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Merchant and Masonic Networks in Eighteenth-Century Colonial India

Simon Deschamps


Cet article se propose d’explorer le rôle des loges et des réseaux maçonniques dans l’économie commerciale de l’Inde coloniale au xviiie siècle. Les premières loges maçonniques firent leur apparition et se développèrent en Inde dans le sillage de la Compagnie anglaise des Indes Orientales, la compagnie de commerce constituée par Charte Royale qui détenait le monopole du commerce avec les Indes. Les listes de membres de ces loges révèlent l’intérêt tout particulier des classes commerciales pour l’appartenance maçonnique. L’étude des réseaux maçonniques et commerciaux a beaucoup à nous apprendre à propos de ce qui donna à l’Empire sa cohésion, surtout si l’on conçoit l’Empire, avec David Cannadine, comme « un système interactif, un vaste monde interconnecté ».

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1“We are […] of all Nations, Tongues, Kindreds, and Languages.” From the very origins of its creation, Freemasonry turned its attention to the wider world, as shown by the contents of its Constitutions (1723) (Anderson 63). Born in 1717, Freemasonry derived its origins from a large variety of traditions, such as the artisan guilds, although it was essentially the product of the Enlightenment. Freemasonry promoted sociability, religious tolerance, constitutional government, and universalism. According to Margaret Jacob, “One of the great strengths of that originally British phenomenon was its exportability; unlike the old operative guilds Freemasonry possessed a universalist ideology” (Jacob 126). The rise of the British Empire put this exportability to the test. In India, Masonic lodges spawned in the wake of the trading agreements and territorial expansion of the East India Company. In fact, thirteen years only separate the creation of the Grand Lodge of England, in 1717, and the constitution of the first Masonic lodge on the Indian subcontinent. This first lodge was opened in 1730 by officials of the East India Company in Fort William, Calcutta.

  • 1 Provincial Grand Lodges were created to supervise the activity of Masonic lodges on a regional basi (...)

2From there and as the British secured their position across India, Freemasonry spread to the presidencies of Madras and Bombay, in 1752 and 1758 respectively (Gould 165).1 The three main Indian centres of Masonic activity were now in play. Many lodges came into being and the majority of the members were merchants, soldiers, and sometimes administrators of the East India Company, including several governors. Some lodges were entirely composed of merchants. Lodge Perfect Unanimity No. 150, for instance, met in Madras and brought together British merchants hailing from England, Mauritius, the United States, France, Denmark, and China (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 18/A/36).

3Masonic membership was obviously very appealing within the merchant community active in India. Based on this observation, this paper seeks to explore the role played by Masonic lodges and networks in the Indian commercial economy of the eighteenth century. To what extent did Masonic sociability and fraternalism function as the handmaid of trade? How did the Masonic and trading networks interact between Britain and colonial India, and what part did they play in what Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Baily have called “proto-globalization” (52)? The first part of this article will focus on the relationship between Freemasonry and the East India Company, the second part will highlight its role in facilitating the circulation of men and information throughout the Anglo-Indian world, and the third part will examine Masonic membership and business networking.

Where Freemasonry and trade meet: the East India Company

4In the eighteenth century, British India was first and foremost a commercial enterprise run by a joint-stock company. The English East India Company was founded at the end of the sixteenth century and incorporated by Royal Charter on 31 December 1600. It was given a monopoly over all trade and traffic with the East Indies. Its initial objective was to compete with the Dutch merchants who had obtained an almost unchallenged monopoly of trade with the Spice Islands – they had raised the price of pepper from 3 to 8 shillings per pound (Mehra 222). As it was conferred the sole right of trade with the East Indies, the East India Company grew in size and developed new markets in Europe for indigo, saltpetre, tea, and Indian fabrics. It also gained new official monopolies such as salt, which represented 11.4 % of total Company revenues, and opium, which came to account for 15.8 % of its total gross revenues and gave rise to a global circuit of exchange between Britain, China, and India (Ghosh & Kennedy 23). In the second half of the eighteenth century, the East India Company had been granted significant territorial rights from Indian rulers, especially in eastern India. In 1764, for instance, the Mughal Emperor granted the right of diwani to the East India Company for the provinces of Bengal, which legally entitled it to collect revenue (Marshall 207). This allowed the Company to secure a more permanent footing in India, and further develop its trading activities. At the turn of the century, it is computed that the East India Company was responsible for the direct or indirect employment of more than 90,000 Britons (Nechtman 13).

