Freemasonry - Experiences in Caribbean Masonry; the Jamaican Perspective

by Afeef A. Lazarus

Introduction

Notwithstanding the conflicting theories as to the origins of our beloved Craft, two things seem certain:

  • when the British captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, Freemasonry was, from all accounts, well established in the British Isles; and
  • Freemasonry, as we have come to know and love it, originated there, though England, Scotland and Ireland have each claimed to be the seat of its origins.

Whatever the truth of Freemasonry's origins, it is not difficult to imagine that in the company of Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables, there were Freemasons, and that Freemasons were among the first Englishmen to walk on Jamaican soil.

All this, of course, is speculation, but as Jamaica grew in its importance as England's most valuable sugar producer, and as the famous seaport of Port Royal developed into a distribution center for the slave trade as well as a strategic commercial hub for business in general, it would be sheer folly to say with any certainty that, with the vast amount of traffic crossing the Atlantic in this direction, Lodges, especially of the traveling kind, were unknown in the West Indies, and more so in Jamaica, prior to the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge in 1717. With its formation, eventually came the keeping of a central set of records and the formal warranting of 'regular' Lodges by a central administrative body such as we know it today.

The Earliest Records

In his celebrated work entitled 'The History of Freemasonry', Robert Gould tells us that, in 1737, a mere twenty years after the formation of the Premier Grand Lodge, one William Douglas, Commander of 'H. M. S. Falmouth', was appointed Provincial Grand Master for 'the Coast of Africa and the Islands of America'. This vague description has been the subject of much speculation, but it is generally felt by most students of Masonic history, that the term 'the Islands of America', applied to none other than the islands of the West Indies. It has been said that Freemasonry was 'introduced' into Jamaica in 1738 with the establishment of the Mother Lodge No. 182 (so named in 1776) which was warranted in that year, but, as can be gleaned from the above, this is highly speculative, and it may be far more accurate to describe that Lodge as being the first Lodge warranted to work on Jamaican soil.

A Province is Formed

The warranting of a second Lodge in 1742, Port Royal Lodge No. 193, brought along with it the formation of The Province of Jamaica, and the appointment of the first Provincial Grand Master in the person of Ballard Beckford, a somewhat notorious figure in Jamaican politics of the time, having figured quite prominently in a much publicized divorce case, which resulted in the passing of Jamaica's first Divorce Bill, and his expulsion from the House of Assembly, three years earlier. The passage of time and the destruction of records by hurricane, earthquake and fire have rendered much of this period somewhat hazy, but it seems as if our brethren of a bygone era were not immune to growing pains, as, between 1742 and 1744, no less than three Provincial Grand Masters were appointed.

A Competing Force

Notwithstanding all this apparent turmoil, by 1775, twelve more Lodges were warranted by the Premier Grand Lodge in various parts of the island, not only in the established commercial centers, but also in the sugar growing regions of Saint Mary's, Hanover and Westmoreland. With the formation of the rival 'Antient' Grand Lodge in England in 1751, the formation of Lodges under its jurisdiction took place naturally wherever its members were dispersed over the face of the earth. Some came to Jamaica, and by 1763 the Antients warranted their first Lodge at Old Harbour, with a second being warranted at Green Island, in the parish of Hanover, in 1772.

At first, either by design, or out of an unspoken respect for each other, they basically kept out of each other's way by respecting each other's 'territory'.. until 1775! In that year, the Premier Grand Lodge, by what appeared to be an act of open hostility, warranted their own Lodge at Green Island where there already existed an Antient Lodge. In 1786, the Antients retaliated by striking at the heart of the Premier Grand Lodge (or 'Moderns' as they had become known) by establishing an Antient Lodge in Kingston, the seat of a number of Modern Lodges and the natural seat of power. By 1809, eight more Antient Lodges were established in Port Royal and Kingston, and, to add insult to injury, an Antient Provincial Grand Lodge was established in Kingston in 1796. The assault must have been too overwhelming for the Moderns, as history informs us that after their intrusion into Green Island in 1775, the Moderns did not warrant any new Lodges until 1812 when a warrant was granted to a group of French refugees from Haiti, but this Lodge was short lived and soon vanished. Indeed, there is evidence that some of the Modern Lodges were moved to petition the Antients for new warrants!

The skirmishing obviously took its toll on both camps, as by the Union of the Antients and Moderns in 1813, many of the Lodges had ceased to function and so were erased from the register of the newly formed United Grand Lodge. Some survived, however, and two of the Lodges warranted by the Antients are still in good health today, having worked uninterrupted since their inception. These are the Royal Lodge No. 207, warranted in 1794, and the Friendly Lodge No. 239, consecrated in 1797.

