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Villains of All Nations

Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Terrors
Chapter 2: The Political Arithmetic of Piracy
Chapter 3: Who Will Go a Pyrating?
Chapter 4: “The New Government of the Ship”
Chapter 5: “To Do Justice to Pirates”
Chapter 4: The Women Pirates: Anne Bonny and Mary Read
Chapter 5: “To Extirpate Them Out of the World”
Chapter 8: “Defiance of Death Itself

Excerpt from Chapter Three, “Who Will Go a Pyrating?”

Walter Kennedy was born at Pelican Stairs, Wapping, the sailor town of London, in 1695, the year in which Henry Avery, “the maritime Robin Hood,” led a mutiny, turned pirate, and captured a treasure ship in the Indian Ocean. Kennedy’ s family, like his community, lived by the sea. His father was an anchor-smith “who gave his son Walter the best education he was able.” The times were hard and so was young Kennedy B he was poor, illiterate, known to have “a too aspiring temper,” and often on the wrong side of the law. It was said that in his childhood he was “bred a Pick-Pocket,” and that he later became a house-breaker. Meanwhile he served an apprenticeship to his father, but this came to an abrupt end when the old man died.

Kennedy promptly gave his father’s effects to his mother and brothers and “followed his own roving inclinations and went to sea.” He served a long stint on a man-of-war in the War of Spanish Succession. Here he heard the stories told on the lower deck about “the exploits of the pirates, both in the East and West Indies, and of their having got several islands into their possession, wherein they settled, and in which they exercised a sovereign power.” Kennedy “became more than ordinarily attentive whenever stories of that sort were told, and sought every opportunity of putting his fellow sailors upon such relations.” He learned of the adventures of Morgan, Avery, and other “maritime desperadoes,” committing to memory their “principal expeditions.” These tales “had wonderful effect on Walter’ s disposition,” creating in him “a secret ambition of making a figure in the same way.” The yarns set him on his life’ s course.

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, Kennedy “expressed great satisfaction” and was happier than “if he himself had received mercy.” He worried, “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 stories, 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 honesty.” 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.