5And yet, the men on the spot were few. In fact, the British population residing in India was extremely limited, especially when compared to that of the settlement colonies. At the end of the eighteenth century, Calcutta counted approximately 6,000 European residents, Madras counted 3,000, while Bombay counted a little more than 1,000 (Clark 422-23). The Masonic lodge was one of the first forms of British sociability to take root in the three main Indian port cities. In 1729, Captain Ralph Farrwinter, a seafaring member of the East India Company, was entrusted with the difficult mission of opening the first lodge in Fort William, Calcutta. Interestingly, Ralph Farrwinter was the son of Captain Nehemiah Winter, a director and major shareholder of the Company. He had become Commander of the 490-ton East Indiaman Eyles in 1728, when his cousin James Winter resigned his command due to poor health (Corrigan 21). The first Masonic lodge actually came into existence in 1730 and came to be known as Lodge East India Arms No. 72 (Firminger 1). The early creation of this lodge, the name it was given, together with the fact it adopted as its banner the coat of arms of the Company, perfectly illustrates and heralds the symbiotic relationship Freemasonry was to develop with the East India Company and the trading professions in India. It also reveals the extent to which economic and cultural forms of globalization went hand in hand. The Masonic lodge also created a familiar cultural environment, a sense of Britishness that contributed to make the agents of the East India Company feel at home (Sinha 489).

6By the end of the eighteenth century, the number of lodges on the Indian subcontinent had increased tenfold. According to the official registers of the Provincial Grand Lodges for 1789, there were 11 lodges in the province of Bengal, 8 in the province of Madras and 2 in the Province of Bombay (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 17/B/28a). The exportation and rapid expansion of Freemasonry in India bears testimony to the development of a vast interconnected network of Masonic lodges, which was part of the wider phenomenon by which the British exported their cultural institutions and forms of sociability from the mother country to the colonial periphery. This occurred mainly in the second half of the eighteenth century, according to Peter Clark’s work on associational activity. The fact the first lodge was opened in India as early as 1730 would tend to suggest that Freemasonry pioneered the emergence of the imperial networks which Magee and Thompson refer to as “the software of Empire,” and which were composed essentially of “kinship structures, religious institutions, ethnic societies, and fraternal organizations” (Magee & Thompson 16). But then, the question is, how can the early development of Masonic fraternalism organization in India be explained? Part of the answer is to be found in the very composition of the first Indian lodges. Indeed, the occupational structure of the lodges reveals that they were dominated by the agents of East India trade. In 1794, for instance, Lodge Marine No. 410 based in Calcutta had nine members, three of which were “Writers” (junior administrators of the East India Company), and two of which were Mariners (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 17/D/17). In Madras, the membership roll of Lodge Social Friendship for the year 1796 reveals that four of the eleven members were Writers, and three were registered as Merchants. More significantly maybe, the membership list of the Madras lodge Perfect Unanimity reveals the participation of eleven Free merchants, six Mariners, and ten Company Civil Service employees (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 17/D/17). The correspondence between the local Indian lodges and the metropolitan Grand Lodges also confirms that the trading classes were well represented. In a letter addressed to the Grand Lodge of England in 1793, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Bengal mentioned that the membership fluctuations of Lodge Industry and Perseverance, based in Calcutta, were due to “many of its members being engaged in Commerce, and frequently obliged to be absent on long Voyages.” The letter also mentions the case of Lodge St. George in the East wanting to change its name to “Anchor and Hope” as a consequence of a majority of its members being seafaring men (Firminger xxxvii). The fact so many Masons were engaged in East Indian trade may also explain why the Provincial Grand Lodges eventually resorted to “bills of exchange” as a means to convey the members’ fees to the Grand Lodge of England from 1772 on (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 17/A/14). Bills of exchange were the traditional means of payment for most trading transactions. But then, how can Freemasonry’s appeal to the trading classes be accounted for, and to what extent did Masonic membership constitute an asset?

