A Hidden History: Black Freemasons in 19th-Century Brazil

Note from BBT: The text below is this blog’s second piece that approaches the question of black Brazilian freemasons and as more information is coming out on the topic, there will surely be more intriguing details about Afro-Brazilians involved in this secret society. When I consider the history of African-Americans joining the ranks of freemasonry, learning about the Afro-Brazilian experience in the order, the possible similarities and differences are very intriguing to me as well as any objectives that may not be so readily apparent.

As most even slightly familiar with the history of oppression of black people in the United States know, racism and segregation were shameful realities for non-whites. With this history, knowing that black Americans entered freemasonry via all-black lodges due to American segregation should come as no surprise for people willing to understand the true history of the United States beyond the watered down history most of us receive through the school system.

As I’ve known for years, simply because we all believe something to be true after hearing something drilled into out minds over and over and over again, it doesn’t automatically make it true. This applies to much of history as we know as well as current medical debates that we’ve been hearing for oh, say, a little over a year and a half.

For years, myself and millions of African-Americans have been told who our heroes and sheroes are, and, for the most part, many of us have never questioned this. But what happens when the people that is presented in front of us as fighters for our cause are actually part of a sinister group who have pledged to deceive and help to, in fact, keep us in “our place’’?

What happens when the very same leaders that we have posted on our walls and have celebrated during certain months and in a general manner are actually working on the other team? That’s ultimately a reality for each of us to decide on this should be dealt with. But like I’ve always maintained, you must be sure to analyze the facts and conclusions that you’ve been told or that you believe and be willing to accept opposite conclusions when they go against your beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to prove this.

With that background, when I was introduced to the area of freemasonry in Brazil, I appproached the topic with skepticism because of my own understanding of the topic. Thus, when I learned that certain prominent black Brazilian historical figures were also freemasons, I started to wonder if these secret society members had anything in common with prominent black American historical figures who were freemasons.

With the limited information I have at this point, it’s difficult to come to any full conclusions. One of the main reasons I say this is because when dealing with the histories of black people in the United States  and Brazil, we must understand that while there certaintly are similarities in the histories of the two groups, there are also important differences.

In the same way that one cannot look at the history of legal segregation in the US and its absence in Brazil and come to conclusion that the latter must be a society that is free from racial oppression, we cannot look at the experience of prominent blacks involved in freemasonry in both countries and automatically conclude that the experiences and objetives were completely identical.

Again, this is how I’m seeing this topic at this point with the information I have about Afro-Brazilian freemasons. I won’t make any assumptions at this point and will continue to delve into the topic. With that said, let’s take a look at another article that discusses the involvement of prominent Afro-Brazilians in a secret society that has been at the center of speculation for decades.

A Hidden History: Black Freemasons in 19th-Century Brazil

By Renata Ribeiro Francisco

When we refer to the social insertion of black, free and freed men, in the time of the Empire of Brazil, we quickly think of sponsorship arrangements. It doesn’t take a very close study to find some examples of this model of social survival. The social survival of free-born black men depended on the establishment of sociability ties, which enabled them to circulate in certain spaces. And, even taking advantage of such social arrangements, which seemed to be efficient, we observe that the effective entry of Freemasonry in Brazil at the beginning of the 19th century collaborated in a certain sense for the modernization of these relations.

Freemasonry carried in itself elements of this model of sociability, as it was a society of mutual help, initiatory, plus other elements such as ritual and secrecy shared by those who join it. There we had a kind of “Masonic patronage”, a novelty that would attract, in a great way, young students, beginning careerists, well-born, but also well-off men, from the less privileged classes. The possibilities envisioned in Freemasonry would also attract important black characters such as Francisco Gê Acaiaba Brandão de Montezuma (1794-1870); Joaquim Saldanha Marinho (1816-1895), Luiz Gama (1830-1882), José do Patrocínio (1853-1905), Eutíquio Pereira da Rocha (1820-1880) and many others, whose Masonic ethnic identities were not revealed to us.

