Whilst researching my family history I discovered in the 1851 census that I had a 3x great grandfather, James Kennedy, who gave his occupation as ‘Superannuated boatswain RN’. As his age was 74, it occurred to me that he might have been in the navy at the time of Nelson and might possibly have served at Trafalgar, thoughts which encouraged me to look further into his life.
I became aware the National Archives would hold the details of his service that he submitted in 1824 when he applied to receive his pension. The Archives told me I could not request the actual document as I could see it digitally on Ancestry, but my efforts to find it failed. One of the researchers at the Archives looked into the matter and, after a lot of work, discovered the record could not be found because someone had transcribed his name as James Nennedy, but I would be able to see it if I looked under that name. This then provided me with a list of all the ships he had served on from 1805 when he was promoted to boatswain, and his leaving the navy in 1824 ‘invalided at Rio de Janeiro’.
I was curious to find out what he had been doing before 1805. I was fortunate to find in the National Archives an extremely informative source, this being the printed form he had to complete in the 1830s when asking to have his sons admitted to Greenwich Hospital School. On the printed side he wrote down the ships he had served on from 1805, which I already knew, but on the blank reverse he listed all the ships he had been on from when he joined in 1790, aged 13. Someone who had signed off as ‘Clerk of the Cheque’ had been through this list adding the exact dates and his rating at the time he was on each ship – boy, ordinary, able. The clerk had also written ‘alias James Long’ which suggests he had joined up another name but later used his real one. This record also contained a brief note to the Hospital School, written and signed by James Kennedy, which proves he was literate; I have read that boatswains needed to be literate to be appointed.
Next to HMS Impregnable James had written ‘in action on 1 June 1794’, this being The Glorious First of June, a battle in which his ship lost seven men killed and had severe damage done to masts, yards, spars and rigging. By 1851 he must have been one of the last survivors of this major battle.
I have investigated the actions his ships were involved in and, given his long career and the almost continuous warfare for most of his service, these were many. There were, of course, many dramatic moments. In 1797 his ship, the frigate Clyde (38 guns), captured a French privateer and put on board a prize crew of nineteen to sail it back to England, but they put on too much sail and she overturned and sank, killing the prize crew. In 1804 his ship Theseus came close to destruction in a severe Caribbean hurricane. In that year he was on the Mignonne when she was struck by lightning which killed three seamen and shattered the topmast and split the mainmast to the keelson.
In the 1840s James was awarded three medals, including one for the capture of Curacao in 1807, an operation in which his ship, the frigate Arethusa, lost two killed and fourteen wounded. In 1812 he was on the Blake when she gave naval support to a land attack at Tarragona in the closing stages of the Peninsular War. During the war with the United States, his ship Medway (74 guns) seized an American ship, taking 137 prisoners and her valuable cargo of ivory which was later paid out as prize money.
His last ship was Spartiate, a Trafalgar veteran, from which he was invalided out of the navy in 1824. I have read his ship suffered severe damage at Rio which required shipwrights to be sent from England to do the repairs, so this might have been the incident in which he was injured. On the form he filled in for Greenwich Hospital School in the 1830’s it asked if he had been ‘wounded or maimed and unfit for service’, to which he answered ‘Received a Bruze’ which must be an understatement! The log of the Spartiate may be available for this period, so I hope to find out more of what happened to end his naval career.
One of the most dangerous moments happened when he was first appointed boatswain in 1805 and sent aboard the Orquixo, which sank off Jamaica that year, killing most of the crew and passengers. I have seen newspaper articles which provide some information on what happened and list his name among the minority who survived. The Navy Records Society has also published a letter relating to the Orquixo and her fate.
His Majesty’s Sloop Orquixo, October 12, 1805
My dear Father,
I hope this will find you and my brother James in good health as this at present leaves me thank God for it—I have repeatedly wrote you when belonging to the Franchise but never had the pleasure of an answer—I received since I have been in this Country two letters from Sally Manly with respect to my leaving the Franchise Captain Murray (who I understand has been dead this 4 months and fell a victim to this climate) treated me very ill—One of our men ran away from the boat of which I was Officer—in consequence of which I was confined, turned before the mast, and discharged as Seaman into His Majesty’s Sloop of War the Orquixo (where I now am) with a strange Captain and no recommendation.