Facilitating the circulation of traders and commercial information

7Beyond the fact both activities were concentrated in maritime spaces, Freemasonry’s high exportability made it perfectly suited to the highly mobile colonial society of British India. Britons in India were permanently on the move. In his Speech on the East India Bill (1785), in which he attacked the so-called ‘nabobs’ of the East India Company, Edmund Burke also underlined this aspect of British presence in India by referring to them as “birds of prey and passage” (Révauger & Porset 587-88). Originally a craftsmen’s guild, Freemasonry was designed as a social structure that could accommodate itinerant professions. It therefore adopted a set of rules and regulations that made it possible for the lodge to operate as its members moved from one building site to the next (Prescott 6). This structural flexibility was complemented by a set of dispositions later adopted by the organization to facilitate the Mason’s mobility. The Grand Lodge of Ireland was the first to introduce the ‘Masonic certificate’, which allowed the Mason to be recognized as such in unfamiliar settings (Harland-Jacobs 25). This piece of personal identification acted as a passport, offering its holder instant recognition and a right to assistance. Combined to the ‘right of visitation,’ one of the main landmarks of the Masonic Order, the Mason could effectively travel the extensive Masonic network. According to Ronald Hyam, “it [Freemasonry] acted as an international mechanism offsetting the problems of travel and distance” (298). The importance of Masonic membership in facilitating the circulation of men from Britain to India ought not to be underestimated. Men were, after all, and in the words of Adam Smith, “of all sorts of luggage the most difficult to be transported” (39).

8In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the British who were sent to India to serve the East India Company were well aware of the benefits they could derive from Masonic membership. The fact many of them joined a lodge on the very eve of their departure for India, tends to confirm the practical nature of their interest. In fact, the practice was so common that in 1784, the officers of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Madras wrote to the Grand Lodge of England to express their concern at the increasing number of “persons possessed of certificates granted by regular lodges, who [they] were sorry to say were utter strangers to any knowledge of Freemasonry, proceeding from their being precipitely made, passed and raised [initiated] on the eve of their departure from Europe” (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 19/A/19). Freemasonry was therefore particularly suited to the commercial classes as they travelled to and fro the Indian presidency towns and the mother country. Unsurprisingly, the composition and activity of the local lodges reflected this trend. In 1788, Lodge Star in the East reported 86 members, merchants for the most part, 34 of whom were listed as “absent from Calcutta” (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 17/A/34). No one expressed the effectiveness of Masonic membership as well as John Grant, the Provincial Grand Master of Bengal, when he visited the province of Bombay, in 1846: “A fortnight ago, I arrived here an entire stranger in Bombay, and now, as if by the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, I find myself surrounded by devoted friends and brothers” (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 1846: 126). The merchants of the East India Company could therefore count on Masonic membership to facilitate their economic and social integration at home and in India, wherever their trading ventures took them.

9Long-distance trade was particularly challenging, not only in terms of the high costs it involved, but also in terms of the access to reliable commercial information. Of course, the East India Company had its own business and commercial networks through which economic knowledge transited. And yet, given their composition, Masonic lodges were no doubt considered a highly prized social venue for the quantity of up-to-date commercial information available regarding the East Indian market. In his fascinating study of the Atlantic commercial world of the eighteenth century, David Hancock established that merchants had to “improve and raise the level of commercial communication […] to keep in touch with the collection and distribution networks of existing peripheral areas, but also to penetrate those of new areas” (37). According to its membership list, lodge Perfect Unanimity, based in Madras, brought together British merchants operating in England, America, Mauritius, and China (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 18/A/36). This strongly suggests that the lodge offered precisely the kind of commercial opportunity mentioned by Hancock.