Irish Eyes

We have concentrated thus far on the two English Grand Lodges and their continuing rivalry, and, without more, the unsuspecting might be led to think that there was no room for anyone else. This, however, was not the case, as the Irish seem to have been looking on from the wings. The officer corps of the military presence in Jamaica was, as would be expected, manned by the British, and some of these men arrived with traveling warrants in tow, issued by the Grand Lodge of Ireland. History does not inform us as to what part they played in the Masonic politics of the day, but as the Antient Grand Lodge had its roots in Irish Freemasonry, it would not be too far fetched to assume that they had some fraternal relationship with the Antient Lodges in Jamaica and, conversely, were probably not too welcome at the assemblies of the Moderns. Of interest is the fact that the Royal Lodge No. 207 previously mentioned, started life as an Irish Lodge, numbered 699, in 1789, and subsequently applied for English 'citizenship' under the banner of the Antients in 1794 after just five years of existence. The reasons for the change in allegiance are unclear, but the writer has put forward a theory which was set out at length in a paper appearing in AQC, Volume 101 [1988] entitled "What Inducement Have You to Leave?". The Lodge still uses the Irish Trowel as the Jewel of the IPM and the Arm and Trowel, a symbol of Irish Freemasonry, adorn its Banner. It is of interest to note that Masonic and other publications, such as contemporary Almanacs, have listed at least eight other Irish Lodges as having worked in Jamaica between 1767 and the end of the 18th Century. Some of these have been authenticated by the records of the Grand Lodge of Ireland but, others, though warranted, were stillborn, while the existence of yet others, are doubtful.

As far as we are aware, apart from the appearance of Independent Lodge No. 35 which was warranted in 1814 and discontinued in 1836, the next appearance of an Irish lodge was in 1905 when the South Carolina Lodge No. 390 was warranted. It faltered and the warrant surrendered. The same warrant was reissued in 1927 to a new Lodge bearing the same name. The second Lodge is still in existence and is in good health. In fact, it recently spawned a number of new Lodges which formed the basis for the creation of an Irish Province in 1995. The Province operates in harmony with its English and Scottish counterparts.

Whither the Scots?

While the Modern/Antient/Irish game of 'Musical Lodges' was playing itself out, the Scots had quietly constituted a Lodge in the relative obscurity of Morant Bay, in the southeast of the Island. "The Scotch Lodge Saint Andrews No. 102" was constituted in 1760. By 1770, the Lodge had no less than 65 members, a large membership even by today's standards. By 1816 it was erased, but, as with so many Lodges of the day, the reasons for the decline has been obscured in the mists of time. No. Scottish Lodge was again formed in Jamaica until 1844. The Glenlyon Lodge, formerly No. 417, but now No. 346, was warranted in 1845 and is still in existence, but its beginnings were somewhat rocky as it was dormant from 1861 to 1868.

After the Union

At the beginning of the 19th Century, communications across the Atlantic were, understandably difficult and it took months, and even years in some instances, for messages to be received and understood. In 1813, The Antient and Modern Grand Lodges set aside their rivalry and amalgamated as The United Grand Lodge of England. It took some time for the word to reach the warring Provinces, and even when it did, some were still unaware or unsure as to who were the parties to the union! In the resulting confusion some believed that the Moderns had united with the Scots and set about holding their meetings on that basis. Eventually, however, the misconceptions were resolved and the true meaning of the union began to be understood and barriers began to be broken down. The newly formed United Grand Lodge took advantage of the opportunity to 'clean house'. All Lodges which ceased to work were erased and a universal renumbering took place.

Who Were the Masons

It is convenient to treat the Union of the Moderns and the Antients as a watershed, and to assess the influence of the Craft on society in general and to identify who constituted the membership of the Craft in Jamaica at that time. In doing so, one must be cognizant of the times of which we speak, which is worlds away from the social structures in which we find ourselves today.

