Squaring the Triangle

Freemasonry and Anti-Slavery

Freemasonry has not figured prominently in most of the displays and debates on slavery and abolition in 2007. Yet the society was an important eighteenth century institution and one whose extensive archives have the potential to offer interesting - and sometimes unfamiliar - insights into social processes and relationships that shaped the Atlantic world of which slavery and abolitionism were prominent features. This review of the exhibition at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry begins to uncover this complex and sometimes ambiguous history.

As well as being an age of slavery, slave-trading, slave resistance, abolitionism and eventual abolition, the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were an age of burgeoning Masonic sociability in Britain, and indeed right across the Atlantic world. The creation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717 gave a degree of organizational co-ordination to a network of Masonic lodges that by the end of the 1730s was already embracing the Caribbean and the North American continent. Merchants, colonialists and military men, caught up in the eighteenth century's larger dramas of imperial expansion and economic exploitation, were prominent both among the agents and among the beneficiaries of this Masonic expansion. An interest is Freemasonry - in its networks of social connection, of philanthropy, of information - thus offers an intriguing prism through which to view many of the salient themes and issues in the period's history. The histories of transatlantic slavery, of abolition and emancipation, can all be illuminated from this angle.

Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846)