10According to Magee and Thompson, the power of gossip, word to mouth and personal experience is often overlooked when examining trade networks in connection to sociability (205). The example they take is that of the Canada Club, founded in London in 1810. But as early as 1802, a Masonic lodge of a new kind was opened in London. Lodge Eastern Star No. 95 was the first so-called “empire lodge” and was opened “in the interest of the Honourable East India Company’s Navy” (The Freemasons’ Quarterly Review 1871: 152). Merchants must have prized this lodge, especially as such forms of imperial sociability were in high demand. In his Memoirs, William Hickey (1749-1830), who served in India as an attorney for the East India Company, mentions the Jerusalem Coffee House in London, which he describes as “the general resort of all those who had anything to do with India” (97). This was even more so the case as the club was “frequented by merchants and captains connected with the commerce of China, India and Australia” and the subscription room was “furnished with the books of East India shipping” (Timbs 30). Sociability, be it Masonic or otherwise, could help merchants further their exposure to socio-economic issues regarding imperial trade.

11The Masonic networks also channelled information from India to the mother country. On their return home, Masons often literally became news dispatchers as they were personally entrusted with the official correspondence of the local lodges. Despite the obvious distance-related hardships, the correspondence network was paramount in knitting together the local and metropolitan Masonic forces at work. As expressed by Natasha Glaisyer in her insightful study of networking in the British Empire, “it is letters that perhaps provide the best (and most tangible) evidence of the interconnectedness of Empire” (253). The Masonic correspondence network is a case in point. Although the metropolitan Grand Lodges initially imposed regular correspondence for administrative and legal purposes, the letters sent by the local lodges were not dedicated to Masonic affairs only. They also conveyed information regarding political and economic affairs. When Terence Gahagan, the Provincial Grand Master of Bengal, wrote to the Grand Lodge of England in 1791, he offered a detailed account of the latest happenings of the Third Mysore War (1789-92), and mentioned the “the several bodies of horse detached from Tipu’s army who infest all our public by-roads at present” and the subsequent disruption of trade routes (Malden 37). The letters that circulated across the Masonic network could therefore supplement the existing trading correspondence, and contributed to establishing a constant and reliable means of communication without which business could not be conducted. But to what extent could Masonic membership actually be put to contribution in business ventures?

Masonic membership and business networking

12In colonial India, the Masonic lodges provided a social venue in which traders could build new business contacts. They could meet and interact with merchants from other parts of the Empire, as was pointed out earlier, but they could also come into close contact with the local administrators of the East India Company. The membership rolls of the lodges in Madras are again quite telling. In 1785, Lodge No. 152 included 10 Free Merchants, 8 Ship Commanders and 3 Factors of the East India Company (Malden 37). The so-called ‘Factors’ were the commercial agents in charge of the ‘Factories’, that is to say the trading posts where cargoes were loaded and unloaded. The function of the Factor was essentially to find buyers for what the ships brought in and suppliers for what the ships were to take back to Europe. Masonic lodges therefore brought together all the different actors of the East India trade and offered them an informal venue in which business operations could be discussed and agreed on. This argument is even more compelling when applied to the so-called “Free merchants,” the legion of private entrepreneurs who were granted licences to partake in the local Indian trade known as “the country trade.” These merchants were involved in the Persian Gulf and even more so in South-East Asia for those who were based in Calcutta and Madras (Butel 196). Obviously, free merchants strongly depended on the willingness of East India Company administrators to grant them licences and markets. Masonic membership gave them the opportunity to socialize with high-ranking administrators, such as William Petrie, who was 2nd Member of the Council in Madras or George Buchan, who was Chief Secretary to the Government, both of whom were members of lodge Perfect Unanimity (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 18/A/36).

