Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 Lives of Remarkable Criminals: Walter Kennedy


a Pirate

Piracy was anciently in this kingdom considered as a petty treason at Common Law; but the multitude of treasons, or to speak more properly of offences construed into treason, becoming a very great grievance to the subject, this with many others was left out in the famous Statute of the 25th Edward the Third, for limiting what thenceforth should be deemed treason. From that time piracy was regarded in England only as a crime against the Civil Law, by which it was always capital; but there being some circumstances very troublesome, as to the proofs therein required for conviction, by a statute in the latter end of the reign of Henry the Eighth it was provided that this offence should be tried by commissioners appointed by the king, consisting of the admiral and certain of his officers, with such other persons as the reigning prince should think fit, after the common course of the laws of this realm for felonies and robberies committed on land, in which state it hath continued with very small alterations to this day.

Offenders of this kind are now tried at the Sessions-house in the Old Bailey, before the judge of the Court of Admiralty, assisted by certain other judges of the Common Law by virtue of such a commission as ts before mentioned, the silver oar (a peculiar ensign of authority belonging to the Court of Admiralty) lying on the table. As pirates are not very often apprehended in Britain, so particular notice is always given when a Court like this, called an Admiralty Sessions, is to be held, the prisoners until that time remaining in the Marshalsea, the proper prison of this Court.

On the 26th of Jury, 1721, at such a sessions, Walter Kennedy and John Bradshaw were tried for piracies committed on the high seas, and both of them convicted. This Walter Kennedy was born at a place called Pelican Stairs in Wapping. His father was an anchor-smith, a man of good reputation, who gave his son Walter the best education he was able; and while a lad he was very tractable, and had no other apparent ill quality than that of a too aspiring temper. When he was grown up big enough to have gone out to a trade, his father bound him apprentice to himself, but died before his son was out of his time. Leaving his father's effects in the possession of his mother and brothers, Walter then followed his own roving inclinations and went to sea. He served for a considerable time on board a man-of-war, in the reign of her late Majesty Queen Anne, in the war then carried on against France; during which time he often had occasion to hear of the exploits of the pirates, both in the East and West Indies, and of their having got several islands into their possession, wherein they were settled, and in which they exercised a sovereign power.

These tales had wonderful effect on Walter's disposition, and created in him a secret ambition of making a figure in the same way. He became more than ordinarily attentive whenever stories of that sort were told, and sought every opportunity of putting his fellow sailors upon such relations. Men of that profession have usually good memories with respect, at least, to such matters, and Kennedy, therefore, without much difficulty became acquainted with the principal expeditions of these maritime desperadoes, from the time of Sir Henry Morgan's commanding the Buccaneers in America, to Captain Avery's more modern exploits at Madagascar[1]; his fancy insinuating to him continually that he might be able to make as great a figure as any of these thievish heroes, whenever a proper opportunity offered.

It happened that he was sent with Captain Woodes Rogers,[2] Governor of Providence [Bahama Islands], when that gentleman first sent to recover that island by reducing the pirates, who then had it in possession. At the time of the captain's arrival these people had fortified themselves in several places, and with all the care they were able, had provided both for their safety and subsistence.

It happened that some time before, they had taken a ship, on board of which they found a considerable quantity of the richest brocades, for which having no other occasion, they tore them up, and tying them between the horns of their goats, made use of them to distinguish herds that belonged to one settlement and those that belonged to another, and sight of this, notwithstanding the miserable condition which in other respects these wretches were in, mightily excited the inclination Kennedy had to following their occupation.

Captain Rogers having signified to the chiefs of them the offers he had to make of free grace and pardon, the greater number of them came in and submitted very readily. Those who were determined to continue the same dissolute kind of life, provided with all the secrecy imaginable for their safety, and when practicable took their flight out of the island. The captain being made Governor, fitted out two sloops for trade, and having given proper directions to their commanders, manned them out of his own sailors with some of these reformed pirates intermixed. Kennedy went out on one of these vessels, in which he had not long been at sea before he joined in a conspiracy some of the rest had formed of seizing the vessel, putting those to death who refused to come into their measures, and then to go, as the sailors phrase it, "upon the account", that is in plain English, commence pirates.

This villainous design succeeded according to their wish. They emptied the other vessel of whatever they thought might be of use, and then turned her adrift, as being a heavy sailer, and consequently unfit for their purpose. A few days after their entering on this new course of life, they made themselves masters of two pretty large ships, having fitted which for their purpose, they now grew strong enough to execute any project that in their present circumstances they were capable of forming. Thus Kennedy was now got in to that unhappy state of living which from a false notion of things he had framed so fair an idea of and was so desirous to engage in.

Kennedy took a particular delight in relating what happened to him in these expeditions, even after they had brought him to misery and confinement. The account he gave of that form of rule which these wretches set up, in imitation of the legal government, and of those regulations there made to supply the place of moral honesty was in substance this.

They chose a captain from amongst themselves, who in effect held little more than that title, excepting in an engagement, when he commanded absolutely and without control. Most of them having suffered formerly from the ill-treatment of their officers, provided carefully against any such evil, now they had the choice in themselves. By their orders they provided especially against any quarrels which might happen among themselves, and appointed certain punishments for anything that tended that way; for the due execution thereof they constituted other officers besides the captain, so very industrious were they to avoid putting too much power into the hands of one man. The rest of their agreement consisted chiefly in relation to the manner of dividing the cargo of such prizes as they should happen to take, and though they had broken through all laws divine and human, yet they imposed an oath to be taken for the due observance of these, so inconsistent a thing is vice, and so strong the principles imbibed from education.

