Monday, October 29, 2012

The Irish Governors of Hong Kong

This post is part of my ongoing research about the life of Sir Thomas Jackson. His story will be included in an upcoming book that I am writing entitled:
The Silver Bowl: The Surprisingly Irish Roots of HSBC.
At seven pages in length, this post may be a bit daunting for some. The first part will be of general interest. The latter half is just a list with brief descriptions of the 14 Governors (or Administrators who stood in as Governors) who had Irish roots, or else were men who married Irish wives. I reckon that both count.

 There was already quite a nest of Irish connections in Hong Kong when the young Thomas Jackson arrived in 1864. Many of them were men at the peak of the pecking order. At least eight Irishmen became Governors of Hong Kong in the 19th and early 20th Century. Other governors married Irish women or had other such connections. It seems that you couldn’t throw a stone in Hong Kong in the late 19th Century without hitting an Irishman (or woman).

There is lots out there in the internet and on library shelves about these Irish-connected  Governors, so this blog post will not include full biographies. My goal here is simply to group them together, note where they were born, and muse about how their Irish origins might  have influenced their actions in this far flung colony that they had the power to govern.

Whenever I need a cautionary reminder on how not to take ideas such as this too far, I prescribe, for myself, a goodly dose of Donald Harman Akenson. His book If the Irish Ran the World  can always be counted on to provide a salutary tonic:

God may rule the universe, if He or She disposes, but By-god rules the history of the Irish, and especially the history of the Irish diaspora. As in: “By god, if the Normans had only lost a few battles, Drogheda would be the centre of the Christian world.” The great By-god for generations of the diaspora Irish, tucked snugly into snugs the world around, has been, “If we were only in charge here, by-god, things would be different.”

Akenson uses Montserrat as a useful example of what Irish control not only could have looked like, but did. We cannot escape the fact that in Montserrat, as well as elsewhere through the British West Indies and America, that Irishmen owned thousands of slaves who were treated no better than slaves owned by non-Irish slave owners. In fact, in Montserrat, some of the Irishmen treated their slaves far worse than Oliver Cromwell ever treated the Irish, even at his bloodiest, and that is going some.

Keeping that caution in mind then, who were these Irishmen who worked in Hong Kong and in many cases held the reins of power?

The childhood experiences of most of them would have included farming, or at very least the experience of growing up in small towns surrounded by farms. Ireland did not have much in the way of cities. The values of these Irishmen, regardless of whether they were raised Catholic or Church of Ireland or some other Protestant denomination, were rooted in the land. Although there is some evidence that they stayed connected with their agrarian roots, their career options were richer than they would have been had they stayed in Ireland. Most of them gravitated to one of four options, all starting with the letter “G”. I have chosen to group them this way simply as a mnemonic –not as any kind of judgement:

  • Goods. Many of them became traders and merchants, often starting with or including work with the East India Company.
  • Guns. More than 50% of the British army in the colonies was Irish-born and in places like India, the percentage of Irish was considerably higher. Their experiences and connections forged in battle often resulted in their appointments in the next category.
  • Government. I do not have stats on how many Irish-born men were in the British Civil Service in the East, but nine times out of ten, whenever I have a hunch that someone is Irish, then my research usually proves this to be the case.
  • God. Although the missionaries’ main focus was converting people to Christianity, they also ministered to those who were already Christian, which of course included those who were there because of goods, guns and government.

These men chose these careers because after repeated famines in their homeland, there were few other options for those who wanted out of the economic ruts of their time. The governors who I mention, in the list, beneath were not like the men described in Jane Gardam’s novel Old Filth – where the nickname Filth was an acronym for Failed in London try Hong Kong. In fact, these men were most often quite the opposite. Their accomplishments before they landed in Hong Kong were well worthy of praise.

Two other things: I find that it helps to start by imagining these men as they might have been when they were young, not as they appeared to be later in life when they had a chestful of medals and the double chins to go with them. They didn’t all start out wearing top hats and tails. Also, I am always curious to find out what I can about the birth families of such men. How many siblings did they have? Were they oldest? Youngest? Were they somewhere in the middle? From my experience, it does make a difference.