13Of course, there were other forms of sociability that could offer similar advantages. However, no other club or society could claim a network as extensive as Freemasonry or such a high degree of connection with the local respectability. In terms of social capital, which Bourdieu defined as “l’ensemble des ressources actuelles ou potentielles qui sont liés à la possession d’un réseau durable de relations plus ou moins institutionnalisé d’interconnaissance et d’inter-reconnaissance” (2), Indian lodges were impressive (Richardson 250). Several governors-general were also freemasons, starting with the Marquess of Wellesley, who was appointed Governor-General of India in 1793 and held the office until 1805 (Harland-Jacobs 72). Masonic membership therefore offered both “bonding opportunities” in the sense that it reinforced the bonds between men of the same profession, and “bridging opportunities” in so far as it allowed its members to interact with other professions (Magee & Thompson 47). The presence of such high-ranking members of the colonial administration among the Indian lodges combined to the Mason’s duty of mutual aid meant that Freemasonry was a valuable social investment for the commercial classes.

  • 2 The gold star pagoda was a unit of currency issued by the British East India Company in the Madras (...)
  • 3 The eight founders of the bank were Josias Du Pré (Pro. Grand Master of Madras), John Balfour (memb (...)

14Of course, it is difficult to prove that Masonic membership was actually directly put to contribution in any business venture whatsoever. There is, however, a case that deserves to be mentioned at this point, because it would tend to confirm that Masonic membership could indeed function as the backbone of commercial enterprise. On 1st June 1788, the first joint stock bank of India was opened in Madras and incorporated as the Carnatic Bank. It was meant to be “of utility for the commercial part of the settlement,” as expressed in a letter to the Madras Council, and was entrusted with the receipt of money and the issuing of bills and notes. The capital of the bank was 120,000 gold star pagodas,2 a significant amount of money. The driving force of this private initiative was a group of eight associates who were all involved at different levels with the East India Company. Interestingly enough, I was able to establish that at least five of them were freemasons. In fact, Josiah Dupré Porcher, the bank’s permanent Director, was a member of Lodge Perfect Unanimity and rose to become Provincial Grand Master of Madras (Love 423).3 The fact more than half of the founders of the Carnatic Bank were bonded by Masonic membership is further evidence of its potential in terms of business networking.

15The study of commercial networks has often brought to light the role of kinship and ethnicity in fostering trust between partners operating across vast distances. In fact, according to Magee and Thompson, “central to all analysis of networks is the integral part played by trust” (52). Masonic membership could quite easily operate as a form of trust guarantee between the partners of a business venture and therefore limit the risk involved. Indeed, as a fraternity, Freemasonry used kinship as a model for social relations and its members were bound by secrecy and a duty mutual aid (Clawson 25). Trust was deemed so important by the brethren that their monthly Masonic periodicals, such as The Scientific Magazine and Freemasons’ Repository, often included a section entirely devoted to the latest bankruptcies and disbarred members (The Scientific Magazine and Freemasons’ Repository 1797, 154). Masonic membership thus created a sense of mutual obligation and offered extra guarantees in the existing trading networks, on a transnational level.

16From its origins, Freemasonry was meant to be the “centre of union” bringing together men who would have stayed “at a perpetual distance” and to found the “universal brotherhood of man” (Anderson 58). In colonial India, this took the form of a cosmopolitan sociability that was quite unique, and offers an explanation as to why Freemasonry came to function as the handmaid of trade. After all, in the words of the colonial administrator Pierre-Paul Lemercier de la Rivière (1719-1801), “le commerçant, en sa qualité de sujet du commerce, n’appartient exclusivement à aucun pays en particulier; il est nécessairement cosmopolite” (Mesure & Savidan 1112).The merchant and Masonic networks worked hand in hand because they were both active forces of transnational globalization. Again, Lodge Perfect Unanimity, based in Madras, offers a good illustration of this common social paradigm. The membership roll for 1796 reveals the presence of four Frenchmen hailing from lodge La Fraternité Cosmopolite (Grand Orient) based in Pondicherry, three of which were registered as Free Merchants: Monsieur Delavert, Monsieur Confurgieuse, Monsieur De Chevreuse. The membership roll also reveals the presence of Peter Holger Lindum, a ‘Factor’ of the Danish East India Company (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 18/A/36). Lodge Perfect Unanimity was therefore a social venue in which the European commercial interests trading into India could meet on the level and potentially collaborate. The presence of French Masons in lodge Perfect Unanimity over the period extending from 1789 to 1796 is all the more remarkable as it was marked by acts of warfare opposing the two countries: the Third Anglo-Mysore War (1790-92) and the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War (1799). Besides, in 1793, when the French revolutionaries declared war on England, British troops besieged and captured Pondicherry. A member of Lodge Perfect Unanimity actually died in the siege (Menon 21). And yet, the members of the two lodges visited each other on a regular basis, including the Chevalier de Fresnes, the Governor of Pondicherry, who visited lodge Perfect Unanimity in 1790 and 1792, a few months before the siege of Pondicherry. Unsurprisingly, the French and English Masons of these two lodges shared a strong commitment to the monarchy. In 1793, Monsieur de l’Étang, the Grand Master of La Fraternité Cosmopolite thanked the Masons of Madras for “the very generous manner in which they remembered the unfortunate monarch Louis XVI on last St. John’s Day (June 24th)” (United Grand Lodge of England, HC 18/A/36). Masonic membership, therefore, articulated the local and the global, and offered an unofficial code of conduct between European merchants.


