Maverick Cork ruler won place in hearts of locals

Hong Kong Letter: Sir John Pope Hennessy never quite adjusted to empire’s rules

Pedestrians and shoppers in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, which is linked to Queensway by Hennessy Street, named after Corkman Sir John Pope Hennessy, eighth governor of Hong Kong between 1877 and 1882.  Photograph: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Pedestrians and shoppers in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, which is linked to Queensway by Hennessy Street, named after Corkman Sir John Pope Hennessy, eighth governor of Hong Kong between 1877 and 1882. Photograph: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 01:00

Taking the “ding ding” tram along Hennessy Street in Wan Chai, a busy thoroughfare connecting Queensway and Causeway Bay in the west, you see a street packed with people, brimming with life and sheer exuberance in the way only Hong Kong can be.

The road is named after a Cork man, Sir John Pope Hennessy, eighth governor of Hong Kong between 1877 and 1882, who managed to rub most interest groups up the wrong way during most of his time as a colonial administrator. He continued to do so in what was then the Crown colony of Hong Kong.

A caricature of the time emphasises his pronounced nose and long upper lip, and he was considered by many to be vain and pompous.

Certainly his belief in improving the lot of indigenous people was matched by an incompetence that had led to war against the Ashanti on Africa’s Gold Coast. Photographs show a thoughtful expression on the face of the young governor, who arrived in Hong Kong on the Zambesi in 1877.

Catholic

Born in 1834 and educated at Queen’s College Cork, Hennessy was a maverick within the colonial service, a Catholic Irishman who came from Anglo-Irish stock but never quite adjusted himself to the empire’s rules.

He was an Irish Conservative MP for King’s County – now Offaly – from 1859 to 1865. While others quaked at the impertinence of the mutineers, Hennessy urged reform during a speech to the House of Commons after the doomed Sepoy mutiny against British rule in India in 1857. His belief in respect for the people known generally at the time as “natives” followed him throughout his colonial administrative postings, to Sierra Leone, Barbados and then to Hong Kong.

He and his entourage landed in the wrong end of town, the malarial west, a bad omen, described vividly in Stephanie Williams’s terrific book Running the Show: The Extraordinary Stories of the Men who Governed the British Empire.

He soon realised just how important the Chinese were to the economy of Hong Kong. Given how Hong Kong Chinese have become such giants in the global property business, and how important real estate is to the Hong Kong economy, it seems incredible that it took a nationalist-leaning Cork aristocrat to lift a ban on Chinese people buying land or constructing buildings in the central district.

Trading houses

This was a city run by the taipans of the giant trading houses, the hongs, such as Jardine Matheson or Swires, and Hennessy did not make himself popular by rocking the boat. He also allowed Chinese immigrants in Hong Kong to naturalise as British subjects and appointed the first Chinese member to the legislative council, his friend Ng Choy. He also introduced a ban on the public flogging of Chinese criminals.

Hennessy married a famous beauty, Elizabeth Low, daughter of a governor in the Malay peninsula. Their fractious relationship was the talk of Hong Kong, and used as ammunition against him by the foreign business community, furious at how he favoured the Chinese.

This disfavour meant that he didn’t get a street named after him until June 1929, when Hennessy Road, on reclaimed land, was named after the governor. He also has streets named for him in Mauritius and India. While the Europeans resented him, his was the only statue erected by public subscription, a sign of how the Chinese valued his contribution.

Hennessy believed there were three keys to success – audacity, audacity and audacity. He never lacked for audacity, though tact was not his strong suit.

It was certainly an audacious move when tens of thousands of people took to the streets of downtown Hong Kong in July last , on the 17th anniversary of the territory’s reversion to Chinese rule, waving banners saying “Say No to Communist China”, calling for Beijing to allow voting on a broad level in Hong Kong.

For such a colourful character, there is little information about Hennessy. After he died, Kitty turned to spiritualism, and following a Ouija board’s instructions, burned her husband’s library and all of their private papers.

But Hennessy’s legacy is still in evidence in the freewheeling, über-capitalist enclave that is Hong Kong today.

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