When England took control of Mauritius in 1810, first British governor and Freemason Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar brought unity to the island, writes Mary Allan
On the wall of the Mauritius Turf Club, the oldest turf club in the southern hemisphere, there is a portrait of a man in his prime. He sits framed between winged caryatids. His attire has a faded grandeur, while his expression is subdued, almost quizzical. Around his neck is a blue ribbon from which hangs a masonic jewel. The man is Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar, who in December 1810 became the first British governor of Mauritius after its capitulation by the French.
Born in 1776, Farquhar attended Westminster School, where in 1789 he became a King’s Scholar. Just before his seventeenth birthday, he left formal education and set sail for India, where he took up a position as a writer with the East India Company. It was the beginning of a career that saw him progress rapidly through the company until 1804 when he was installed as Lieutenant Governor of Prince of Wales Island (Penang). In 1810, Farquhar was declared Governor of Mauritius and, apart from one further home leave, spent more than a decade dealing with the problems of an island where French colonial ways continued much as before the British takeover.
Farquhar’s career has proved relatively easy to research but his masonic trail was harder to piece together, not least because it did not begin in India, where lodges were already in existence. Nor did Farquhar join at any other point in the Far East. Instead, he waited until his first home leave, when his brother, Thomas Harvie, an active member of the Lodge of Friendship, No. 3 (now No. 6) proposed his nomination on 11 December 1806. This ancient lodge, constituted in 1721, held its meetings at The Thatched House Tavern, St James’s Street, London, a mere stride from his brother’s No. 16 residence.
Farquhar’s initiation took place on 12 February 1807 and although he rarely attended masonic meetings over the next two years, records show that he went through his second and third degree ceremonies on the same day, 9 February 1809, prior to his return to India. Lodge minutes for May of that year state: ‘Robert Townsend Farquhar having sailed to India was ordered that he be considered an Honorary Member during his absence.’
Members of the lodge included HRH the Duke of Sussex, politicians, bankers and high-ranking military men, several of them noted as ‘abroad’. The lodge’s status is further emphasised by a donation of fifty guineas in 1812 towards a ‘jewel’ for Lord Moira to mark his service as Acting Grand Master.
Was the jewel among Lord Moira’s luggage when he visited Mauritius on his way to take up his new position as Governor-General of India in 1813? Did he wear it on 19 August when he, together with Farquhar and the island’s Freemasons, paraded through the capital, Port Louis, to lay the foundation stone of St Louis Cathedral?
a lodge in his honour
Farquhar had fully embraced the concept of Mauritian fraternity from the moment he stepped ashore on 4 December 1810. By 1816 the first British lodge had been founded, Faith and Loyalty, No. 676, and Farquhar was recognised as Provincial Grand Master.
There is no record of Farquhar attending his lodge when he returned on home leave between 1818 and 1820, but following his resignation from governorship in 1823 he signed the Tyler’s Book of the Lodge of Friendship, No. 3 on 11 December. This was his last appearance at the lodge and his subscription to the United Grand Lodge of England ceased in 1824. In the lodge notes on officers holding high rank, Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar of Bruton Street, London, is listed as Provincial Grand Master of Mauritius. His rank as ProvGM, patented 1811, is confirmed in the Masonic Year Book. This patent was awarded during Lord Moira’s term as Acting Grand Master on behalf of the Prince Regent.
In the 19th century the appointment of a Provincial Grand Master did not presuppose the existence of a lodge or lodges in the county or territory for which he was appointed. There are instances that show that an appointment of a Provincial Grand Master was occasionally simply ‘an honour conferred’ and nothing more. The issue of a Patent of Appointment was almost certainly all that was necessary for Farquhar to be established in the office.
In 2010, to mark the bicentenary of the British takeover of Mauritius and to honour the first British Governor and Provincial Grand Master, the then first Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Mauritius, Lindsay Descombes, consecrated a new lodge, Sir Robert Farquhar Research Lodge, No 16. In his inaugural speech, he saluted Farquhar for bringing unity to Mauritius: ‘History tells us that [Farquhar] did a remarkable job to bring entente cordiale, peace and understanding between the French settlers and the English rulers.’
Sir Robert Townsend Farquhar is the subject of a book, "The Man and the Island" by Michael and Mary Allan, which was published to coincide with the bicentenary of the British takeover of the island