Posted by: Sam Olsen | September 8, 2012

Popish Strife

It is surely no coincidence that one of Hong Kong’s rowdiest streets, Hennessey Road, is named after the most chaotic Governor in the former colony’s history. To say John Pope Hennessy, who ruled between 1877-83, was divisive would be an understatement to say the least. A thin, pale man with a prominent nose, he managed to alienate his fellow colonialists, fall out with his family and annoy his staff like no one else. He did though make firm friends with the Chinese, whose lives he made strenuous efforts to improve. He would have fitted right in with the chaos and cultural intercourse of Wanchai.


Hennessey, a former Conservative MP and a trained Army doctor, was actually Irish, like a great many of his fellow Governors. He was sent out into the world by the Colonial Office in the wake of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, which had in part been caused by the misrule of the locals by increasingly aloof Britons. Tasked with bringing the two sides closer together, he set about his mission with gusto.


Unfortunately his ambition soared well above his ability, particular in the man-management department. Oblivious to his own imperfections, he came up with scheme after scheme but flitted between them so that none was seen through. His dislike of delegation meant micromanagement was the order of the day, meaning he went through his staff with quite amazing speed.


It wasn’t only his staff that he clashed with. Other members of the Hong Kong establishment couldn’t abide him. The General of the Army contingent went so far as to stop a military band playing for the Queen’s Birthday celebrations the Governor was holding: Hennessy had to send a begging letter to London, who obliged by forcing the General to send his music men. But it wasn’t as if the Governor had any friends back home. Colonial officials were bewildered by Hennessy’s continued refusal to open their missives, let alone act on them. Official commands normally just went in the safe and stayed there – another source of conflict with his staff.


You might have thought that given his professional relationship issues he might have wanted to keep on good terms with his family. Not a bit of it. Referring to his father in law – a fellow colonial professional – as ‘the Plague’ probably didn’t make them bosom buddies. His wife, Kitty, did not appear to be her husband’s biggest fan either. She apparently had her own admirers, which is not a surprise given that her beauty was said to be “out of the ordinary”, according to one contemporary report.


Hennessy: on his own

Indeed, there were rumours that the marriage was not as happy as it might have been. The head of the Hong Kong bar, Thomas Child Hayllar, had previously been an ally of Hennessy’s. But one day he started sending excuses not to join the Governor’s regular boat trips; the slighted host, after one no-show too many, dashed back up to his official residence to find Hallyar reading a book with Mrs H, and in her boudoir. Needless to say this didn’t go down well, especially when it was noticed that they were reading a museum guide – with pictures of naked female statues in. The shock of it must have been seismic.


What happened next was typical for the man. He soon bumped into Hallyar whilst walking on the Peak and immediately started to beat the lawyer with his umbrella. Whilst this may not sound like the most effective weapon, it did leave Hallyar bleeding and almost cost him his eye.


Mrs Hennessy immediately summoned her father to Hong Kong. Now, given his relationship with the Governor, this may sound a little weird. And indeed, Mr Low was soon seen ‘riding in chairs side by side [with Hallyar] jocularly talking together. The upside to this, from Hennessy’s point of view, was that Hallyar was persuaded to drop the case for the sake of Kitty.


Despite the hatred Hennessy generated amongst the incomers, his relations with the Chinese were rather warmer. 1870s Hong Kong was a thoroughly divided colony. 130,000 Chinese lived in the western slopes of Hong Kong Island whilst the 9,000 Europeans inhabited “spacious houses on tree lined streets”. The enmity between the two sides was enormous, both looking down on the other with disdain. It wasn’t for nothing that the locals called the interlopers ‘Gweilos’ (or Gweipors for females) – smelling of sour milk, these foreign devils were a bad lot, often treating them like second-class citizens.


Hennessy decided to stop the unequal treatment of the more numerous contingent of Hong Kong. He attacked the night-pass system – Chinese were only allowed out after 9pm with a lantern and a written permission slip. He then banned public flogging and branding, much to the delight of the local coolies, who started referring to the Governor as ‘Number One Friend’. The Europeans, led by William Keswick, the head of the Jardines trading house, were not too impressed with this, especially as the crime rate started to rocket. The soft on crime approach was soon tested when 80 armed burglars sealed off a street to rob it, beating off the police and making a hasty boat-borne escape.


A public meeting was called. Victoria was now “more unsafe town than any town of the British dominions” – there were obviously no natives of Australia present – and something had to be done. Europeans and Chinese clashed but soon the former had the upper hand, and the Governor was forced to appoint a new Chinese Secretary: bizarrely enough, he was a German philosopher, but Hennessy wasn’t renowned for his predictable decisions.


Queen Victoria was renowned throughout large swathes of the Empire as being on the side of her foreign subjects. At the same time Hennessy was promoting Chinese welfare, farmers in Bengal took up arms against their landlords calling themselves the ‘peasants of the Queen of England’ and believed that she would protect them. Following a similar vein, 2,000 Chinese wrote to Her Majesty praising the Governor’s benevolence: the result was a recalibration of the Hong Kong punishment system to match that of the UK when it came to flogging and branding.


The Governor’s legacy

Hennessy’s promotion of the locals might have been more tolerated by the Europeans if he had had any friends in the colony. His frankly offish behaviour thought meant that the mutterings and conspiracies against him continued for the rest of his tenure.


His time was, mercifully for some, cut short in the fall out from his bashing of Hallyar. The Secretary of State was none-too-amused by the incident and allegations of affairs and lying. Hennessy was advised to depart with haste.


So off went John Pope Hennessy with his wife back home, where he bought a house near Cork and died shortly afterwards. His legacy though was more than just social discord and broken umbrellas. It was Hennessy that planted thousands of trees to turn the original ‘barren rock’ into the verdant isle it is today. An Anglo-Chinese debating society was established, and sanitation was vastly improved, especially in the local quarters. The Chinese prospered under his rule: by the end of his tenure more than 20,000 had moved to the colony, and had replaced all but three European companies as the top ratepayers of the colony.


It took until 1929 for anyone to officially remember him. That they chose to do so with a road full of mayhem is the crowning irony.


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