Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kemys, Lawrence
KEMYS, LAWRENCE (d. 1618), sea-captain, in command of the Gallego followed Sir Walter Ralegh [q. v.] in 1595, joined him at Trinidad, and accompanied him in his further voyage up the Orinoco and in Guiana. The next year, 1596, Ralegh being unable to go himself, sent Kemys in command of the Darling to continue the exploration. Kemys brought back glowing accounts of the wealth of the country he had visited, and urged on Ralegh that it would be greatly to the advantage of the queen to take possession of it (Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 1600, iii. 666). Ralegh, however, was not in a position to follow the advice, and Kemys seems to have remained in his service on shore. When, in 1603, Ralegh was accused of devising the so-called ‘Main plot,’ Kemys, as his follower and servant, was also implicated, and was imprisoned with him in the Tower, and afterwards in the Fleet, September– December 1603 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 27 Aug., 2 Sept. 1603; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. v. 7). He was probably released at the end of the year, and during Ralegh's long imprisonment seems to have acted as his bailiff and agent (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 23 Sept., 23 Dec. 1609). It was no doubt Kemys who instigated Ralegh to demand permission to go on his last voyage to the Orinoco, and when the permission was at last granted, Kemys accompanied him as pilot and captain, claiming to have certain knowledge of a rich gold mine. On reaching the mouth of the Orinoco, Kemys was appointed by Ralegh to command the expedition up the river and to the mine. According to his instructions, he was to keep on the north side of the river going up, so as to escape the notice of the Spaniards; but if they should discover and attack him he was to repel them by force; if he saw that the Spaniards were too strong, so that he could not pass without manifest peril, ‘then,’ Ralegh wrote, ‘be well advised how you land, for I would not for all the world receive a blow from the Spaniards to the dishonour of our nation.’ Kemys was apparently unequal to the difficulties of his position; the orders, too, were contradictory, for the Spaniards had moved their settlement, S. Tomas, so as to intercept the advance to the mine. So without waiting for them to attack, he forthwith stormed their town and drove them into the woods, not without loss, young Walter, Ralegh's son, being among the slain. But after some days' further skirmishing in the woods, conceiving that he had not strength to force his way to the mine, or to hold and work it if he should reach it, he returned to the ships and reported what had occurred. Ralegh answered that he had undone him. Kemys, in sorrow and despair, retired to his cabin and shot himself with a pistol; the wound was not immediately mortal; he thrust a large knife into it up to the haft, and so died.
The name has been spelt in many different ways. The spelling here adopted is from his signature (State Papers, Dom. James I, xlviii. 50). The writing of this holograph is peculiarly neat, small and well formed, and, together with the Latin verses published as his by Hakluyt, contradicts the common notion that he was merely a rude seaman. A portrait, doubtfully said to be of Kemys, is at Cefn Mably, near Cardiff, formerly the seat of a family of the name (information from Mr. E. Delmar Morgan).[Gardiner's Hist. of England, iii. 119, and the authorities there cited; see also index to vol. x.; other authorities in text.]