Kennedy was part of the naval force
sent with Woodes Rogers in an expedition to the Bahamas, to " recover that
island by reducing the pirates, who then had it in their possession " and had
" fortified themselves in several places. " Kennedy' s personal purpose, it
seems, was not to assist in suppressing the pirates but rather to find and
join them. Once he got to Providence, he shipped himself as a merchant
seaman with several " reformed pirates " on the Buck Sloop, in
which he and five others (including Howell Davis and Thomas Anstis, both
destined to be pirate captains) " conspired together to go off Pyrating
with the Vessel. " This core of conspirators would evolve into the most
successful gang of pirates in the entire golden age.
Kennedy would make a reputation for
himself among the pirates as " a bold and daring Fellow, but very wicked
and profligate. " With elected captain Howell Davis, he took part in several
daring attacks against slave trading fortresses in west Africa. The crew first
assaulted the Portuguese at St. Jago, then undertook a bigger, bolder action
against Gambia Castle, where they captured " about two thousand Pounds
Sterling in Bar Gold " and ended by " dismounting the Guns, and
demolishing the Fortifications " of the castle. The next target was the fort at
Sierra Leone, likewise taken and plundered. When Davis was subsequently killed
by Portuguese soldiers at yet another slave trading fortress, on the Island of
Princes, Kennedy led a contingent of thirty pirates on a mission to avenge their
fallen comrade. He conducted the company up a steep hill, " directly up
under the fire of their Ship Guns " into the slave factory, where the very sight
of them caused the Portuguese guards to quit their posts and take flight.
Kennedy and gang " march' d in without Opposition, set Fire to the Fort,
and threw all the Guns off the Hill into the Sea, which after they had done,
they retreated quietly to their Ship. "
Kennedy was a man full of rage, or
so it appeared in encounters with two ship captains off the coast of Africa in
the year 1719. He decided to take as booty the wig of captured captain William
Snelgrave, who in turn tried to prevent him, and for his resistance got a stern
and angry lecture: " I give you this Caution; never to dispute the Will of
a Pirate: For, supposing I had cleft your Scull asunder for your impudence, what
would you have got by it but destruction? Indeed you may flatter your self, I
should have been put to death for killing a Prisoner in cold Blood; but assure
your self my Friends would have brought me off on such an Occasion. " Kennedy
thus taunted his prisoner with the leveling force of death, contempt for the
English legal system, and faith in his comrades, all of which gushed out of a
tussle over a symbol of class privilege, the wig.
When the pirates later took
Captain Thomas Grant, Kennedy declared, " Damn you I know you and will
sacrifice you & then with his fist struck the informant with great Violence upon
his Mouth which occasioned his Nose & Mouth to Bleed.
Kennedy wanted to kill Grant for some unstated previous offense, but was
prevented from doing so by his shipmates. The matter was finally resolved by the
common council in debate, wherein it was decided that Grant should live but his
ship should be sunk, as indeed it was. Both instances suggest that Kennedy' s piracy was at least in part a raging
rebellion against the powerlessness he suffered in his life as a working sailor.
Sailing now with Bartholomew Roberts (after the death of
Davis), Kennedy soon decided to separate. His opportunity came when Roberts took
off after a prize, leaving Kennedy, as Lieutenant, in charge of one of the
ships, in which he promptly sailed away (in turn leaving Roberts with a certain
aversion to Irishmen ever after). Kennedy was
now chosen Captain of the revolted Crew, "
even though he had small skill in navigation. (He was apparently
preferred to the Command merely for his Courage.
) But the crew itself decided to disband
and every Man to shift for himself, as he could see Occasion.
Kennedy ended up shipwrecked in Scotland, where he either spent or was robbed
of his gold, then shipped out to Ireland, and eventually to London, although
several of his gang got themselves captured and hanged in Edinburgh. He soon
kept a bawdy-house on Deptford Road and indulged an occasional robbery on the
side until one of the women of the house informed on him and got him committed
to the Bridewell, where the mate of a ship he had plundered found him, and had
him committed to Marshalsea prison on capital charges of piracy. He was
convicted by a judge of the Court of Admiralty, whose symbolic silver oar lay
upon the table during the proceedings.
Once in prison Kennedy did all he could to save his own life,
including snitching on his comrades. He presented a list to the authorities of
thirteen men, but since he had no idea where many of them were, only one was
taken up and even he was subsequently reprieved. The rest were
not to be found. "
The sell-out was to no avail, and to have done so may have taken its own toll:
After sentence [of death], he showed much less concern for life than is usual
for persons in that condition. He was so much tired with the miseries and
misfortunes which for some years before he had endured, that death appeared to
him a thing rather desirable than frightful. "
When he heard that one of his fellow pirates, John Bradshaw,
who had also gotten death, had his sentence commuted to convict transportation,
expressed great satisfaction "
and was happier than
if he himself had received mercy. "
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.
As he was carried by cart to his execution, trailing the silver oar of the
Admiralty, the pirate who had shared in gold and silver plunder spoke these
words to someone who accompanied him to the gallows:
When we go to death, we have not wherewith to purchase a coffin to bury us.
At the end of his life he came home: he was hanged at Execution Dock in
Wapping, the neighborhood of his birth, on July 21, 1721. He was 26 years old.
The last point to be made is that Kennedy was a man who loved
loved to hear about Henry Avery and no doubt others, and loved to tell tales of
his own piracies. He
took a particular delight in relating what happened to him in [his piratical]
expeditions, even after they had brought him to misery and confinement.
Story-telling was a sailor'
s art, as noted by the writer who met with Kennedy and told his story in a
chapbook hawked about the streets after his execution:
Men of that profession have usually good memories with respect, at least, to
such matters "
as the history of piracy.
One of the stories he told was about self-government among
the pirates. The writer of his life called it,
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
As Kennedy explained:
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 [the pirates] 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 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 on one man.
In the end Walter Kennedy was not only a pickpocket, a
housebreaker, and a proprietor of a whorehouse; not only a rebel full of courage
and rage, solidarity and treachery; not only a force of destruction against the
slave trade; but a seafaring storyteller, and one with ideas, even a political
philosophy that was not, as we shall see, an imitation of
the legal government "
but rather a critique of it. To what extent and in what ways he was a typical
pirate will become clear as we explore in this chapter the social origins of
those who sailed under the black flag.