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
Freemasonry is flourishing in Mauritius with a new Grand Lodge as Michael Allan discovered
On 12 March 2005, the 37th anniversary of National Independence Day, the first Grand Lodge of Mauritius was consecrated and RW Brother Lindsay Descombes was installed as Grand Master. MW Brother Jean-Charles Foellner, Grand Master of the Grande Loge Nationale Française, carried out the Installation. This was the pinnacle of the island’s distinguished history of Freemasonry stretching back more than 200 years.
The week of celebration that followed in the presence of Grand Masters and delegations from four continents, laid the foundation of what is set to be an outward-looking fraternity whilst observing the true traditions of the Craft.
At present, the seven Lodges previously under the banner of the Grande Loge Nationale Française have been transferred to the new Grand Lodge of Mauritius and consequently re-numbered 01 to 07.
The Grand Lodge has defined its Vision, its Mission Statement and its Objectives. The Action Plan’s first priority has been to seek recognition from, and exchange Lodge Representatives with, Grand Lodges in friendly countries. To date some 50 countries have been contacted and recognition received from a dozen.
As a Freemason born in Mauritius, but who has resided in England for the past 45 years, I was delighted and astounded to be made an Honorary Founder Member and a Very Worshipful Brother as Past Grand Deacon. This was in recognition of my recently published historical book, Freemasonry in Mauritius – A Chronological Compilation of Lodges 1778 – 2004, the only complete account of the Craft on the island.
Although when I started my research I had no idea that the formation of a Grand Lodge was under discussion, the book’s publication fortuitously coincided with the consecration. However, it was six months later, in September 2005, that I was at last able to attend my first Lodge meeting in Mauritius.
I was invited to Lodge Louis Auguste Ormières No. 1 and to Friendship Royal Arch Chapter No. 160. This is the only Chapter on the island and is on the Roll of the Supreme Grand Royal Arch Chapter of Scotland.
At Lodge No. 1 they performed a third degree, and I found that it is often customary in Mauritian Lodges for visitors to be announced and admitted well after the minutes of the previous meeting have been read and approved.
The Rite Emulation was the order of the day and it was a pleasure to hear the ceremony in French. Furthermore, I was astonished to find out that it was exactly the way we do it in England, virtually a literal translation. Being bilingual I felt I could easily have stood in for one of the officers.
For the Chapter Installation, the whole procedure was new to me. It was the first time I had witnessed a Scottish Ritual. The Friendship Royal Arch Chapter No. 160 was Chartered on 16 June 1875 and inaugurated in 1879. It became dormant between 1896 and 1918. Amongst the Founder Members and those on the Roll of First Principals were many well-known local Brethren, including early British administrators on the island.
I will forever remember and be most grateful for the warmth and friendship I received on both occasions, and the Festive Board was exceptional. At the end of the meeting a table full of gajacks (Mauritian for tit bits e.g., chilli cakes, samoussas, etc) and drinks greet you, then follows a three-course meal including wine, all for £6!