Port Royal

Port Royal was the centre of
shipping commerce in Jamaica
in the 17th century. During this
time, it gained a reputation as
both the "richest and wickedest
city in the world". It was noto-
rious for its gaudy displays of
wealth and loose morals, and
was a popular place for pirates
and privateers to bring and
spend their treasure. During the 17th century, the British actively encouraged and even paid buccaneers based at Port Royal to attack Spanish and French shipping.

An earthquake on June 7, 1692, largely destroyed Port Royal, causing two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea such that today it is covered by a minimum of 25 ft (8 m) of water. Known today to 16th–18th-century focused archaeologists as the City that sank, it is considered the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere, yielding 16th–17th-century artifacts by the ton and many important treasures from indigenous peoples predating the 1588 founding from as far away as Guatemala. Pirates from around the world congregated at Port Royal coming from waters as far away as Madagascar on the far side of Africa. Several 17th and early 18th century pirate ships are sunk within the harbor and being carefully harvested under controlled conditions by different teams of archaeologists. Other "digs" are staked out along various quarters and streets by different teams.

After this disaster, its commercial role was taken over by the city of Kingston. Current development in progress will redevelop the small resultant fishing town into a tourist destination by 2015-16, serviced by Cruise ships as early as 2008, with the archaeological findings the heart of the attractions, which will include a combination underwater museum-aquarium and restaurant with underwater dioramas and the ability to see the native tropical sealife.

Colonization Of Port Royal

Situated at the western end of the Palisadoes sand spit that protects Kingston Harbour, Port Royal was well-positioned as a harbor. Originally claimed by the Spanish, England acquired it in 1655. By 1659, two hundred houses, shops, and warehouses surrounded the fort.

For much of the period between the English conquest of Jamaica and the earthquake, Port Royal served as the capital of Jamaica; after the 1692 earthquake, Spanish Town overtook this role, later followed by Kingston.

Piracy in Port Royal

Port Royal, located along the shipping lanes to and from Spain and Panama, provided a safe harbor for pirates. Buccaneers found Port Royal appealing for several reasons. Its proximity to trade routes allowed them easy access to prey. The harbour was large enough to accommodate their ships and provided a place to careen and repair these vessels. It was also ideally situated for launching raids on Spanish settlements. From Port Royal, Henry Morgan attacked Panama, Portobello, and Maracaibo. Roche Brasiliano, John Davis (buccaneer), and Edward Mansveldt (Mansfield) also came to Port Royal.

Since the English lacked sufficient troops to prevent either the Spanish or French from seizing it, the Jamaican governors eventually turned to the pirates to defend the city.

By the 1660s, the city had gained a reputation as the Sodom of the New World where most residents were pirates, cutthroats, or prostitutes. When Charles Leslie wrote his history of Jamaica, he included a description of the pirates of Port Royal:

Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that… some of them became reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2 or 3,000 pieces of eight in one night; and one gave a strumpet 500 to see her naked. They used to buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.
Port Royal grew to be one of the two largest towns and the most economically important port in the English colonies. At the height of its popularity, the city had one drinking house for every ten residents. In July 1661 alone, forty new licenses were granted to taverns. During a twenty-year period that ended in 1692, nearly 6,500 people lived in Port Royal. In addition to prostitutes and buccaneers, there were four goldsmiths, forty-four tavern keepers, and a variety of artisans and merchants who lived in two hundred buildings crammed into 51 acres (206,000 m²) of real estate. Two hundred and thirteen ships visited the seaport in 1688. The city’s wealth was so great that coins were preferred for payment rather than the more common system of bartering goods for services.

Following Henry Morgan’s appointment as lieutenant governor, Port Royal began to change. Pirates no longer needed to defend the city. The selling of slaves took on greater importance. Upstanding citizens disliked the reputation the city had acquired. In 1687, Jamaica passed anti-piracy laws. Instead of being a safe haven for pirates, Port Royal became noted as their place of execution. Gallows Point welcomed many to their death, including Charles Vane and Calico Jack, who were hanged in 1720. Two years later, forty-one pirates met their death in one month.

Earthquake Of 1692 And Its Aftermath

On June 7, 1692, a devastating earthquake hit the city causing the sand spit on which it was built to liquefy and flow out into Kingston Harbour. The water table was generally only two feet down prior to the quake. The effects of three tidal waves caused by the earthquake further eroded the sand spit, and soon the main part of the city lay permanently underwater, though intact enough that archaeologists have managed to uncover some well-preserved sites. The earthquake and tsunami killed between 1,000 and 3,000 people combined, over half the city's population. Disease ran rampant in the next several months, claiming an estimated 2,000 additional lives.

After the earthquake on June 7, 1692, many believed the destruction to be an "Act of God" because of the city's sinful reputation.

Some attempts were made to rebuild the city, starting with the one third of the city that was not submerged, but these met with mixed success and numerous disasters. An initial attempt at rebuilding was again destroyed in 1703, this time by fire. Subsequent rebuilding was hampered by several hurricanes in the first half of the 18th century, and soon Kingston eclipsed Port Royal in importance.

A new Town of Port Royal was constructed near Old Port Royal and it became the principal station of the British naval forces in the Caribbean.

Recent History

A final devastating earthquake on January 14, 1907 again liquefied the sand spit, destroying nearly all of the rebuilt city and submerging additional portions.

Today the area is a shadow of its former self with a population of less than 2,000 and has little to no commercial or political importance. The area is frequented by tourists, but is in a state of disrepair. The Jamaican government has recently resolved to further develop the area for its historic and tourist value.


Port Royal - Click To Enlarge