‘A Stormy Petrel’: Hong Kong Governor John Pope Hennessy

‘A Stormy Petrel’: Hong Kong Governor John Pope Hennessy
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
What you need to know

P. Kevin MacKeown's biography 'A Stormy Petrel' (City University of Hong Kong, 2020) argues for John Pope Hennessy as a character full of contradictions, bridling against his historical circumstances but never quite transcending them.

The only physical vestiges of British colonial governor John Pope Hennessy in Hong Kong, other than a street or public space named after him, is the foliage. He pioneered a reforestation campaign, planting over a million trees along the avenues and hillsides.

This longevity contrasts with Pope Hennessy’s short-lived political vision. He was neither an especially effective political operator nor an anti-colonial visionary. His plans were typically flustered by his ease at making enemies or, more often, just the structures of colonial rule.

The biographer P. Kevin MacKeown’s purpose in A Stormy Petrel is not so much restoring Pope Hennessy’s reputation as an important historical figure but an appreciation of him as a fascinating character. He makes for an intriguing comparison with Carrie Lam, as she likewise makes decisions with an eye toward their reception in a distant capital.

Pope Hennessy was born in 1834 in County Cork, Ireland. Although in some sense Pope Hennessy was born a colonial subject, he never fundamentally questioned the British Empire. He worshipped the stalwart of the Conservative Party Benjamin Disraeli. Even the “Home Rule” movement for Ireland he supported at the end of his career, MacKeown reminds us, did not advocate independence, but greater autonomy under the crown.

Being of Irish landed gentry lineage, he was just enough of an outsider to climb socially, also just enough of an insider to imagine his success. He arrived in London in the 1850s eager to make his name and won a seat as a Conservative member of parliament within a few years. What he lacked in cold political calculation he made up for in his ability to charm his way into advantageous positions.

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Photo Credit: City University of Hong Kong Press

Like a hero out of a novel from his era, he ascended to the corridors of power, giving speeches in parliament and conducting diplomacy in Europe at an extremely young age, but soon bottoms out dramatically when he loses his reelection bid and goes bankrupt. He is saved by a patroness in the aristocracy who secures him the position of colonial governor of Labuan in what is today Malaysia.

MacKeown gives credit where credit is due to his pre-Hong Kong accomplishments in gesturing at goodwill and equality in personal dealings with colonial subjects, but pulls no punches when he calls Pope Hennessy a “political neophyte,” blundering into a colonial war while posted to West Africa.

His mixed record presages Pope Hennessy’s tenure as Governor of Hong Kong, beginning in 1877. He makes some progress on abolishing the worst forms of torture, and supports, in principle at least, local Hong Kong participation on the Legislative Council — though it didn’t happen during his term.

Overshadowing his accomplishments was the everyday indignities and outright abominations of colonialism that went on unabated during his time in office, such as the “night pass” curfew system on Hongkongers and domestic slavery. MacKeown’s biography would have benefited from more elaboration on the economic exploitation at the heart of British colonialism, the economic basis beneath the palace intrigue so assiduously recounted.

The governor’s downfall comes after he meets with the powerful Qing dynasty official Li Hongzhang for opium trade negotiations, angering rivals who suspect him of acting independently. He was transferred to a backwater governorship of Mauritius, and then retired to Ireland, dying at 57.

The virtues of Pope Hennessy that MacKeown shows were never given full scope, as the governor had in mind patrons back home and a position in the arena — English politics — that he thought counted the most. Not only Pope Hennessy’s personal virtues were often subsumed, but the sense of a missed historical moment haunts his life story. An Irish child of empire could have been more conscious than he was of the historical role he played and acted more imaginatively.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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