Hennessy, Sir John Pope (1834–91), politician and colonial governor, was born 8 August 1834 in Cork, probably at 4 Mount Verdon Terrace, third son in the family of five sons and three daughters of John Hennessy (d. 1867), who traded as a hide merchant in Pope's Quay and whose father, Bryan, had been in the butter trade, and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of another Cork butter merchant, Henry Casey. A forebear, James Bryan Hennessy, had married into the family of Pope of Riverdale and Causeway, Co. Kerry. A belief of the Hennessys of Cork was that they were descended from the Hennessys of Ballyhennessy, a townland near Ballybunion, Co. Kerry. Another was that they were related to the Hennessys of the French brandy firm of that name.
Education and early political career John Pope Hennessy was educated privately at Blarney before going to QCC, where he studied diligently (eventually obtaining a first-class degree in medicine), socialised (though he was virtually a teetotaller), and, as a catholic angry with the liberals over the Ecclesiastical Titles Act, became a strong tory. On 18 May 1855 he left Cork for London to continue his studies in medicine, having been recommended for a commission in the Indian army medical service. Intelligent, industrious, handsome, charming, astute, audacious, and ambitious, but lacking money, influential relations, and friends, he abandoned medicine while in London, obtained a clerkship in the privy council office, courted politicians, and in his spare time read law at the Inner Temple.
In May 1859, though only twenty-four, hard-up (his salary had risen from £80 to only £120 in three and a half years), and hardly known in Ireland, Hennessy resigned his position, stood for parliament in King's Co. (Offaly) as a conservative, and topped the poll. Already he had studied Hansard, practised public speaking at the Westminster Debating Society, joined the Stafford Club (a tory club frequented by catholics), and published a pamphlet attacking whig education policy in Ireland. Thus he became the first catholic to be elected to parliament as a conservative. Doors normally closed were opened to him as an MP and soon he was a protégé of Disraeli and destined for high office. In the house of commons he was a diligent member who showed reforming zeal and advocated catholic causes both English and Irish. With John Aloysius Blake (qv) and John Francis Maguire (qv) he supported the Irish tenant farmers. Conspicuously he took up the cause of the Poles under Russian rule, which made him popular and secured him an audience with the Emperor Napoleon III and Emperor Francis Joseph (1863). When visiting the continent he made friends with Montalembert and Baron de Rothschild, and was so highly regarded by the papal chamberlain, Cardinal de Mérode, that, much to the disgust of the catholic archbishop of Dublin, Paul Cullen (qv), who found him too artful and independent, he was asked to present papal silver medals to men who had served in the Irish brigade in the papal army (1860).
At the general election of July 1865 Hennessy was defeated by only six votes, partly perhaps because of opposition from catholic priests, partly because he had not paid his expenses at the previous election. An attempt to reenter parliament at a by-election in Co. Wexford was unsuccessful (November 1866). The local catholic bishop, Thomas Furlong (1802–75), pronounced his protestant opponent, also standing as a conservative, Arthur Macmorrough Kavanagh (qv), to be much less ‘objectionable’ (Hoppen, 315–16). Hennessy's impecuniousness persisted; as an MP he was able to obtain almost unlimited credit without fear of a debtors’ prison. Although he was called to the English bar (18 November 1861) he seems not to have practised and certainly did not make much money from the law. An attempt to marry an heiress ended in his arrest for debt (April or May 1866). He was eventually rescued from his financial difficulties by Disraeli, chancellor of the exchequer in Lord Derby's third administration (June 1866 to February 1868), who recommended him for the governorship of Labuan, a bizarre, Gilbertian island colony off the coast of Borneo.
Colonial postings In Labuan (which he reached on 20 November 1867 and finally left in September 1871) Hennessy quarrelled publicly with his subordinates and won the respect of the indigenous population by reforms and favouritism. This he was also to do at subsequent postings – Sierra Leone (1872–3), Bahamas (1873–4), Barbados (1875–6), Hong Kong (1877–82), and Mauritius (1883–9). As newly arrived governor of Labuan he liberated prisoners from jail, laid the first stone of a Chinese school, and unprecedentedly entertained the principal inhabitants, Chinese, Malay, and Indian, at Government House – all gestures of a kind that were to typify his career as a colonial governor. With the treasurer of the colony, Hugh Low, whose daughter, Catherine Elizabeth (1850–1923), known as Kitty, a native of the island (though educated in Europe) and granddaughter of a Malay woman, he married (4 February 1868), Hennessy disagreed over administrative and personal matters, as a result of which Low was reprimanded by the Colonial Office and Hennessy reproved. When Hennessy arrived back in London (December 1871) he found that he had pleased the permanent under-secretary of state for the colonies, Robert Herbert, by replacing the military garrison with native policemen, thus saving the war office £12,000 p.a. and leaving Labuan apparently financially self-supporting. He was therefore appointed governor-in-chief of small British settlements (little more than trading posts) in West Africa – Sierra Leone, Gambia, the Gold Coast, and Lagos.
