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An illustration of pre-1692 Port Royal
Port Royal was a city located at the end of the Palisadoesmarker at the mouth of the Kingston Harbourmarker, in southeastern Jamaicamarker. It was the centre of shipping commerce in the Caribbean Seamarker during the latter half of the 17th century. It was one home port of the privateers employed to nip at superpower Habsburg Spain's empire when smaller European powers dared not directly make war on Spain. As a port city, it was notorious for its gaudy displays of wealth and loose morals, and was a popular place and base (homeport) for the English and Dutch sponsored privateers to bring and spend their treasure during the 17th century. When those governments abandoned the practice of issuing letters of marque against the Spanish treasure fleets and possessions in the later 16th century, many privateers turned pirate and used the city as their main base during the heyday of the Caribbean pirates in the 17th century. During the 16th century, the English and French actively encouraged and even paid buccaneers based at Port Royal to attack Spanish and French shipping. Pirates from around the world congregated at Port Royal coming from waters as far away as Madagascarmarker on the far side of Africa.

In archaeology, Port Royal is the site of the only earthquake which can be dated closely by not only date, but time—which is documented by recovery from the sea floor in the 1960s of a pocket watch stopped at 11:43 a.m. recording the time of the devastating earthquake shortly before on June 7, 1692, largely destroying Port Royal, causing two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Seamarker 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 hemispheremarker, yielding 16th–17th-century artifacts and many important treasures from indigenous peoples predating the 1588 founding, some from as far away as Guatemalamarker. Several 17th and early 18th century pirate ships sank within Kingston Harbourmarker and are 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 Kingstonmarker. Current development in progress will redevelop the small fishing town into a tourist destination, serviced by cruise ships, with the archaeological findings at the heart of the attractions. These include a combination underwater museum-aquarium and restaurant with underwater dioramas and viewing of the native tropical sealife.

Colonization of Port Royal

Situated at the western end of the Palisadoesmarker sand spit that protects Kingston, Port Royal was well-positioned as a harbour. Its first visitors were the Arawak Indians, the native peoples of what is today called Haitimarker. The Arawak Indians used the land during their fishing expeditions, although it is not known whether they ever settled at the spit. They did, however, inhabit other parts of the Jamaican island.

The Spanish first landed in Jamaica under the leadership of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Permanent settlement occurred when Juan de Esquevil brought a group of settlers in 1509. The Spanish came to Jamaica in search of gold and silver, but found none. Instead they began what they saw as a viable alternative: enslaving Arawaks to farm the sugar cane that Esquevil had transported from England with him. Much like the Arawak peoples before them, the Spanish did not appear to have much use for Port Royal area. The area could not provide them with the precious metals they sought. Still, Spain kept control of the territory, mostly so that it could prevent other countries from accessing the island so strategically placed within the trade routes of the Caribbean. Spain maintained control over the island for 146 years, until the English invasion of 1655.

England acquired it in 1655. England never intended to take the island of Jamaica, but they did intend to take land from Spain. Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Realm, had sent an English fleet to capture Hispaniola. His goal was to give England a trading base in the middle of the Spanish New World. The fleet, however, failed miserably at its attempt and was disgracefully beaten in Santo Domingo. Facing defeat, and fearing the rage of Lord Cromwell, Commanders General William Penn and Admiral Robert Venables chose to capture Jamaica as a consolation prize. The fleet arrived in Jamaica on May 10, 1655, greatly outnumbering their Spanish opposition. They found it relatively easy to gain control of the island, but immediately realized that a larger Spanish force could easily take it back just as quickly. By 1659, two hundred houses, shops, and warehouses surrounded the fort, and by 1692 five forts defended the port.

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 Townmarker overtook this role, later followed by Kingston, whose development was spurred through resettlement of quake-survivors.

Defence of the Port

In 1657, as a solution to his defence issue, Governor Edward D’Oley invited the Brethren of the Coast to come to Port Royal and make it their homeport. The Brethren was made up of a group of pirates who were descendents of cattle-hunting buccaneers who had turned to piracy themselves after being robbed by the Spanish (and subsequently thrown out of Hispaniola). These pirates were a seemingly perfect solution; their attacks were concentrated against Spain, the main threat to the town. These pirates later became legal English privateers who were given letters of marque by Jamaica’s governor. Around the same time that pirates were invited to Port Royal, England launched a series of attacks against Spanish shipping vessels and coastal towns. By sending the newly appointed privateers after Spanish ships and settlements, England had successfully set up a system of defense for Port Royal. Spain was forced to continually defend their property, and did not have the means with which to retake its land.