The life they led at sea was rendered equally unhappy from fear and hardship, they never seeing any vessel which reduced them not to the necessity of fighting, and often filled them with apprehensions of being overcome. Whatever they took in their several prizes could afford them no other pleasure but downright drunkenness on board, and except for two or three islands there were no other places where they were permitted to come on shore, for nowadays it was become exceedingly dangerous to land, either at Jamaica, Barbadoes, or on the islands of the Bermudas. In this condition they were when they came to a resolution of choosing one Davis[3] as captain, and going under his command to the coast of Brazil.

This design they put in execution, being chiefly tempted with the hopes of surprising some vessel of the homeward bound Portuguese fleet, by which they hoped to be made rich at once, and no longer be obliged to lead a life so full of danger. Accordingly they fell in with twenty sail of those ships and were in the utmost danger of being taken and treated as they deserved. However, on this occasion their captain behaved very prudently, and taking the advantage of one of those vessels being separated from the rest, they boarded her in the night without firing a gun. They forced the captain, when they had him in one of their own ships, to discover which of the fleet was the most richly laden, which he having done through fear, they impudently attacked her, and were very near becoming masters of her, though they were surrounded by the Portuguese ships, from whence they at last escaped, not so much by the swiftness of their own sailing, as by the cowardice of the enemy. In this attempt, though they miscarried as to the prize they had proposed, yet they accounted themselves very fortunate in having thus escaped from so dangerous an adventure.

Being some time after this in great want of water, Davis at the head of about fifty of his men, very well armed, made a descent in order to fill their casks, though the Portuguese governor of the port near which they landed easily discovered them to be pirates; but not thinking himself in a condition strong enough to attack them, he thought fit to dissemble that knowledge.

Davis and his men were no sooner returned on board than they received a message by a boat from shore, that the Governor would think himself highly honoured if the captain and as many as he pleased of his ship's company would accept of an entertainment the next day at the castle where he resided. Their commander, who had hitherto behaved himself like a man of conduct, suffered his vanity to overcome him so far as to accept of the proposal, and the next morning with ten of his sailors, all dressed in their best clothes, went on shore to this collation. But before they had reached half way, they were set upon by a party of Indians who lay in ambuscade, and with one flight of their poisoned arrows laid them all upon the ground, except Kennedy and another, who escaped to the top of a mountain, from whence they leaped into the sea, and were with much difficulty taken up by a boat which their companions sent to relieve them.

After this they grew tired of the coast of Brazil. However, in their return to the West Indies they took some very considerable prizes, upon which they resolved unanimously to return home, in order, as they flattered themselves, to enjoy their riches. The captain who then commanded them was an Irishman, who endeavoured to bring the ship into Ireland, on the north coast of which a storm arising, the vessel was carried into Scotland and there wrecked. At that time Kennedy had a considerable quantity of gold, which he either squandered away, or had stolen from him in the Highlands. He afterwards went over into Ireland, where being in a low and poor condition he shipped himself at length for England, and came up to London. He had not been long in town before he was observed by some whose vessel had been taken by the crew with whom he sailed. They caused him to be apprehended, and after lying a considerable time in prison, he was, as I have said before, tried and convicted.

After sentence, he showed much less concern for life than is usual for persons in that condition. He was so much tired with the miseries and misfortune which for some years before he had endured, that death appeared to him a thing rather desirable than frightful. When the reprieve came for Bradshaw, who was condemned with him, he expressed great satisfaction, at the same time saying that he was better pleased than if he himself had received mercy. "For", continued he, "should I be banished into America as he is, 'tis highly probable I might be tempted to my old way of life, and so instead of reforming, add to the number of my sins."

He continued in these sentiments till the time of his death, when, as he went through Cheapside to his execution, the silver oar being carried before him as is usual, he turned about to a person who sat by him in the cart, and said, "Though it is a common thing for us when at sea to acquire vast quantities both of that metal which goes before me, and of gold, yet such is the justice of Providence that few or none of us preserve enough to maintain us; but as you see in me, when we go to death, we have not wherewith to purchase a coffin to bury us." He died at Execution Dock, the 21st[4] of July, 1721, being then about twenty-six years of age.


[1] Avery was one of the best known pirates of his time and told of his wonderful wealth, his capturing and marrying the daughter of the Great Mogul, and his setting up a kingdom in Madagascar. He was even the hero of a popular play--"The Successful Pirate", produced at Dray Lane in 1712. The true story of his life and how he died in want, is related at length in Captain Charles Johnson's "History of the Pirates" edited by me, and published in the same edition as the present volume.

[2] Woodes Rogers (d. 1732) sailed on Dampier's voyages and made a large sum of money which he devoted to buying the Bahama Islands from the proprietors on a twenty-one years' lease. He was made governor, but found himself unable to cope with the pirates and Spaniards who infested the islands, and went back to England in 1721. He returned as governor in 1728, and remained there until his death.

[3] This was Howel Davis, whose adventures are related at length in Johnson's "History of the Pirates", chap. ix.

[4] "The History of the Pirates" gives the date as 19th of July. This book gives an interesting account of Kennedy, pp. 178-81.

Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals