Celebrating 300 years

Freemason and escape artist H J da Costa

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The prince and the fugitive

How did an escaped prisoner become a close associate of the Grand Master at the time of the Grand Union? Kevin L Gest charts the life of H J da Costa

Among the names of men proactive in the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE) during the Grand Union era, there is one moniker that stands out for its individuality: Hipólito José da Costa Pereira Furtado de Mendonça. In masonic literature, he is often referred to simply as H J da Costa – a man with a fascinating story to tell, a man of principle who became the unofficial secretary to the Duke of Sussex, a Prince and Freemason.

Da Costa was born to Portuguese parents in 1774 in the Brazilian settlement of Colonia del Sacramento, now in Uruguay, situated on the banks of the River Plate almost directly across the water from Buenos Aires in Argentina. Graduating in law, mathematics and philosophy, he entered diplomatic service on behalf of Portugal. The US was da Costa’s first diplomatic posting and it was in Philadelphia, where the seat of government was based for an interim period, that he was initiated into Freemasonry.

His diplomatic mission complete, he moved to London, then to Portugal, arriving in Lisbon in 1802. But within a few days there was an ominous knock at the door to his apartment and a magistrate entered with orders to conduct him to prison. The letter from the intendant general of police directed da Costa’s imprisonment and the seizure of his papers, as well as stating endeavours to find on his person, or in his belongings, some masonic decorations.

The motive given for da Costa’s imprisonment was that he had been in England without a valid passport.

Inquisition

Da Costa denied the accusations about the passport, but nevertheless a few hours later found himself locked in a prison cell. Brought before a magistrate, it soon became clear that it was his association with Freemasonry that was of real interest to the authorities, and in particular, the Portuguese Inquisition. Da Costa notes in his autobiography:

‘… amongst my papers were some that were found that gave my persecutors an opportunity of setting aside my pretended crime of a want of passports... my certificate as a Freemason, and other documents relating to Freemasonry. Sensible of no cause for shrinking from such a confession, I did not hesitate for a moment in acknowledging, as soon as I was interrogated, that the certificate was mine, and that I had actually been admitted a Freemason...’

Following further questioning, especially on the subject of his initiation and eminent members he had encountered, da Costa became less cooperative:

‘As there is no law whatever in Portugal that prohibits Freemasonry, it never could have been a crime to be a member of such a society, it being a natural consequence of civil liberty, that every man should enjoy the moral faculty of doing everything that is not prohibited by law.’

Da Costa’s protestations failed to impress the Inquisition and he was returned to prison, in solitary confinement, for the next three years.

‘It soon became clear that it was his association with Freemasonry that was of real interest to the authorities.’

Making an escape

Da Costa ultimately realised that it didn’t matter what he did or said as the Inquisition had decided even before his original arrest that he was guilty of heresy through his membership of Freemasonry and was unlikely to release him at an early date, if ever.

With his health failing, da Costa knew he had to escape but also understood that if he attempted to do so and caused any damage or injury to anyone, his circumstances would change dramatically for the worse should he be recaptured. A lucky break was to come da Costa’s way. He noticed that every night the gaoler threw the keys of the cells on to a table. So using a piece of metal from an old plate he had in his cell, he fashioned a key to the lock on his cell. When the gaoler had retired for the night, da Costa managed to open his cell door and grab the bunch of keys – which contained a key for every door he needed to open to get outside the prison.

Thus, da Costa made his escape without causing any injury or damage. After eluding the search parties, and disguising himself, he escaped from Portugal and headed for England.

During his earlier diplomatic mission to London, da Costa had attended a couple of lodges and he now re-established contact with them. This led to him being introduced to the Duke of Sussex, a Grand Master, who gave him his protection, which in turn led to him assisting in the Lodge of Promulgation for the dissemination of the ceremonial contents of the three primary Craft degrees, and his destiny as Provincial Grand Master of Rutland.

He began writing a memoir of his experiences in prison, and another on the methodologies of the Inquisition. He also started a newspaper for Portuguese and Brazilian citizens living in Britain.

From his study of philosophy, he later produced a paper entitled ‘Sketch for the History of the Dionysian Artificers’. In it, he likened the initiation ceremony of Freemasonry to the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret religious rites of Ancient Greece – a theme that would influence the opinions of many eminent Freemasons in later decades.

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