Decades ago, when I worked as a director of YWCA Camping and Environmental Studies at a year round centre on Saltspring Island, I noticed that my best staff usually were born into families with at least half a dozen children. These people knew how to stay calm in the midst of chaos, and only to take action when action was required. They also seemed to know how to have more fun – an important quality when working with children, but also a quality often mentioned in reference to the Irishmen of Hong Kong. You will see from the list beneath that many of these Irishmen were also born into large families. The first Governor was no exception.

NOTE: This list is as much as anything a cheat sheet for myself, so I can refer to it when the names of these men pop up in connection with Sir Thomas Jackson and his banking career in Hong Kong. I welcome correction if any of the information is inaccurate.Goodness knows, I don't always get it right - at least, not the first time.

Sir Henry Pottinger (1789-1856) Governor from 12 August 1841-8 May 1844. Hong Kong’s 1st Governor was born in Mount Pottinger, County Down, near Belfast, the 5th son of a merchant family in Belfast, who had run into financial troubles. This meant that young Henry and his four older brothers were all sent East to seek their fortunes. By age 15, Pottinger was already in the British Army in India. By the time he was 31 years old, he had become financially secure enough to marry Susanna Maria Cooke of Cookesborough, Westmeath, Ireland. By 1841, when he was sent to Hong Kong, he was 52 years old with decades of experience behind him. It was under his signature, something of an act of disobedience on his part, that Hong Kong became a British Colony. In the decades that he served in the East, many of his relations followed in his footsteps, not that it always turned out so well for all of them.  Eldred Pottinger, a son of Henry’s older brother Thomas, was lauded as a hero at Herat in Afghanistan, but then died of a fever while visiting Sir Henry in Hong Kong in 1843. He was only 32 years old. The all too frequent grief that men like Pottinger experienced is not what you see when you look at the paintings of such men done at the peak of their careers.
Henry Pottinger (Wiki, Creative Commons)

Pottinger was supported in his work by several men who also had strong ties to Ireland
  • One of his closest friends was first Colonial Secretary John Robert Morrison, son of a Rev. John Morrison from Scotland. Morrison’s stepmother, who was effectively Morrison’s  mother from the age of ten, was Eliza Anderson, born in Ireland.
  • The first Colonial Treasurer, Robert Montgomery Martin was born in Co. Tyrone in 1803. He thought that the colony was doomed to failure. After disagreeing with Pottinger on issues such as raising revenue from opium, he resigned in July 1845 and left the colony in a state of high dudgeon.  
  • Henry Kellett, later Sir Henry, born in Clonacody, Co. Tipperary was the naval officer who manned ships during the Opium War (1839-1842), and became Commander in Chief of the British navy in China, headquartered in Hong Kong (1869-1871)