17By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Freemasonry formed an extensive imperial network, which facilitated the circulation of men, ideas, and information. Combined to the trust and cosmopolitan patterns that defined Masonic fraternalism, it facilitated the meeting of potential new trading partners hailing from all parts of the world. Masonic lodges often spread in the wake of British trading ventures. This testifies to the importance of maritime contact in the expansion of Freemasonry, but also to its social and maybe cultural proximity with the commercial classes. According to Peter Clark, when it came to the export of public sociability and voluntary associations, “nothing comparable occurred in any of the other European empires” (428). Freemasonry ought therefore to be considered as object lesson in networking, not only because it was among the first voluntary associations to take root in the British Empire, but also because it grew to become one of the largest networks of institutionalized trans-imperial sociability.

18The study of Masonic networks has a lot to teach us about what held the British Empire together, both in their uniqueness and through their interplay with other networks, most notably commercial networks, especially if we are, with David Cannadine to understand the Empire as “an entire interactive system, one vast interconnected world” (5). In this respect, the interest of focusing on the interlocking Masonic and trading networks is double. The study of sociability and especially Freemasonry in its relationship with trading networks also provides a means by which to better grasp the phenomenon of “proto-globalization” and the intricacies of its economic, social, and cultural dimensions. It brings together the material and cultural dynamics of empire and globalization, and places them in the same analytical frame (Ghosh & Kennedy 3). This is all the more interesting as the question of the relationship between trade and Freemasonry took a new dimension in the nineteenth century with the inclusion of natives, and especially the Parsis of Bombay, who were amongst the main trading partners of the British. But this is material for further research and discussion.

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1 Provincial Grand Lodges were created to supervise the activity of Masonic lodges on a regional basis.

2 The gold star pagoda was a unit of currency issued by the British East India Company in the Madras presidency. It was the dominant gold issue and was worth approximately 8 shillings.

3 The eight founders of the bank were Josias Du Pré (Pro. Grand Master of Madras), John Balfour (member of lodge Social Friendship No. IV in Madras), John Chamier (an official of the EIC, one time Provincial Grand Master of Madras, and member of lodge Perfect Unanimity No. I), Thomas Cockburn (an EIC army officer and a member of the Stewards' Lodge in Madras), Benjamin Torin (an EIC official and member of the Stewards' Lodge of Madras) according to the Indian correspondence. C. H. Malden, A History of Freemasonry on the Coast of the Coromandel (Madras: Addison and Co., 1895) 30, 35, 200. List of members of the Stewards’ Lodge, 26th December 1789 (United Grand Lodge of England: Indian Correspondence, HC 18/A/12).

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Simon Deschamps, « Merchant and Masonic Networks in Eighteenth-Century Colonial India », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 74 | 2017, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2017, consulté le 16 janvier 2018. URL :

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Simon Deschamps

Université de Toulouse - Jean Jaurès

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