master twice was ‘e,
With ‘im that kept the Europe-shop,
Old Framjee Eduljee.

Outside — “Sergeant!  Sir!  Salute!  Salaam!”
Inside — “Brother”, an’ it doesn’t do no ‘arm.
We met upon the Level an’ we parted on the Square,
An’ I was Junior Deacon in my Mother-Lodge out there!

We’d Bola Nath, Accountant,
An’ Saul the Aden Jew,
An’ Din Mohammed, draughtsman
Of the Survey Office too;
There was Babu Chuckerbutty,
An’ Amir Singh the Sikh,
An’ Castro from the fittin’-sheds,
The Roman Catholick!

We ‘adn’t good regalia,
An’ our Lodge was old an’ bare,
But we knew the Ancient Landmarks,
An’ we kep’ ’em to a hair;
An’ lookin’ on it backwards
It often strikes me thus,
There ain’t such things as infidels,
Excep’, per’aps, it’s us.

For monthly, after Labour,
We’d all sit down and smoke
(We dursn’t give no banquits,
Lest a Brother’s caste were broke),
An’ man on man got talkin’
Religion an’ the rest,
An’ every man comparin’
Of the God ‘e knew the best.

So man on man got talkin’,
An’ not a Brother stirred
Till mornin’ waked the parrots
An’ that dam’ brain-fever-bird;
We’d say ’twas ‘ighly curious,
An’ we’d all ride ‘ome to bed,
With Mo’ammed, God, an’ Shiva
Changin’ pickets in our ‘ead.

Full oft on Guv’ment service
This rovin’ foot ‘ath pressed,
An’ bore fraternal greetin’s
To the Lodges east an’ west,
Accordin’ as commanded
From Kohat to Singapore,
But I wish that I might see them
In my Mother-Lodge once more!

I wish that I might see them,
My Brethren black an’ brown,
With the trichies smellin’ pleasant
An’ the hog-darn passin’ down;
An’ the old khansamah snorin’
On the bottle-khana floor,
Like a Master in good standing
With my Mother-Lodge once more!

Outside — “Sergeant!  Sir!  Salute!  Salaam!”
Inside — “Brother”, an’ it doesn’t do no ‘arm.
We met upon the Level an’ we parted on the Square,
An’ I was Junior Deacon in my Mother-Lodge out there!

I might add in clarity that I honour the various  peoples who struggled against the Empire, and who still struggle against Empires today.  I by no means denigrate their achievement.  But there is no doubt at all that the demise of most of the British Empire (sadly it hasn’t all gone yet) was hastened by the fact that the majority of the British governing classes had come themselves to believe the colonies should be free, certainly by 1945 and arguably sooner.

Unfortunately since about 1975 public opinion has been moulded into a rigid neo-conservative mindset, and neo-imperialism increasingly looks like the old variety.  If you didn’t live through it, it must be hard now to believe that the British “elite” once held quite left wing opinions, and of course some ideologically motivated would wish to deny it as not fitting their model of society.  But it was so,


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