Sir John Davis, (1795-1890) Governor 8 May 1844-18 March 1848. Born in London, his mother was Henrietta Boileau (1773-1853) from Dublin. She married Samuel Davis when they were in Bengal. She was the 6th daughter of Solomon Boileau and Dorothea Gladwell, both of Dublin, who had 15 children together. After her mother’s death, when Henrietta was 16 years old, her father remarried and went on to have three more children. It is most likely that Henrietta was also born in Dublin since the siblings born one year before and one year after were both born there. Many of their family are buried in the Huguenot cemetery on Mercer Street in Dublin and were part of the influx of Huguenots to Ireland after the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes. A future Administrator, William Thomas Mercer (see beneath), married a daughter of Anne Boulieu, an older sister of Henrietta. Since there was also a brother Solomon Hugh Richard Boileau who died in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1810, it seems that both the Davis and Boileau families had a number of relations there which would have been the connection that lead to both marriages. Unfortunately, Governor Davis wasn’t that popular with the merchant class, except for the fact that he introduced weekend horse racing. Also, he deserves credit, amongst other things, for founding the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Hercules George Robert Robinson (1824-1897) Governor: 9 September 1859-15 March 1865. Robinson, the 5th Governor of Hong Kong, was born at Rossmead, Co. Westmeath, Ireland, the 5th of seven children of Admiral Hercules Robinson and Frances Elizabeth Wood.  At age 20, he purchased the rank of Lieutenant with the Irish Fusiliers. Two years later, the enforced sale of his family’s estates led him to seek employment supervising relief works for the victims of the Irish famine. It was the quality of his work here that was the start of his meteoric rise, up through the ranks of various colonial posts. When he was appointed governor of Hong Kong in 1859, at the age of 35, he was the youngest governor in Hong Kong colonial history. He was still governor when the young Thomas Jackson would first set foot in Hong Kong. Robinson was a practical man. He ensured the provision of a steady supply of water for the people of Hong Kong, and made sure that there was gas to light the streets. In December 1859, he had a path cut through the bush up to the top of The Peak that was wide enough for sedan chairs to be carried through. This made The Peak accessible, and opened the possibility for it to become a most desirable place to live.

William Thomas Mercer (1822-1879) Interim administrator and private Secretary to the Governor 15 March 1865-11 March 1866. His roots in the East spanned several generations. His Irish grandmother, Anne Boileau, was living in Bengal, India – probably with sister Henrietta and brother Solomon - when she gave birth to his mother, Frances Charlotte Reid.  His father, George Mercer, was born in Scotland, and began with the East India Company when he was about 15 years old. He later become an agent and indigo planter. William Thomas Mercer was the 7th of 14 children. In 1826, when he was five years old, the company run by his father and uncle, Mercer & Company, went bankrupt, a not unfamiliar colonial tale. One of his uncles was Sir John Francis Davis (his wife was Henrietta Boileau), the 2nd Governor of Hongkong. The parents of the two Boileau sisters were Solomon Boileau (1745-1810) and Dorothea Gladwell (1745-1789), both of Dublin.

Sir Richard Graves MacDonnell (1814-1881) Governor: 11 March 1866-11 April 1872. MacDonnell, the 6th Governor of Hong Kong, was born in Dublin, one of fourteen children. His mother was one of the Graves family of Limerick who had come over from Yorkshire in Cromwellian times, as did Thomas Jackson’s ancestors. His father’s family came from Cork and both families were part of the ascendency. As with many other Irish men from privileged families who ended up in Hong Kong in this century, he attended Trinity College. This connection within the old boys club was always a useful connection to have. During his time as governor of Hong Kong, he developed much of Victoria Peak to be the premier residential quarters of Hong Kong, albeit only accessible to rich European merchants. To his credit, he also ordered the construction of a hospital whose focus was to tend to the needs of the local Chinese population. Unfortunately, it does not seem that managing money was his forté. The huge deficit that was run up by his administration meant that he had to go cap in hand to HSBC for a financial aid package. It seems that this handicap with respect to financial management was all too often part and parcel of Governors who had grown up as children of the upper class.

Sir Arthur Edward Kennedy (1809-1883) Governor: 16 April 1872-1 March 1877. He was born in Co. Down, Ireland, the 10th child of Hugh Kennedy, and Grace Dorothea Hughes – but his father had also sired seven more children by a previous wife which means that Sir Arthur was actually the 17th child. The mind boggles just trying to imagine what that would have been like. By the time he was 18 years old, he was off with the British Army in Corfu, and then spent time in Canada with another regiment. In 1846, he returned to Ireland and was hired to administer relief to the people of Co. Clare in the aftermath of the potato famine. By all accounts, his work there was above reproach.

