“The Good War of Consul Reeves” by Peter Rose

John Pownall Reeves John Pownall Reeves

John Reeves was the British consul in neutral Macau throughout the Second World War. Officially, he reported to Chungking, but in fact he was on his own representing Britain in a very hostile environment. He was utterly unprepared. He had served as vice-consul for five years in Hankow and Mukden, but had little Mandarin, and no Cantonese or Portuguese. In the years after the invasion of Hong Kong, Macau was eventually flooded with more than 5000 refugees with some claim to British Empire citizenship, most of them destitute. Reeves was able to house them (after a fashion) in derelict factories and warehouses, and he was able to procure a precarious supply of rice and vegetables from China, but only through the good offices of wanted pirates and smugglers. He didn’t hesitate. Though completely unprepared for his responsibilities, Reeves got the job done. He had a good war.

Reeves wrote a memoir of his adventures which was never published until the Royal Asiatic Society and Hong Kong University Press resurrected it in 2014. In The Good War of Consul Reeves, Peter Rose has built on that account, but supplemented it with extensive research in the UK National Archives. He describes his creation as a work of historical fiction, though he says he tried to hew to the historical facts as best he could.


The Good War of Consul Reeves, Peter Rose (Blacksmith, May 2024)
The Good War of Consul Reeves, Peter Rose (Blacksmith, May 2024)

Rose tells three parallel tales of Reeves’ adventures. One is of an insecure personality who rises to the challenge of wartime and does heroic work literally saving the lives of hundreds of refugees and substantially aiding thousands.

The second is of an insecure personality with a failed marriage and a disabled daughter. The wife and daughter were trapped in Hong Kong by the Japanese invasion. With the help of the neutral Portuguese, Reeves manages to extract them from internment and bring them to Macau, and then does his best for them throughout the war. But his wife remains estranged and leaves him permanently as soon as she can get transport to Britain after the Japanese surrender.

Rose portrays Reeves as visiting prostitutes and dabbling in opium in reaction, but in that he is presumably taking a little excursion from the records. Reeves is unlikely to have left evidence of either practice in his memoir or in the Consular Service archives.

Rose has also used the Consular Service archives to construct a third tale of bureaucratic animosity to Reeves’s achievements. In normal circumstances, a vice-consul does not have the authority to accomplish what Reeves accomplished, and Rose paints a picture of professional jealousy among his superiors in Chungking. That tale too is questionable. Reeves was, after all, appointed a full consul, supported (via Lisbon) with ₤1.75 million in his refugee work (which he accounted for down to the nearest avo), honored with an OBE and posted to Rome after the war. His good war was clearly good for him professionally.

But those embellishments help Rose’s account of Reeves’s wartime adventures to appeal on several levels. It’s strongly recommended.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.