Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tennent, James Emerson

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TENNENT, Sir JAMES EMERSON (1804-1869), traveller, politician, and author, third son of William Emerson (d. 1821), merchant of Belfast, by Sarah, youngest daughter of William Arbuthnot, was born at Belfast on 7 April 1804 and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, whence he received an honorary degree of LL.D. in 1861. In 1824 he travelled abroad, and among other countries visited Greece; he was enthusiastic in the cause of Greek freedom, and while there made the acquaintance of Lord Byron. His impressions of the country appeared in 1826 in 'A Picture of Greece in 1825, as exhibited in the Personal Narratives of James Emerson, Count Pecchio, and W. K. Humphreys.'

On 28 Jan. 1831 he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, where he had entered himself as a student by the advice of Jeremy Bentham, but it is doubtful if he ever practised his profession. On 24 June 1831 he married Letitia, only daughter of William Tennent, a wealthy banker at Belfast, whose name and arms he assumed by royal license in addition to his own in 1832.

He was elected member for Belfast on 21 Dec. 1832, and was thought a man of promise on his first appearance in the House of Commons. He was a supporter of Earl Grey's government up to the time that Stanley and Sir James Graham retired from the administration in 1834, being among the very few Irish members who fell in with the 'Derby dilly.' He made an energetic speech in favour of Thomas Spring-Rice's amendment against the repeal of the union, which was considered one of the ablest in the debate (Hansard, 24 April 1834, pp. 1287-1352). Ever afterwards he followed Sir Robert Peeland became a liberal-conservative. At the election in 1837 he was defeated at Belfast, but subsequently on petition was seated on 8 March 1838. At the general election in 1841 he was elected, but was unseated on petition. In 1842 he regained his seat, and during that year was the chief promoter of the copyright of designs bill, the passing of which gave such satisfaction to the merchants of Manchester that they presented him with a service of plate valued at 3.000l. He held the office of secretary to the India board from 8 Sept. 1841 to 5 Aug. 1843, and remained a member of the House of Commons until July 1845, when he was knighted. From 12 Aug. 1845 to December 1850 he was civil secretary to the colonial government of Ceylon. On 31 Dec. 1850 he was gazetted governor of St. Helena, but he never took up the appointment. After his return home he again sat in parliament as member for Lisburn from 10 Jan. to December 1852. He was permanent secretary to the poor-law board from 4 March to 30 Sept. 1852, and then secretary to the board of trade from November 1852. On his retirement on 2 Feb. 1867 he was created a baronet.

Tennent took a constant interest in literary matters. In October 1859 he published 'Ceylon: an Account of the Island, Physical, Historical, and Topographical,' 2 vols. 8vo, a work which had a great sale and went through five editions in eight months. It contained a vast amount of information arranged with clearness and precision. In November 1861 he republished a part of the work under the title 'Sketches of the Natural History of Ceylon,' 8vo. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 5 June 1862. He died suddenly in London on 6 March 1869, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery on 12 March. His widow died on 21 April 1883; by her he had two daughters, Eleanor and Edith Sarah, and a son, Sir William Emerson Tennent, who was born on 14 May 1835, was called to the bar at the Inner Temple on 26 Jan. 1859, became a clerk in the board of trade 1855, accompanied Sir William Hutt [q. v.] to Vienna in 1865 to negotiate a treaty of commerce, and was secretary to Sir Stephen Cave [q. v.] in the mixed commission to Paris (1866-7) for revising the fishery convention. By his death at Tempo Manor, Fermanagh, on 16 Nov. 1876, the baronetcy became extinct (Times, 17 Nov. 1876).

Besides the works mentioned, Sir James Tennent wrote:

  1. 'Letters from the Ægean,' 1829, 2 vols., originally printed in the 'New Monthly Magazine.'
  2. 'The History of Modern Greece,' 1830, 2 vols.
  3. 'A Treatise on the Copyright of Designs for Printed Fabrics and Notices of the state of Calico Printing in Belgium, Germany, and the States of the Prussian Commercial League,' 1841, 2 vols.
  4. 'Christianity in Ceylon, with Sketch of the Brahmanical and Buddhist Superstition,' 1850.
  5. 'Wine, its Use and Taxation: an Inquiry into the Wine Duties,' 1855.
  6. 'The Story of Guns,' 1865.
  7. 'The Wild Elephant and the Method of Capturing and Taming it in Ceylon,' 1867. He was author of the articles Tarshish, Trincomalie, and Wine and Wine-making in the eighth edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica.'

[Belfast News-letter, 8, 9, 15 March 1869; Times, 8, 15 March 1869; Portraits of Eminent Conservatives, 1837, portrait No. xii.; Register and Mag. of Biography, April 1869, pp. 291-2, where the date of his birth is wrong; Illustrated London News, 1843 iii. 293 with portrait, 1869 liv. 299, 317.]

G. C. B.