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Wednesday, June 06, 2018

New York's Clemente Center Exhibit on Haitian Freemasonry

The New York Review of Books over the weekend published a notice of an art exhibition going on in New York City at the Clemente Center this month about Freemasonry on the island of Haiti. 

From "Picturing Haiti’s Freemasons" by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro:
"Haiti, good historians agree, is where the Enlightenment came home to roost. France may have been where Rousseau penned The Rights of Man, but it was in France’s most brutal and lucrative plantation colony—the Caribbean sugar island of Saint-Domingue—that a half million enslaved Africans rose up in 1791 to kill their masters and ask the West: How universal, really, is your idea of universal rights?
"Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) was transformed, by Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, into a free black nation that France saddled with unpayable debts and whose sovereignty the United States didn’t recognize for decades. But the celebrated “Black Jacobin” revolutionaries were not the whole story of how Haiti came to be. Rousseau’s ideas were not the only influences to shape a society built from the ashes of its old plantations. And among the more mysterious facets of Enlightenment culture to leave their mark here was the secret society that the British artist and documentarian Leah Gordon explores, with several collaborators, in a marvelous exhibition about Haiti’s Masonic tradition, “Vernacular Universalism: Freemasonry in Haiti and Beyond,” now at the Clemente Center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side..."

The website of the Clemente Center explains the exhibit this way:
"In Haiti, during the colonial era, the Freemasons were one of the few European institutions that allowed black membership. Freemasonry still thrives in contemporary Haiti, and its visual world pervades the Haitian imaginary. The symbols that recur throughout this exhibition once tethered a web of ideas that stretched across the Atlantic, encrypting the most precious values of the Enlightenment.

"This exhibition aims to visualize the mesh of magic and reason; alchemy and science; trade and metaphysical exchange that has stretched into the 21st century. By focusing on Haiti, this exhibition sheds light on the relationship between colonized peoples and the Enlightenment. It suggests that for some, Freemasonry offered a path to becoming an agent of modernity, rather than its reviled ‘other’. This exhibition will be a timely and significant contribution to an understanding of Freemasonry through the lens of the Black Atlantic."

The island of Hispaniola where Christopher Columbus made first landfall in the Caribbean has had a curious Masonic past. Controlled by Catholic Spain during the early colonial period, the western half of the island was ceded to France in 1697 as San Domingue — later to become Haiti. When Freemasonry took to ships and started to spread around the globe in the 1730s and afterwards, it came to Hispaniola, too. But it took longer on the island than elsewhere because of anti-Masonic policies from the Catholic Church. 

In 1749, the Grand Orient de France (GOdF) chartered two lodges in San Domingue, and another ten or so were established across Hispaniola by 1789. Meanwhile, Masons in Pennsylvania wasted no time after American independence was declared, and eventually chartered seven lodges on the island of their own between 1786 and 1806. Lodges opened and closed in quick succession in those days, as the colonizing European nations fought each other in their Caribbean territories, as well as back at home. While the French Revolution and a decade of slave uprisings and fighting on the island finally brought independence to Haiti after 1804, organized Freemasonry on the island wouldn't manage to withstand the combined turmoil of revolution and the Napoleon years. 

Hispaniola was split into two separate countries after 1800, Haiti and San Domingo (later the Dominican Republic in 1844), and Haiti became the first independent nation in the Caribbean and Latin America by 1804.

Between 1809 and 1817, four new English lodges were chartered in Haiti, at first becoming a Provincial Grand Lodge, and then declaring independence as the Grand Lodge of Haiti in 1824.  But just six years later, the Grand Orient de France came back to the island, importing with them the hauts grades — the "higher degrees."  By 1836, there was established a Scottish Rite Supreme Council and the Grand Orient of Haiti, and the competing groups fought for control of the Craft degrees. Remnants of that battle continue to this day. Meanwhile, on the Dominican side of the island, the Grand Lodge of the Dominican Republic was formed in 1865.

From Freemasons of the Caribbean on the Atlas Obscura website:
"When Haiti won its independence, and utterly abolished slavery at the end of the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution, Masonry was so ingrained into local culture that the all-black revolutionary government inherited the Craft amongst their other spoils of war.

"François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the former slave who led the revolutionary forces against the French, is himself reputed to have been a devout freemason. His own signature seems to attest to the fact, with its combination of two lines and three dots that mimic a popular Masonic shorthand symbol of the time. In fact, some sources claim that Masonry was so integral to Haitian culture and leadership, than any president of the country who was not a Mason prior to office was ordained on the occasion of their election.
"Meanwhile another of Haiti’s founding fathers, Jean-Jacques Dessalines — the self-styled “Emperor Jacques I of Haiti” — was similarly invested in the Craft. The National Museum of History, in the center of Port-au-Prince, houses artifacts such as the slave-turned-emperor’s own sword and scabbard, clearly engraved with square and compass motifs..."
Freemasonry today prospers on Haiti,. The Grand Orient d'Haiti currently lists 50 lodges with 9,700 members on its rolls, and they are widely recognized around the world as regular. They are currently recognized by all US and Canadian grand lodges, and the UGLE.

For a more personal description and photos of the New York exhibition, also have a look at The Art of Haitian Freemasonry by 'acorngrove' on the Steemit site HERE.

The Clemente Center is located at 107 Suffolk Street in New York City. The exhibition runs until June 23rd.


  1. I have inherited an extensive collection of Haitian Masonic books that a serious or casual collector should look at.

  2. Dear Ms Nancy,
    I'm interested in your collection of Haitian Masonic books that you are inherited.


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