It has already been established that Jamaica was becoming a most valuable British colony, and by 1813 it was at the height of its dominance. It was a vital commercial hub for North, Central and South America. It was the sugar capital of the world. Its commercial importance had spawned a wealthy and influential business class, and outside of the center of commercial activity the plantocracy, many with direct family and business ties to England, held sway. Slavery, it must be remembered, was not yet abolished, but, in Jamaica, Jews were provided with freedoms not yet enjoyed by them in Europe and so were attracted to the colony. Indeed, many of the most influential Jewish families of modern Jamaica are able to trace the arrival of their forefathers to this period in History, and the history books record that their contribution to the Craft and its leadership in their adopted home has been most significant. The Masonic membership, then, was made up of the business class, including the Jews (Ashkenazi as well as Sephardic) who had fled persecution in Portugal and other parts of Europe (such as Myers, Delgado, de Cordova (of the "GLEANER" fame), Belisario, Jacobs, Morales, and, somewhat later, Ashenheim) the plantocracy, the professionals and, to a lesser extent, the mulattos.

The Freemasonry of the day was, undoubtedly, a predominantly white, upper-middle class fraternity in the halls of which resided a great deal of power. It is, therefore, not surprising that many of the names which emerge from the surviving Masonic records of the time, are synonymous with names found in the leading business, professional, political and social records of the era.

The Influence of Jamaican Freemasonry

The predominance of Jamaica as a commercial center, quite naturally, overflowed into the field of Freemasonry. Contrary to what obtains today, there existed a healthy and significant trading relationship with South and Central America, and, in particular with what is now known as the Republic of Colombia. This was the time of the revolutionary wars and of high anti-Freemasonry sentiment disseminated by the Roman Catholic Church and, as a result, Freemasonry was viewed with some amount of suspicion by the authorities for political as well as religious reasons. Many governments of the day saw Freemasonic Lodges as meeting places for free thinkers and dissenters, and, therefore, as centers of revolt. For fear of political persecution, some Lodges had to meet under the guise of educational organisation offering lessons in Spanish and English. There being no Grand Lodge existing in Colombia at the time, some sought warrants from the Provincial Grand Lodge of Jamaica (which was permissible at that time), and history records that warrants were duly granted by Jamaica to no less than four such Lodges and that those warrants existed until the formation of a Grand Lodge in Colombia in 1824 when the Lodges concerned came under the jurisdiction of that body.

Any serious paper touching and concerning the influence of Jamaican Freemasonry cannot be complete without mentioning the Ancient and Accepted (or "Scottish" in North America) Rite or "Rose Croix," which is reputed to be the fastest growing Masonic system in the United States and which is enjoying increased popularity in English Freemasonry. To our detractors, it is, perhaps, the most misunderstood of the so-called "higher degrees," as its 33 degrees are often quoted as proof positive that the knowledge of a mere three degrees by a Master Mason does not really communicate to him the true diabolical and subversive nature of Freemasonry which is reserved for the few select brethren who achieve this commanding height!

Much has been written about the Rose Croix, especially in recent years where scholarly research has unearthed facts not previously known. What is evident is that the facts surrounding the early formation of this Order are extremely complex, but that the last half of the 18th Century and the first quarter of the 19th Century saw the Rite as promulgated by Morin and Francken flourish and become established in Jamaica from whence arose "the Grand Council of Princes Mason at Kingston in Jamaica" which, mainly, through the vehicle of traveling military regiments, spread its influence firmly into North America. Morin died in Jamaica and is buried in the churchyard of the Kingston Parish Church where his grave can be seen today.

The Progress of the English Craft

We left off at that part of our history which mentions the union of the rival Grand Lodges. A union so important as that between two great competing forces could not fail of being generally and severely felt!

After the general confusion died down and the brethren eventually got used to the idea that the Antient and Moderns were no longer rivals, things settled down considerably and private Lodges continued to thrive. Indeed, during the Provincial Grand Mastership of Sir Michael Benjamin Clare (1814 to 1832), nine new Lodges were warranted in the ten-year period between 1816 and 1826. Then came the drought! Clare left for England in 1831; a new Provincial Grand Lodge under the Grand Lodge of Scotland (the previous attempt by the sole Scottish Lodge having fizzled out in 1795) was established in 1843 when William P. G. Burton was named Provincial Grand Master; the United Grand Lodge of England failed/refused to appoint a successor to Clare thus leaving the Province without any real leadership; the Scots began to take up the slack by warranting new Lodges; and the English brethren, not being totally enamored with the situation, were in virtual revolt. Many letters were written beseeching England to act, but to no avail.

