James Emerson Tennent

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Sir James Emerson Tennent

James Tennent drawing by Andrew Nicholl
5th Colonial Secretary of Ceylon
In office
MonarchQueen Victoria
Preceded byPhilip Anstruther
Succeeded byCharles Justin MacCarthy
Acting Governor of British Ceylon
In office
19 April 1847 – 29 May 1847
MonarchQueen Victoria
Preceded byColin Campbell
Succeeded byThe Viscount Torrington
Personal details
James Emerson

7 April 1804
Belfast, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died6 March 1869(1869-03-06) (aged 64)
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
Political partyWhigs (until 1832)
Conservatives (1832–1869)
Spouse(s)Letitia Tennent
Alma materTrinity College, Dublin
OccupationColonial administrator, politician

Sir James Emerson Tennent, 1st Baronet FRS (7 April 1804 – 6 March 1869), born James Emerson, was a British politician and traveller born in Ireland. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 5 June 1862.


The third son of William Emerson, a merchant of Belfast, and Sarah, daughter of William Arbuthnot of Rockville (or Rockvale), County Down, he was born there in 1804. He was educated at the Belfast Academy and Trinity College, Dublin, of which he afterwards became LL.D. He took up the cause of Greek independence, and travelled in Greece, publishing a Picture of Greece (1826), Letters from the Aegean (1829), and a History of Modern Greece (1830); and he was called to the English bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1831. In that year he married Letitia, daughter and co-heiress (with her cousin, Robert James Tennent, M.P. for Belfast, 1848–52) of William Tennent, a wealthy merchant at Belfast, who died of cholera in 1832, and he adopted by royal licence the name of his wife in addition to his own.[1]

He entered parliament in 1832 as member for Belfast. In 1841 he became Secretary to the Board of Control, and in 1843 he was presented with a service of plate by the calico printers of Great Britain as an acknowledgment of his getting a bill passed in Parliament for the copyright of calico designs. He was a friend of both Charles Dickens and Dickens's biographer John Forster, and was the dedicatee of Dickens's last completed novel Our Mutual Friend (1865).


In 1845 he was knighted and appointed colonial secretary of Ceylon,[2] where he remained till 1850. While he was there, an economic depression in the United Kingdom severely affected the local coffee and cinnamon industry. Planters and merchants clamoured for a reduction of export duties. Tennent therefore recommended to Earl Grey, Secretary of State for Colonies in London that taxation should be radically shifted from indirect taxation to direct taxation, which proposal was accepted. It was decided to abolish the export duties on coffee and reduce the export duty on cinnamon leaving a deficit of £40,000 Sterling which was to be met by direct taxes on the people. This was one of the causes of the Matale Rebellion of 1848.

The result of his residence in Ceylon appeared in Christianity in Ceylon (1850) and Ceylon, Physical, Historical and Topographical (2 vols., 1859). The latter was illustrated by his protégé, fellow Ulsterman Andrew Nicholl. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes to it the first use in English of "rogue elephant", a translation of the Sinhala term wal aliya. He was elected the second President of the newly formed Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, serving from 1846 to 1857.[3]

On his return to the United Kingdom, he became member for Lisburn, and under Lord Derby was secretary to the Poor Law Board in 1852. From 1852 till 1867 he was permanent secretary to the Board of Trade, and on his retirement he was created a baronet of Tempo Manor in the Chapelry of Tempo in the County of Fermanagh.[4][1]


In his early years his political views had a radical tinge, and, although he subsequently joined the Tories, his conservatism was of a mild type. He withdrew from the Whigs along with Lord Stanley and Sir James Graham, and afterwards adhered to Sir Robert Peel. However, he broke with Peel over the Corn Laws and followed the Derbyites. He died in London on 6 March 1869. His family consisted of two daughters and a son, Sir William Emerson Tennent, who was an official in the Board of Trade, and at whose death the baronetcy became extinct.[1]

Besides the books above mentioned, Emerson Tennent wrote Belgium in 1840 (1841), and Wine: its Duties and Taxation (1855), Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon (1861), The Wild Elephant and The Method Of Capturing It in Ceylon (1867), and was a contributor to magazines and a frequent correspondent of Notes and Queries.[1]

James Emerson Tennent is commemorated in the scientific name of a species of Sri Lankan lizard, Ceratophora tennentii.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d Chisholm 1911.
  2. ^ "No. 20496". The London Gazette. 12 August 1845. p. 2426.
  3. ^ "Past Presidents". Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka. Retrieved 6 January 2017.
  4. ^ "No. 23216". The London Gazette. 5 February 1867. p. 633.
  5. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Tennent", p. 263).

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir Arthur Chichester, Bt
Member of Parliament for Belfast
With: Lord Arthur Chichester 1832–35
John McCance 1835
George Dunbar 1835–37
Succeeded by
Earl of Belfast
James Gibson
Preceded by
Earl of Belfast
James Gibson
Member of Parliament for Belfast
1837 – 1845
With: George Dunbar 1837–41
William Gillilan Johnson 1841–42
David Robert Ross from 1842
Succeeded by
David Robert Ross
Lord John Chichester
Preceded by
Horace Beauchamp Seymour
Member of Parliament for Lisburn
January 1852December 1852
Succeeded by
Roger Johnson Smyth
Government offices
Preceded by
Colin Campbell
Governor of Ceylon
acting governor

Succeeded by
The Viscount Torrington
Preceded by
Philip Anstruther
Colonial Secretary of Ceylon
Succeeded by
Charles Justin MacCarthy
Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
New creation
(of Tempo Manor)
Succeeded by
William Emerson Tennent