Michael Kennedy Sails to India – Slowly

The following is an Irish Story submitted by Nancy Kennedy as part of a Reader Story competition. 

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Michael Kennedy Sails to India – Slowly

Michael Kennedy was 20 years old in 1781, the leader of a gang of friends with energy, ambition and not much outlet for it in Dublin. So when his uncle Colonel William Baillie, commanding the fourth regiment of the East India Company’s native infantry, offered him a commission, he was delighted.

One may suppose his parents were also relieved to have his future off their hands: the commission was contingent on Michael’s arriving with a force of 100 recruits, and the fact that he was able to find 99 friends and pay their expenses for the voyage suggests some family help. This informal recruiting was common at the time, in both His Majesty’s and the Company’s armies; an officer who raised 100 men joined with the immediate rank of captain.

The adventurers set sail from Portsmouth in the HMS Chesterfield, with a young Tone and a Dallas among them. These were probably William Henry Tone (brother of the much more famous Wolfe) and a brother of “Dallas the attorney-general and judge in America.”

As the Chesterfield sailed slowly along the coast of Africa, yellow fever broke out on board; Michael Kennedy and William Tone became too sick to go on. The ship dropped them off at the nearest port and proceeded without them, “leaving him behind to die, as it was supposed, at St Helena.”

But Michael and William Henry both survived – life had not done with them yet. William Henry served six years in the St Helena garrison, returned to Ireland and his brother Wolfe, re-enlisted in the Company army and died in battle in 1802 in the Mahratta service.

Michael, however, resumed his interrupted journey when he had his health back and another ship was available, and arrived in Bombay in 1783. His uncle William, alas, had by then died, having been defeated in a valiant but doomed attempt to hold off the forces of Hyder Ali in the battle of Conjeveram. To make it worse, commissions were no longer being granted on the same basis, and cadets were no longer being accepted; with no force f recruits to produce, and his patron no longer among the living, Michael had to join as an ordinary soldier – and “remained a volunteer without rank for seven years.”

Finally – according to family legend – his ability was recognized by a Col. Hartley and he was given a commission and a regiment to command, and was posted to Surat  one of the many trading stations of the Bombay Presidency. In every generation since, one son has been named Hartley.

Given the opportunity, Michael made the most of it: recapturing a vessel taken by pirates in the Surat River, taking hill forts in the Mahratta War, negotiating a treaty with the Peshwa of Poona, being appointed Town Major of Bombay and finally retiring to England in triumph, a major general with the order of Companion of the Bath.

In 1790, as soon as he got his commission, Michael married Eliza de Courtraye, the 14-year-old daughter of Philip Courtraye of the Netherlands Council of Surat. Eliza died in 1803, no doubt in childbirth, having produced four sons, who all made their careers in Bombay, and a daughter who married a baronet. Michael apparently soldiered on alone; no other marriages are recorded. He must have had a lonely life – although a testament left by his eldest son describes him as dedicated to his employers and his duty. “For nearly 44 years, through steadfastness in devotion to duty, indifference to relaxation and uninterrupted god health, he had never been one month absent from his Station under any circumstances whatever.” The Dublin tearaway had mettle in him.

Michael seems to have taken his success seriously, for in later life he styled himself not plain Michael Kennedy (though that is the name attached to his will in the archives of India House) but Michael St Michael Baillie Kennedy. And thereby hangs a tale for another time.

Nancy Kennedy,



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