John Gardiner Austin (1812-1900) Governor: 1 March 1877-22 April 1877 (NOTE: he also served as Colonial Secretary (1868-1879), and Auditor General (1870-1879)). Austin was born in Lowlands, East Coast, Demerara, but his mother, Mehetabel Piercy was born in Ireland, so he qualifies as being half Irish. His father, William Austin was born in Barbados, and his grandfather was a Col Thomas Austin, also serving in Barbados. His was another one of those intergenerational families of the Empire. His stint as the administrative stand-in for Governor was brief, but he did get to have a mountain named after him. I mention this because I notice that he isn’t included in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography. Maybe having a mountain was enough of an honour for such a brief governorship.

Sir John Pope Hennessy (1834-1891) Governor: 22 April 1877-7 March 1882. Hennessy, the 8th Governor of Hong Kong, was born in Co. Cork and attended Queens University in Belfast. He was the same age as his contemporary, Sir Robert Hart, who was the Inspector General of China’s Maritime Custom Service – a key position of considerable influence, and also another Irishman who had attended Queens. Born a Catholic, with a liberal political tilt, he was often on the side of the underdog, and hence was also often treated as something of an outsider in the business community of Hong Kong.  Right from the get-go, he was tilted against the establishment, which is probably why he got short shrift in the solidly right wing press of the day, although history has been kinder to his reputation in the long run. His personal motto was summed up in his Three Grand Qualifications to Success:  The first is audacity, the second is audacity, and the third is audacity.  Some of his audacious actions included lifting the ban forbidding Chinese people from buying lands, constructing buildings, and operating businesses in the Central District. He also appointed Wu Tingfang as the first Chinese member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and introduced laws against flogging and branding.

Sir George Ferguson Bowen (1821-1899) Governor: 30 March 1883-21 December 1887. He was the eldest son of the Rev. Edward Bowen of Bogay House, Co. Donegal (at least 6 more sons and an unknown-to-me number of daughters followed). As the 9th Governor of Hong Kong, his was one of the shorter postings. He had to go on leave because of illness. Like so many of the Irish Governors, he was known for his generous hospitality. He did well academically, winning a scholarship to Trinity College at Oxford, from which he graduated with a degree in classics at age 23.  By the time he was 26 years old, he was president of the Ionian University at Corfu, where he married his wife, Contessa Diamantina di Roma, a year later. His religious affiliation was with the Church of Ireland, whereas she remained true to her Greek Orthodox faith. In their time, this would have been regarded as a mixed marriage, a matter of some consequence, but less so outside of Ireland.

Sir William Des Voeux (1834-1909) Governor: 6 October 1887-7 May 1891. His Irish roots often get missed for two reasons: His surname is not exactly a dead give-away, plus he was born in Germany. He was the 7th child of an Irish minister serving in Germany at the time of his birth, but his father, as well as the first six children, were all born at the ancestral home in Portarlington. His ancestors were Huguenots who settled there after the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes. At first, Des Voeux thought he might be a farmer, maybe in Canada, but instead by his mid-20s he took the bar exam in Toronto. His Huguenot roots probably helped to inform his approach to the religious divide. When he served as a Governor of Newfoundland, at a time of tensions between Catholics and Protestants, he attended a different church each Sunday, in spite of the fact that he personally was an atheist.  Unfortunately, the wisdom that he showed when it came to religious divisions did not seem to translate into him choosing to heal ethnic divisions in Hong Kong. In the case of The Peak, he passed the European Reservation Ordinance in 1889. This meant that he effectively barred non-Europeans from living there. On the plus side, it was under his watch that the Hongkong Electric Holdings was established, and the Peak Tram began operation.

Sir George Digby Barker (1833-1914) Administrator 25 November 1898-21 November 1903. He is included in this list on the basis of the very slightest of connections. He was born in England, so doesn’t count as Irish on his own account. His only Irish connection comes from the fact that his daughter, Helena Barker, married future Governor Francis Henry May in 1891.

