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Port Royal: The sunken pirate city in Jamaica

National Geographic Depiction of the quake in Port Royal

PortandTerminal.com, September 21, 2019

At the beginning of the 1690s, Port Royal was a big city in Jamaica, bustling with trade both legal and illegal. Close to important shipping routes, it was a waypoint for all in the Caribbean. Today though Port Royal is known to archaeologists as the “City that Sank”.

On June 7th 1692 at 11:43 am three earthquakes struck near Jamaica. The earthquakes were bad enough, but to make things worse they were soon followed by a tsunami which put half of Port Royal under 40 feet of water. More than 2,000 people died that day in an event that local clergy referred to as “God’s punishment”.

Port Royal is a small city on the tip of a spit of land that is on the southeastern side of the island.

The pirates and decadence of Port Royal

The pirate Henry Morgan with Spanish prisoners

It’s said that Port Royal was a city so overrun with liquor, slavers, and prostitution that one in every four buildings was either a bar or a brothel. When it was destroyed in 1692, most chalked it up to divine wrath. Many more it can be imagined were sad to see it go.

Ruins of Port Royal still visible today

From 1494 to 1655, Port Royal was nothing more than a minor Spanish port, largely undeveloped because the Spanish who controlled it didn’t see much gain in keeping hold of it. That’s when the English saw an opportunity.

The Spanish were hated in Jamaica. Once Jamaica was “discovered” by Spain in 1494, the Arawaks, who had inhabited the island for centuries, were quickly subjected to brutality and slavery, becoming the first enslaved people on the island.

The English took control of the city in 1655 and realizing the port was surrounded by a Spanish fleet, invited a coalition of pirates and privateers to protect the port. In the name of the King of England, the Buccaneers harassed and stole from the Spanish ships to their liking, and the port became a refuge for those making their living by the sword on the high seas. Port Royal was their home base and staging point.

Exhibit of found riches from Port Royal

As a port city, Port Royal was notorious for its gaudy displays of wealth and loose morals. Violence was rampant.

When he was drunk, he would roam the town like a madman. The first person he came across, he would chop off his arm or leg, without anyone daring to intervene.

Port Royal resident account of life in the city

It was a common sight, in Port Royal’s heyday, to see a drunken pirate stumbling through the city streets supported by a girl at each arm. His pockets would be overflowing with plundered gold. It’s said that, in a single night, some pirates would spend more money on drinks and women than a plantation worker earned in a year.

The city’s trademark drink was Kill Devil Rum. Pirates would carry the flagons down the street, forcing them into the hands they passed by. It was as much a curse as a gift as the drink was so strong that it had killed thousands through alcohol poisoning.

The destruction of Port Royal

An underwater road, part of what’s left of Port Royal

At the time of the earthquake, there were close to 8,000 people living in Port Royal. That made it the second-largest English city in the new world after Boston.

Nearly 1/3 of them died in the quake and ensuing tidal wave. Another 3,000 were injured. Up to half of these people later died of their injuries. As biblical wrath goes, this was pretty damn thorough.

Diver surveying ruins of Port Royal

The disaster struck late morning. Church services had wrapped up and not long before noon, the ground began to shake. (A pocket watch found during archaeological digs was x-rayed and the hands stopped at 11:43 a.m.)

Those who experienced the quake said it felt like the ground was sailing on top of waves, it was rolling. 

The houses of Port Royal had been built on sand. When the earthquake hit, it liquefied what little supported them, and whole building, roads, and people were sucked straight into the ground. As the people panicked, a great tidal wave crashed through the docks and over the city walls and consequently brought down what still stood.

On either side of us we saw the houses, some swallowed up, others thrown on heaps; the sand in the streets rise like the waves of the sea, lifting up all persons that stood upon it and immediately dropping into pits; and at the same instance a flood of water breaking in and rolling those poor souls over and over; some catching hold of beams and rafters of houses, others were found in the sand that appeared when the water was drained away, with their legs and arms out. 

Eyewitness account of the earthquake and tsunami at Port Royal in 1692

33 acres of the city disappeared in a few hours. The rest is history.

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