“He gave to the world some revolutionary ideas that have made the age of speed as it is today; he gave to his native land a little book of verse that is an accurate, concise, beautiful series of word-pictures of the life, work, play, customs, beliefs and folk-tales of the people of the Island 150 years ago.”
An explorer, inventor, engineer and sailor who first had the idea for the Panama Canal, created inventions that were eagerly taken up by the American government in naval warfare, transport and communication, and yet lived on the edge of poverty always, even suffering bankruptcy at one point – William Kennish undoubtedly has one of the most interesting biographies of anyone from the Isle of Man.
Born in Cornaa, Maughold (in the area now known as the Corony) in 1799, Kennish grew up in a Manx speaking community barely touched by the outside world. After becoming an apprentice ship’s carpenter in Ramsey, at the age of 22 he reacted to being jilted by his would-be fiancee by fleeing to join the Royal Navy. Unable to read or write and with barely any language but for Manx, Kennish’s quick rise to become Master Carpenter within five years shows his impressive natural ability. During this time Kennish also showed himself a first class inventor, creating important innovations affecting naval artillery, navigation, steam boat propellers and camouflage amongst other things.
Despite Kennish’s great ability and success, his time at sea was not completely a happy one as his rise through the ranks brought about the animosity of his shipmates. It was because of this that Kennish turned to poetry as a means of escape. In his cabin after his working day, Kennish would write poems remembering with longing and nostalgia his youth on the Isle of Man and all of the stories and traditions that went with it. These poems are a startling feat for someone who only learnt English, let alone writing, relatively recently. These poems were collected into the book, Mona’s Isle, released in 1844, upon his return to the Isle of Man after being pensioned off from the navy.
Although he planned to remain on the Island for the rest of his life, things did not go as planned. Despite being commissioned to survey to by the British government and setting up a school in Ballasalla, Kennish ran into such financial difficulties that he was imprisoned for debt in 1846. He recovered enough to be selected as the representative of the fishermen to speak to the government about improving Manx harbours in 1847 (a situation imaginatively retold by Hall Caine in The Manxman).
In 1849 Kennish emigrated to America, where his task of exploring Columbia in the hope of finding gold was interrupted by the outbreak of the American Civil War. He then turned his attention to the possibility of finding a shipping route through Central America. After ruling out various possibilities, he realised that a single river rising in Columbia split and emptied into both the Atlantic and the Pacific. This gave him the idea of potentially developing this to become the Panama Canal. However, after briefly going blind through illness and only recovering thanks to being taken in by an indigenous tribe in Panama, Kennish never lived to see the completion of his greatest idea. He died in New York City on 19 March 1862.
Well remembered as one of the Island’s greatest sons, Kennish lived a truly amazing life. But always in his thoughts and heart was his native home. It was this that he pictured so evocatively in his 1844 collection of poems, Mona’s Isle.
My dear loved Isle! thy rocky shores
Still linger on my view,
Though twenty years have told their tale
Since last I sigh’d adieu.
[Image courtesy of Manx National Heritage]
William Kennish’s childhood home at Cornaa / the Corony.
Works by William Kennish
Mona’s Isle and Other Poems (1844)