Now, some of the brethren, having been pushed by frustration into becoming a clamorous and turbulent people, then broke out into open revolt and threats of a defection en bloc to the Scottish camp were heard. At long last, their prayers, both to the Almighty as well as to Grand Lodge, were heard and Dr. Robert Hamilton was appointed as Provincial Grand Master in 1858. Presumably, this should have solved the problem. This, however, was not immediately to be so. The Lodges in the north and west of the island were not in support of Dr. Hamilton's appointment, so they remained directly under the rule of Grand Lodge and Dr. Hamilton was formally appointed Provincial Grand Master of the Province of "East Jamaica" as is evidenced by the jewels of office worn by many of the District Grand Lodge Officers to this day. Fortunately, this impasse did not last. All overseas English Provinces were re-designated as "Districts" in 1865 and by 1880, the District Grand Lodge of East Jamaica had assumed jurisdiction over all the Lodges in the island thus becoming the District Grand Lodge of Jamaica until 1992 when it became the District Grand Lodge of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

In addition to the curiosity of the words "East Jamaica" still represented on some of the District's jewels, space had to be found in the District's numbering system for the Friendly Lodge 383 in Montego Bay, being one of those Lodges which objected to Dr. Hamilton. That Lodge now bears District Number 3a, as number 4 had already been given away to another Lodge.

Under the guiding hands of a long line of distinguished District Grand Masters, (the incumbent has yet to be judged), the District Grand Lodge, once again, settled into a harmonious relationship with its Grand Lodge, with the Lodges under its jurisdiction and with the Scottish District and Irish Province as they work together in harmony for the good of the Craft in Jamaica. Of passing interest during this period is the appointment of Bro. John Pringle (later Sir John Pringle) as District Grand Master in 1909 while still a Master Mason and Senior Warden of Friendly Lodge 239. He was not installed as a Master until the following year which I think is some sort of a record. I have not heard of a similar appointment, but I shall stand corrected if any other brother has.

Jamaican Freemasonry Today

Jamaican Freemasonry today is truly a tapestry of great value woven from men of all colors, creeds, political persuasions and social backgrounds. As it is in any grouping of persons, there are bound to be differences of opinion on any given subject, and this is true of Freemasonry in general and, perhaps, of Jamaican Freemasonry in particular.

Throughout the District in general, and in my own mother Lodge in particular, I have the privilege of associating and sitting in harmony with Arab and Jew, Moslem and Hindu, Roman Catholic and Protestant, black and white, members of all three local political parties and those who do not necessarily fall squarely into anyone or other of those categories. And so it should be. I am proud to call each of them "brother" and I find comfort in their presence. I am sure that this is true of anywhere that Freemasons meet in pursuit of the principles of brotherly love, relief and truth.

I clearly remember, with pride, sitting in Lodge and witnessing a double initiation where the two candidates were the Minister of Information and the shadow Minister from the Opposition - both in a similar state of Distress and each taking their obligation, side by side, on the same VAL. I am proud to say that, as members of the same Lodge, they are both active and work with that harmony which should at all times characterize Freemasons, notwithstanding their differences on the political front.

In the Craft itself, the three constitutions, English, Irish and Scottish, are so intertwined, that many brethren belong to all three constitutions, and, indeed, there are brethren who hold Grand Rank in all three! The Jamaica Masonic Benevolence Association which is one hundred and seventeen years old is administered by representatives of all three constitutions and the District Grand Masters (EC and SC) and the Provincial Grand Master (IC) take turns at presiding over that body, each sitting as President for a two-year period. So closely do the constitutions work together, that it is quite the practice for all three to be represented at all installation ceremonies. That might be seen as par for the course in the Caribbean, but when one realizes that the English District boasts 23 Lodges (2 of which are situated in the Cayman Islands), the Scottish 16 and the Irish Province 6, making a total of 45 Lodges in all, this makes for a fair sized "District" indeed - and we have not yet considered the Royal Arch (of which I have responsibility for 12 Chapters, one of which is situated in the Cayman Islands), the Mark and all the other Orders of which most of us are very active members!

Yes, Freemasonry under all three constitutions is alive and well in Jamaica, and continues to grow. As a result the English District has found the need to establish a secretariat in Kingston which is presently manned on a full time basis by the Assistant District Grand Secretary who has the help of a typist.

It has been said that one could find a Masonic meeting to go to for six nights of the week and, at each of which, one would be sure to have his fill of food and drink at the after proceedings. I have not tried it, but I have no doubt there is much validity in this statement.

That is not to say that we do not have our troubles and difficulties - of those there are aplenty - but we try to approach them with the support of the four cardinal virtues so amply illustrated to us in our ritual, namely: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice.

EDITOR'S NOTE:

R.W. Bro. Afeef A. Lazarus is Past Master of Friendly Lodge 239 (EC), District Grand Master of Jamaica & the Cayman Islands (EC), and Grand Superintendent over Jamaica & the Cayman Islands (EC).