Sunday, April 1, 2012

José Antonio Aponte - Afro-Cuban Revolutionary & Freemason

The history of freemasonry in Cuba has been tragic, violent, and in spite of that, at times amazingly resilient. Most of it's fortunes and misfortunes have been tied to the political climate in which it found itself.

In more than 200 years of Masonic history only a third of that time represented periods of relative peace and freedom. On December 17, 1804, the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania issued a charter for Le Temple des Vertus Theogales, No. 103, in Havana, with Joseph Cemeau as its first Master.

As a result of the Slave-led revolution in Haiti, between 1793 and 1810, three Lodges originally constituted in what was the former French colony of Saint Domingue, were reorganized in Santiago de Cuba and in other cities in eastern Cuba. These original lodges, at least one of which had been founded by Estienne Morin, did not last long in Cuba. Freemasonry was officially illegal in Spain and its colonies, and although it often managed to flourish in spite of this prohibition, at this particular point the leaders in Cuba were extremely mistrustful of French in general, Haitians in particular, and Freemasonry's reputation for fomenting revolutionary ideas. This quickly led to these Freemasons being at the head of the line of French and Haitian citizens who were quickly expelled from Cuba.

In Havana, Cerneau was unceremoniously deported to the United States by 1806. His only apparent crimes were being a French former resident of the neighboring island and a Freemason. The Lodges in eastern Cuba were dispersed in 1808. Many of the members of these formerly Haitian Lodges found their way to New Orleans by the following year. On October 7, 1810, two of these Lodges amalgamated as Concord Lodge, No. 117, under the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, who also granted a charter to Pe­severance Lodge, No. 118.

While it is doubtful whether Cerneau or the leaders of the other Haitian Lodges originating from Morin's tradition were sympathetic to the Haitian Revolution, the fears of the Spanish authorities in Spain apparently were not unwarranted. Many Africans and Creoles in Cuba - both slave and free were swift to embrace both the teachings of Haitian Freemasons and the Haitian Revolution, whose leaders had mostly been Freemasons themselves.

One of these was the sculptor and artist, José Antonio Aponte who led an aborted attempt at revolution in 1812, which was directly traceable to the example and influence of Haiti. His attempted uprising was repressed with relentless severity, the leader and eight accomplices meeting death by hanging. His head was left to rot at the Havana Street Corner which was the site of his capture. His models included Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe.

In his possession they found a book of drawings and paintings, which was used as evidence against him in the trial. The book itself appears to have been destroyed, but the trial records give us a description of the pictures, and these descriptions strongly suggest that Haiti and its Masonic leaders were his main sources of inspiration.

It is not a long stretch to assume that part of the motive behind Albert Pike's ferocious attacks against Cerneau and his version of the Scottish Rite (which by any rational analysis was no more questionable in its origins that that of the Charleston group) was his supposed connection with revolutionary Haiti. It is clear from most 19th Century North American accounts of Cerneau's life that the Anglophone Masonic community had no knowledge of why Cerneau was made to leave Cuba.

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