The fact is that for these black men constantly concerned with being at the forefront of new currents of thought, such as republicanism, anticlericalism and abolitionism, of European and North American inspiration, Freemasonry served as a mainstay of their ambitions. It brings together people with different political positions, consolidating itself as a space for dialogue, an environment conducive to discussion. Therefore, these men soon tried to incorporate themselves into this organizational format. There, they didn’t face the social barriers they experienced outside the Masonic circle, they would find space to embrace their political and social banners, since “Freemasonry was a place for the circulation of ideas and learning of modern practices such as: the choice of members, election for Masonic positions, the debate between peers and deliberation,” as noted by Françoise Jean de Oliveira Souza and Marco Morel, in the book O poder da maçonaria, meaning ‘the power of freemasonry’. The story of a secret society in Brazil.

There is no doubt that for black men, composing the framework of a Masonic lodge had a much broader meaning than for the other members, given the fact that these men, invariably, were on the margins of other existing spaces of sociability. In fact, this apparently did not reproduce itself in the Masonic circle, where the color of the brother would not be an issue in question determining his possibilities of binding and acting.

Luiz Gama’s experience of rejection at the São Paulo Law Academy illustrates this sentiment well. The abolitionist was denied enrollment in the educational institution. There were countless occasions on which Gama mentioned this episode with some bitterness, making use of the phrase “intelligence repels scrolls”. This feeling of social mutilation, Luiz Gama didn’t carry with him, he shared it with the general public via newspaper articles or through his poems, published in his book Primeiras Trovas Burlescas de Getulino, from 1859, republished two years later.

Luiz Gama – Source: Arquivo Nacional / Fundo Correio da Manhã

With José do Patrocínio, the manifestations of prejudice were no different. The son of an enslaved woman and a priest, the Freemason had a small network of contacts inherited from his father. Taking advantage of this network of sociability, Patrocínio entered the Faculty of Medicine, in Rio de Janeiro, with the aim of graduating in medicine, but due to numerous persecutions he didn’t obtain sufficient grades to obtain the desired degree. Patrocínio only obtained a degree in pharmacist. Another episode of prejudice experienced by Patrocínio occurred during the abolitionist campaign, having been recalled by Olégário Mariano in his inaugural speech at the Academia Brasileira de Letras in 1927. He, then, in one of his speeches before an audience also made up of slavers, was called “Cynic Black”; to which he replied: “When God gave me the color of Othello, it was so that I would be jealous of my race!”

José do Patrocínio – Source: Arquivo Nacional / Fundo Correio da Manhã

According to Margaret Jacob, the Masonic Enlightenment proposed that “natural equality” be replaced by individual merit and human rights. Therefore, it would be prohibited in Masonic space to have distinction by race, color, religion or social origin between the brothers. Everyone should be seen as equal and, when initiated to Freemasonry, the brothers should abandon the differences imposed by society and move forward considering only the talents and virtues of their brothers. Thus, the position or prestige that the brother might acquire along his Masonic trajectory would depend strictly on his abilities.

This would allow a man without possessions, outside of Freemasonry, to occupy prestigious positions within the Masonic circle, such as that of venerable, first watchman, second watchman, orator and treasurer. Within Freemasonry the hierarchical position of an individual was determined according to Masonic degrees, followed according to the rites adopted by their respective lodges. The Ancient and Accepted Scottish rite, brought and spread by Montezuma, was the most professed. Divided into 33 degrees, each conferred a level of wisdom and status on the brother. Possibilities of occupying positions within the lodge were also determined by Masonic degrees, a newly initiated Mason couldn’t compete for positions of importance in the workshop: venerable, 1st and 2nd watchman, orator, treasurer.

The discussion of Masonic racism revolved around Masonic lodges in the United States of America, which broke with the universalizing and egalitarian principles of Freemasonry by refusing the entry of blacks into society. The American Masonic orders imposed racial restrictions because they believed that whites were superior to blacks, which was more than enough reason for these men not to cross paths in the Masonic space, as was already happening in the profane space.

American Masonic lodges, especially those in the South, reproduced in Masonic space the racial segregation present in American society, subverting the universal principles of Freemasonry in defense of equality and fraternity between brothers, regardless of color and origin. This would have generated a mobilization of several International Orders that were concerned with the way in which the United States lodges acted towards their initiates.