Soon after arriving at Freetown, Sierra Leone (27 February 1872), Hennessy began improving the sanitation of the town, suspended his colonial secretary for striking an African messenger, and urged the Colonial Office to appoint Africans to administrative positions. Diligently he visited the other settlements in turn, but immediately quarrelled with the administrators of Cape Coast and Lagos; he appointed an educated African civil administrator of Elmina (a Dutch factory just ceded to England) and promoted two Irish catholics. Undoubtedly he was popular in Sierra Leone, where Africans petitioned the Colonial Office for him to stay on and where for many years after his departure (16 February 1873) ‘Pope Hennessy day’ was celebrated. Back in London he was blamed by some for the outbreak of war with the Ashanti. At the Colonial Office, however, he was still well regarded and so, after a month or two in Ireland, he left for the Bahamas to take up a new governorship, landing at Nassau (27 May 1873). During his twelve months or so there he reformed the police force, amended prison rules, and drew up a scheme for imposing taxes on luxuries while removing them from necessities, thus benefiting the poor black population and endearing himself to them. He left the Bahamas (22 June 1874) some months after the return to power of Disraeli and the appointment of Hennessy's old friend Lord Carnarvon as secretary of state for the colonies.
Hennessy learned in September that he was to be appointed governor of the Windward Islands. The salary (£4,000 p.a.) enabled him, before leaving for the West Indies (October 1875), to purchase the house at Youghal, Co. Cork, once lived in by Sir Walter Ralegh (qv) and later called Myrtle Grove. The governor's seat was on Barbados, an island socially and politically divided between well-to-do whites and poor blacks. Hennessy antagonised the former by seeming to promote integration of the five islands in the British Windward group (or ‘federation’) and pleased the latter by visiting, on his second day, the local prison and abolishing flogging by asking the Barbados legislature (dominated by whites) to amend the Master and Servant Act, and by giving the poor private audiences at Government House. A speech he made to the house of assembly precipitated a public demonstration in his favour by blacks (3 March 1876) and led to rioting (18–23 April). The house of assembly petitioned the Colonial Office and Hennessy was transferred to Hong Kong. Having left Barbados (December), he retired briefly to Ireland, where he received the freedom of the city of Cork (3 March 1877).
Hong Kong was considered by the Colonial Office to be in little need of reform and so to offer Hennessy little scope for arousing opposition. But soon after his arrival (23 April 1877) he began investigating the work and abilities of all his subordinate staff and reporting on them to the Colonial Office. Towards the Chinese, whom he had greatly admired in Labuan (1867–71), he was indulgent – he not only suspended public flogging and improved prison conditions but managed to get two Asians, a Chinese barrister as well as an Indian, appointed (unprecedentedly) to the legislative council. With subordinates, even with confidants, he quarrelled, and eventually the Colonial Office, less supportive than previously, recalled him. Sir John Pope Hennessy – he was created KCMG in April 1880 – left Hong Kong on 9 March 1882, supposedly on leave. Back in London he was offered, and accepted, the governorship of Queensland, but, the Australian colonists objecting to a catholic, he was appointed instead to Mauritius (8 December 1882), his catholicism being considered by the secretary of state, Lord Kimberley, to be a qualification for the governorship of that Indian Ocean island with a large catholic population.
Mauritius and last years Hennessy disembarked at Port Louis on 18 June 1883. Quickly, he and his wife (who spoke French well, having attended school in Switzerland) became popular among all sections but one of the population. The catholic and French-speaking Créoles (whites) and coloureds, whose families had settled on the island before the arrival of the British, had long felt culturally threatened as well as politically excluded; the Indians, who were mainly sugar plantation labourers, were downtrodden, as were many coloureds. All these groups were supported by, and favoured, Hennessy. The handful of English officials and English settlers, however, came to dislike him. Several members of his inner circle eventually fell out with him: the commander-in-chief of the East India squadron; the commander of the military garrison; the Créole elder statesman and council member Célicourt Antelme; the catholic bishop, William Scarisbrick, an Englishman; and his colonial secretary, Charles Bruce, who obtained a transfer. Hennessy saw many similarities between Mauritius and Ireland. On a public occasion he declared ‘the Mauritians, like the Irish, [have] felt the heavy hand of the English’ (Pope-Hennessy, Verandah, 258). Ignoring instructions from the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Derby, he accepted proposals from a constitutional reform committee for a new legislative council to be elected on a wide franchise, to which the liberal-minded Derby agreed (April 1884). Much deliberation by Mauritian politicians resulted in a franchise even wider than originally envisaged and elections were held in January 1886.
