First voyage to Guiana
Raleigh's 1596 voyage to Guiana consisted of two vessels, with Kemys serving as second-in-command and captain of the second ship. The aim of the expedition was to find El Dorado and to strike up friendly relations with native tribes. Upon reaching Guiana, Keymis led a force inland along the banks of the Essequibo River, reaching what he wrongly believed to be Lake Parime. A second inland expedition along the Orinoco River was turned back upon discovery of a Spanish fort at San Thome.
Second voyage to Guiana
Kemys again sailed with Raleigh to Guiana in 1617, in search of gold with which Raleigh hoped to buy back royal favour. Kemys was unintentionally instrumental in the sequence of events that led to the final downfall and execution of Raleigh after leading a party of Raleigh's men in an attack on the Spanish outpost of Santo Tomé on the Orinoco River, against Raleigh's orders, and in violation of peace treaties with Spain. Raleigh's son Wat was killed during the attack. A condition of Raleigh's release from the Tower of London in 1616 to undertake his mission to Guiana in search of gold deposits and the legendary city of El Dorado had been that he not attack or harass Spanish colonies or shipping. As Raleigh had been under a suspended death sentence for treason since 1603, the fact that men under his command had violated this order meant that James I would have had little option but to enforce this earlier sentence.
The sequence of events that led to Kemys' attack on Santo Tomé in January 1618 is unclear, with English and Spanish sources offering differing accounts of the incident, and each accusing the other of having fired the first shots, but it seems unlikely that Kemys intended the eventual result that transpired. Raleigh's son Wat was the first casualty of the brief skirmish, killed by a musket ball. One other Englishman and two Spaniards were also killed, before the Spanish garrison fled. Kemys' men found themselves in control of the town, but surrounded by hostile Spanish forces. Kemys sent out a few brief expeditions in search of the promised gold, but these were unsuccessful. After 29 days and failed attempts to negotiate with the Spanish, Kemys ordered Santo Tomé looted and burned. They set off back down the Orinoco to rejoin Raleigh and their fleet, finally arriving back there on 2 March.
Kemys had already informed Raleigh by letter of the unfolding disaster and the death of his son. He went to Raleigh's cabin to beg forgiveness, but found Raleigh unable to grant him this. In Raleigh's words "I told him that he had undone me by his obstinacy, and that I would not favour... in any sort his former follie." Kemys reportedly replied "I know then, Sir, what course to take," before returning to his own cabin. Kemys then committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest with a pistol, then when that did not prove immediately fatal, stabbing himself in the heart with a knife.
- "Kemys, Lawrence". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- Burns, Alan. History of the British West Indies. Allen & Unwin. pp. 167–68. OCLC 557499386.
- Marc Aronson, Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000. ISBN 039584827X
- John Hemming, The Search For El Dorado, Phoenix Press; 2nd ed. December 31, 2001; Ch. 10. ISBN 1842124455