Sir Arthur Henry Blake (1840-1919). Governor 25 November 1898-21 November 1903 The 12th Governor of Hong Kong, Blake was born in Limerick, Ireland, the 2nd of seven children and grew up through the worst of the famine. His mother, Jane Lane, was from Tipperary, and his father Peter Blake, who was born in Galway, was an inspector of the Irish Constabulary.  Both parents came from families of the aristocratic class, but Arthur Blake’s grandfather, Peter Blake, had been pressed by financial shortfalls to sell the family castle at Corbally. By the time young Arthur was born, the family had toppled a few rungs down on the social and economic scales. He started as a draper's assistant at a haberdashery, and then followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Irish Constabulary in 1859. He then worked as an inspector as well as the Magistrate of Duff in Co. Wicklow. All this was a good apprenticeship for his future governorship. He retired to the small town of Youghall, Co. Cork – where incidentally, Thomas Jackson’s daughter Dorothy also lived for decades. NOTE: In a delicious irony, Sir Blake is related through his grandmother Mary Browne to Governor Howe Peter Browne of Jamaica, a man who I mentioned in an earlier post. Before he was Governor, this Howe Peter Browne helped himself to some marble columns from the Temple of Atreus and stashed them at his home in Westport, Co. Sligo. Governor Blake showed a similar ruthlessness and cultural insensitivity when he removed the gates of Kim Tam and shipped them back to his home at Myrtle Grove, Youghall. This caused a great kafuffle, although unlike his ancestor he did not go to jail for the offence.
Sir Henry May (1860-1922) Administrator 21 November 1903-29 July 1904 and 20 April 1907-29 July 1907 and Governor24 July 1912-12 September 1918. The 15th Governor of Hong Kong, he was the 2nd son of ten children born to George Augustus Chichester May, a Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, and Olivia Barrington in Dublin. He was subsequently educated at Trinity College. His actions as governor reveal him to have acted as a man of integrity who did his best to stamp out corruption, but he lacked the kind of personality that made others feel charmed to follow his lead. His wife, Helena - whom he married in 1891, was more popular than he was, so she filled the charm deficit. She was the daughter of the earlier mentioned Acting Governor Digby Baker. She benefited from having lived in Hong Kong, and consequently had her finger on the pulse of the community. The Helena May Institute, which she founded to meet the accommodation needs of single European women, is still standing but it now operates as a club, and is known to have a stellar library.

Sir Frederick Dealtry Lugard (1858-1845) Governor 29 July 1907-16 March 1912. He was born in Madras, the son of a British Army Chaplain. His Irish connection is through his wife, Dame Flora Louise Shaw, a major force in her own right. Her grandfather was Sir Frederick Shaw, an Irish conservative MP of Bushy Park, Dublin and 2nd cousin to George Bernard Shaw. His house, Kimmage Manor, now home to the Holy Ghost Missionary College, was one of the places where Flora played as a child, and it was in that part of Ireland that she set the stories in her novel, Castle Blair. There is a wonderful write up of her in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography. She was a woman before her time in so many ways, and deserves to be much better known for her many accomplishments as well as for the deeply held values which inspired her.

SOURCES: Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography is a great place to start as well as to complement the many sources which can be found on line. Unlike many such weighty reference books, it is a totally pleasurable read. It was just published this year, and has earned its premier place in my study, close at hand by my right elbow. I still have so much to learn.
UPDATE: The day after I wrote and posted this piece, I did a quick read of Geoffrey Robbley Sayer, Hong King 1841-1862.  Hong Kong University Press. 1890 (first published 1937 as Hong Kong: birth, adolescence, and coming of age). Since the notion of a 4-G club (Goods, Guns, God, & Government) had occurred to me as I was writing this post, I found it amusing that when the first Legislative and Executive Council was created in Hong Kong, that it included A.R. Johnston (a merchant), Major Caine (a soldier) and J.R. Morrison (a missionary). Goods, Guns, & God all in one body of Government.


  1. Gov. May did not build The Eyrie. It was built by E.R. Bellilios, and it was indeed up higher than the Governor's Mountain Lodge - and looked down on it.

  2. Excellent - I have just deleted that line. Thanks for the heads up.