A Stormy Petrel: The Life and Times of John Pope Hennessy

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Many words have been used to describe John Pope Hennessy, the former governor of Hong Kong. “Controversial” is perhaps the briefest way to outline his character. Yet we may be guilty of ascribing modern ideas to our understanding of characters of the past. An Irish Catholic raised during the age of empire and rising nationalism, a devout Tory and Disraeli follower, a believer in both the benefits of empire and a patron of local talent in his postings, it is easy to view Pope Hennessy as a man of contradictions.

This volume traces Pope Hennessy’s history from his early beginnings in famine Ireland to his attempts to rise through the ranks in London. It goes on to cover his early postings to Labuan, West Africa, and, of course, Hong Kong, as well as his final days with his family. His actions and his personality are laid bare for readers to form their own opinions of one of Hong Kong’s most enigmatic governors.

“As to Sir J. P. Hennessy, the less said the better. His acts speak powerfully enough. The centre of his world was he himself. But with all the crowd of dark and bright powers that were wrestling within him, he could not help doing some good…”

- Dr Ernst Johann Eitel,
Missionary, sinologist, and John Pope Hennessy’s private secretary
Many years ago, I read Verandah, John Pope Hennessy’s grandson’s account of his forefather’s life, and was struck by the singularity of the subject and the merits of the author. To the extent that I would pass on my copy to others in the expectation they would be equally impressed — just as one has to be by biographies of, for example, Ramanujan or Victor Sorge, accounts of lives where fact outdoes fiction. But it was some years later when looking into the development of meteorology in Hong Kong that I came more directly in contact with my subject — the governor — and realized the multidimensional aspects of his career. Somewhat brazenly, I undertook to write my own take on the John Pope Hennessy story, deliberately not revisiting Verandah until near the end, and this book is the result. It is not a substitute for nor a replacement of James Pope-Hennessy’s masterpiece, even less a “post-colonial” appraisal of the events of the time. It cannot but linger on the many controversial episodes in his career, but it also tries to integrate some neglected aspects of Pope Hennessy’s story, such as the deep interest he took in the peoples he governed, and the Irish dimension. At the same time, this work is very much in debt to his grandson’s efforts.

My rejection of a suggested alternative title for the book, A Mick on the Make, indicates the direction in which my sympathies lie — for a potted version of what that book might have been, the reader is directed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Likewise, Not an Inconsiderable Man as a title, in the vein of Gladstone’s diary entry on hearing of Pope Hennessy’s death, might convey too much approval of the subject.

1 In the United Kingdom

2 To the Coalface — Labuan

3 To the Fever Coast — West Africa

4 Balmy Bahamas and Stormy Barbados

5 Opium and Slavery — Hong Kong

6 Towards Home Rule — Mauritius

7 A Tale of Two Kittys — His Final Days

P. Kevin MacKeown, a graduate of University College Dublin and the University of Durham, spent an academic career in research and teaching in physics for over thirty years at the University of Hong Kong, where he remains an honorary professor. In retirement, he has dabbled in colonial history and is the author of the award winning Early China Coast Meteorology (University of Hong Kong Press, 2010).