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)

Thomas Clarkson was among the foremost British campaigners against both slavery and the slave trade. He was born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, on 28 March 1760 and educated at the grammar school there where his father, the Rev. John Clarkson, was headmaster. In 1775, he went to St. Paul's School in London where he excelled. He went up to Cambridge in 1780 where he was an outstanding student. His awareness of slavery originated in an essay, originally written in Latin, as an entry in a Cambridge University prize competition, which it won. (In fact, Clarkson had already won a BA competition, and he wanted and became the first person to win the MA competition as well.) The question - and there was only one - was "is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?" (Anne Liceat Invitos in Servitutem Dare?).

After 1823, when the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery (later the Anti-Slavery Society) was formed, Clarkson again traveled around the country. He covered 10,000 miles, and activated the network of sympathetic anti-slavery societies which had been formed. This resulted in 777 petitions being delivered to parliament demanding the total emancipation of slaves. When the society adopted a policy of immediate emancipation, Clarkson and Wilberforce appeared together for the last time to lend their support. In 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act was passed.

Clarkson lived for a further 13 years. Although his eyesight was failing, he continued to campaign for abolition, focusing on the United States. He was the principal speaker at the opening of the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in Freemasons' Hall, London in 1840, chaired by Thomas Binney. The conference was designed to build support for abolishing slavery worldwide and included delegates from France, the USA, Haiti and Jamaica.

The scene at Clarkson's opening address was painted in a commemorative work, now in the National Portrait Gallery, London. The emancipated slave, Henry Beckford (a Baptist deacon in Jamaica), appeared in the right foreground. Clarkson and the prominent abolitionist Quaker William Allen were to the left, the main axis of interest. In 1846 Clarkson received the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped to freedom, on his first visit to England.