For about two months I did my duty before the mast but my good conduct has so recommended me to my Captain’s favor that I am reinstated and am still an Officer—It were better what I am now going to say should come from another’s mouth than my own as in me it may be thought vanity—but if ’tis so, I am not ashamed of it— On the i6th of August last we were cruising off the Havannah—At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I went to the mast head with a glass to see what I could make of a large Ship we saw standing towards us—I say’d I thought her a Spaniard but could not say whether she had guns or no—We immediately cleared Ship for action and prepared for an Engagement, as there were then only two Midshipmen on board, I was stationed on the Quarter Deck
We accordingly shortened sail for the Ship—She hoisted Spanish Colours and to our surprize haul’d her ports up which (till she came pretty close) she had kept down and pour’d a broadside into us we immediately returned her salute—then commenced a heavy cannonading on both sides for three hours and a half—and I am sorry to say we could not make her a prize—She was too heavy for us, and our Rigging and Sails were so much shattered the Ship was not manageable.
We were forced to haul from her to refit—She took the opportunity of our disabled state to make all sail from us and arrived in the Havannah—During the engagement she attempted to board us but was afraid to enter our Ship’s sides, our Captain told the men he would have her if he could, and went to hell after her, if his men would stand by him, they all said they would die with their officers
Our Ship is very badly manned, we have but 95 men officers and all and I may say we have not about 35 or 36 Englishmen, Scotchmen, and Irishmen, among the whole the rest being all foreigners, and totally unacquainted with the Sea—I was frequently sent down with the messages from the Quarter Deck & down on the Main Deck with Orders to the Lieutenants, and I was particularly attentive to the Enemies motions and frequently gave my opinion freely to the Captain, as he was pleased to ask me what I thought of it— I am now going to give you an account of my behavour—the Captn , I am given to understand, frequently when with the Lieut, speaks of my bravery, and coolness during the Action.
One thing has particularly recommended me to him, I went down on the Main deck, with orders from the Captn and on coming on the Quarter Deck, I saw our Colours laying on the Deck which in the confusion of smoke and fire our men did not perceive forgetting the respect I owed the Captain, I sung out Dam my Eyes, some damned Rascal has haul’d down our Colours they’ll think we’ve struck when the Captain answer’d no Hamilton they’ve shot away the Ensign haulyards, bend them on again, and hoist them immediately I immediately seized the Colours and held them in my right hand with one end in my mouth at the same time waving my hat in my left hand in defiance—I received several shot through the colours and had my hat knock’d off by a splinter, thank God twas not my head, I have been wounded having lost the first joint of the middle finger of my left hand and the little finger broke so that two fingers of my left hand are rendered useless I am perfectly well in health.
I cannot say I have at present any inclinations to leave the West Indies, we have taken One Prize since we have been out. Most of my Messmates who came out in the Franchise have fallen victims to the Yellow fever God knows ’tis a dreadful place.—I send this letter by the Hamilton Packett—I wished very much some time since to have come home in the Cerf Brigg, but it was all for the best, I did not, as she was lost coming home to England—I am perfectly well in health and we are going I understand to new Providence We hear here that you are in daily expectation of the french landing in England, and certain it is, all the large frigates are ordered off this station for England. Excuse my long letter let me hear from you as often as possible. Give my love to my little girl to whom I have now wrote and comfort her in my absence.
Remember me to my old friend Mr Sarell Mrs Ho well & family and Wm & Ben Goss Minchinton Old Sarah and all enquiring friends, and believe your Affectionate Son W. HAMILTON.
Direct for Mr Wm Hayes Hamilton, His Majesty’s Sloop Orquixo Port Royal Jamaica or elsewhere.