Three weeks later a new colonial secretary arrived in Mauritius, a protestant Irishman, well known as a resident magistrate, who had actively opposed the land agitation in Ireland, Charles Dalton Clifford Lloyd (qv). Antipathy between the two officials led to a formal inquiry by another Irishman, the governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Hercules Robinson (qv), into the affairs of Mauritius, particularly Hennessy's alleged Créole partisanship, persecution of English officials, and leniency to prisoners and criminals. Hennessy was suspended (13 December 1886) and recalled (February or March 1887). The ultimate victory was Hennessy's, however, as the secretary of state decided, after his return, that there had been insufficient ground for the recall and that he should be reinstated (12 July). While in Europe, Hennessy brought a successful libel action against The Times – not settled till November 1888 – and, aspiring to a peerage, purchased Rostellan castle overlooking Cork harbour; as students he and his friend Justin McCarthy (qv) had wandered around its woods. His return to Mauritius (22 December 1888) was marked by popular jubilation. Twelve months later he left finally, retired from the colonial service and returned to Ireland.
Throughout his career Hennessy maintained a profound interest in, and personal connection with, his native land – his house in Mauritius was littered with books and pamphlets on Irish home rule. On the recommendation of McCarthy he was accepted as Irish nationalist party candidate in the Kilkenny North by-election by the party's leader, Charles Stewart Parnell (qv). Two weeks before the election was due the party split over the O'Shea divorce case. Hennessy joined the anti-Parnellite faction led by McCarthy (9 December 1890), disingenuously giving his reasons as ‘independence of English parties, working with the Irish members and acting on the advice of the Irish prelates’ (Larkin, Fall of Parnell, 239). Although he was victorious over the Parnellite candidate (by 2,527 votes to 1,362) and once more able to attend the house of commons, the damp and cold of a hard-fought winter campaign in Co. Kilkenny had affected his health, which declined steadily. He died 7 October 1891 at Rostellan, of tropical anaemia.
Assessment and legacy Sir John Pope Hennessy (who was also a papal knight) was the most unconventional, controversial, and popular British colonial governor in the nineteenth century. In Mauritius he was also the most important, as he brought about reforms that improved the position of all ethnic groups and introduced a large measure of democracy, reforms that no other governor would have attempted. Although as an adult he spent little time in Ireland, his Irish and catholic upbringing were a formative influence on his attitudes and ideas. Hennessy contributed to the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the Contemporary Review, Nineteenth Century, the Philosophical Magazine, and Subjects of the Day; he wrote several pamphlets including The failure of the Queen's Colleges and of mixed education in Ireland (1859), Napoleon III and the Rhine (1866), and Lord Beaconsfield's Irish policy (1885); he was the author of a book for which he collected material after acquiring his house at Youghal, Sir Walter Raleigh in Ireland (1883). His article, ‘What do the Irish read?’ in Nineteenth Century (xv, 1884, 920–32), shows a keen literary interest.
Hennessy's papers and photographs were held by his grandson and biographer, James Pope-Hennessy (1916–74). A statue of him was erected by public subscription in the Place d'Armes, Port Louis (twenty years after he had left Mauritius for good), and a principal street was renamed for him. There is (or was) a full-length portrait of Hennessy by Avice du Buisson (1885) in the Hôtel de Ville, Port Louis. John Pope Hennessy was one (of possibly several) prototypes of Anthony Trollope's (qv) Phineas Finn, the Irish member (1869). Before his marriage he had two daughters, Stella Beatrice and Mary Teodora, by a woman whose surname was Conyngham. With his wife, Kitty, he had three sons: John (1869–72), Ladislaus Herbert Richard (1875–1942), and Hugh (b. 1885). The second son, known as ‘Bertie’, wrote a pamphlet on Irish affairs, The Irish dominions: a method of approach to a settlement (1919), and became a major general in the army. One of Sir John Pope Hennessy's brothers, Bryan, was editor of the Cork Southern Reporter; another was Henry Hennessy (qv).