Joaquim Saldanha Marinho – Source: Célia Maria Marinho de Azevedo. ‘Maçonaria, Anti-racismo e Cidadania: uma história de lutas e debates transnacionais’. São Paulo: Annablume, 2010, p.78.

Founder of the Order of the Benedictines and its Grand Master, Saldanha Marinho, a black man, had full powers to impose his will on the Order of the Benedictines, so that the choice to remain alongside the French Grand Orient, on the one hand, denoted the desire to enforce the true Masonic principles of equality and fraternity, on the other hand, demonstrated the will to defend Freemasonry as a space for the exercise of citizenship by black men. If the North American lodges were efficient in instituting racism in their workshops, how could one not suppose that such distortions didn’t take on international proportions and reached Brazilian Masonic orders and lodges? At that point, Freemasonry in Brazil had become a space for building citizenship for black men.

Its positions considered radical could be observed in the exercise of its functions. Parallel to his political career, Saldanha Marinho acted in defense of the enslaved, defended the immediate end of slavery, favored the initiation of black men, born free and freed, in the Masonic Order he had created and of which he was Grand Master.

The same radicalism that took over Saldanha Marinho could also be felt in the words and actions of another black man, Eutíquio Pereira da Rocha. Father Eutíquio was one of the most important Masons at the Harmonia Lodge, located in the state of Pará. We know that he was editor-in-chief of the Masonic newspaper O Pelicano, a periodical with wide circulation in Pará in the 1870s. In addition to being an editor, Rocha was the author of several articles that were published in several newspapers in Pará and Bahia, his birthplace. The controversial writings had as their main target the Catholic Church. Although he was a priest, he became one of the main defenders of the secular state and as a Freemason he questioned the Church’s prohibition on burying non-Catholics and Freemasons in public cemeteries.

Like other black Masons, Eutychius suffered “color prejudice”. In the political clashes he had with the Pará’s elite, he received pejorative nicknames, such as ‘African’, which in the second half of the 19th century was synonymous with an individual lacking citizenship. Rocha, in addition to being critical of the Church, was against slavery. If, in the various spaces of sociability, Eutychio was not well accepted, within the Masonic circle, he occupied the most important positions in the organization (venerable, first watchman, second watchman, among others).

The operation of the lodge depended on the distribution of positions. After the election and the inauguration ritual, the chosen brothers assumed their posts and deliberated on the Masonic sessions. In the election of 1874, it was when Luiz Gama assumed the position of venerable for the first time, repeating the experience in the years of 1876, 1878, 1879, 1880, 1881 and 1882. His performance at the América lodge was known both inside and outside the Masonic circle. He never hid his affiliation with Freemasonry and, at the time of his resignation as an amanuensis, tried to evoke it. By revealing his Masonic identity Luiz Gama was concerned with informing his enemies that he was not alone in his actions and that he had the support and protection of the Masonic organization.

This Masonic associativism served as a showcase for Luiz Gama’s political projects and, at the same time, assured the black mason the possibility of exercising his citizenship. It was through his talents and virtues that he was able to occupy the most important positions in the lodge. Luiz Gama’s personal trajectory differed from the other black Freemasons we’ve dealt with so far, since Gama lived firsthand the experience of illegal slavery, a condition in which he found himself immersed in the ambition and neglect of his own father, who sold him as slave in order to pay off his gambling debts. Luiz Gama was born in Bahia in 1830, he was the son of a free African woman and a well-off Portuguese man. In addition to having to deal with color prejudice like other black men, Gama still suffered from the experience of having lived for 7 years as a captive, two social stigmas that seemed to have no relevance in Masonic space.

Freemasonry was seen not only as a space of sociability that propelled social and symbolic ascension, but also as a place to implement political and social flags. Socially marginalized, black men such as Saldanha Marinho, José do Patrocínio, Eutíquio Pereira da Rocha, José Ferreira de Menezes and Luiz Gama found in Freemasonry space for social and moral survival, which they often didn’t find elsewhere.

Source: Geledés

About Marques Travae 3708 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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