In addition to being unable to retake their land, Spain was no longer able to provide their colonies in the New World with manufactured goods on a regular basis. The progressive irregularity of annual Spanish fleets, combined with an increasing desperation by colonies for manufactured goods, allowed Port Royal to flourish. Merchants and privateers worked together in what is now referred to as forced trade. Merchants would sponsor trading endeavors with the Spanish while also sponsoring privateers to attack Spanish ships and rob Spanish coastal towns. While the merchants most certainly had the upper hand, it was the privateers who were an integral part of the operation. Nuala Zahedieh, a lecturer at The University of Edinburgh, wrote “Both opponents and advocates of so-called ‘forced trade’ declared the town’s fortune had the dubious distinction of being founded entirely on the servicing of the privateers’ needs and highly lucrative trade in prize commodities.” She wrote further “A report that the 300 men who accompanied Henry Morgan to Portobello in 1668 returned to the town with a prize to spend of at least £60 each (two or three times the usual annual plantation wage) leaves little doubt that they were right.”

The forced trade became almost a way of life in Port Royal. Michael Pawson and David Busseret wrote “…one way or the other nearly all the propertied inhabitants of Port Royal seem to have an interest in privateering.” Forced trade was rapidly making Port Royal one of the wealthiest communities in the English territories of North America, far surpassing any profit made from the production of sugar cane. Zahedieh wrote “The Portobello raid [in 1668] alone produced plunder worth £75,000, more than seven times the annual value of the island’s sugar exports, which at Port Royal prices did not exceed £10,000 at this time.”

Piracy in Port Royal

Port Royal provided a safe harbour initially for privateers and subsequently for pirates plying the shipping lanes to and from Spainmarker and Panamamarker. Buccaneers found Port Royal appealing for several reasons. Its proximity to trade routes allowed them easy access to prey, but the most important advantage was the port's proximity to several of the only safe passages or straights giving access to the Spanish main from the Atlantic. 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, Portobellomarker, and Maracaibomarker. Roche Brasiliano, John Davis , 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 Jamaicanmarker 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 200 buildings crammed into 51 acres (206,000 m²) of real estate. 213 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 were 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 most of its northern section to fall into the sea (and with it many of the town’s houses and other buildings). In addition, the island lost many of its forts. Fort Charles survived, but Forts James and Carlisle sank into the sea. Fort Rupert became a large region of water, and great damage was done to an area known as Morgan’s Line. Although the earthquake hit the entire island of Jamaica, the citizens of Port Royal were at a greater risk of death due to the perilous sand, falling buildings, and the tidal wave that followed. Though the local authorities tried to remove or sink all of the corpses from the water, they were not successful. Some simply got away from them, while others were trapped in places that were inaccessible. The decomposing bodies combined with improper housing, a lack of medicine or clean water, and the fact that most of the survivors were homeless, led to many people dying of malignant fevers. 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.

Many viewed this horrific event as God’s punishment for unlawful proceedings by group of sinful people. Major events, such as earthquakes and other natural disasters, were seen as heavenly punishments for sins, or signs of much greater retributions to come. The people of Port Royal had erected several places for worship, and it was reported that within the population were Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Jews, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers. Nevertheless, a historian has written, “Organised religion […] had little impact on the population. Material concerns occupied the attention of most, particularly the rich.” It became a general consensus that worldly desires had become far too important to the citizens of Port Royal, be they wealthy or not. Some went so far as to say it was home to some of the vilest individuals on earth. The quake was to be seen as a message to all Christians, not just those living in Jamaica. Reverend Cotton Mather wrote that the earthquake was an event speaking to all of English America.

The earthquake caused the sand on which Port Royal was built to liquefy and flow out into Kingston Harbour. The water table was generally only two feet down before the impact. “Modern scientists have determined that much of the ground on which the town stands comprises little more than water-saturated sand for about sixty-five feet, at which point sand and gravel mix with coral reef.” This type of area did not provide a solid foundation on which to build an entire town. Unlike the Spanish before them, the English decided to settle and develop the small area of land, even while acknowledging that the area was nothing but “hot loose sand”. The town grew rapidly, reaching a population of around 6,500 people with approximately 2,000 dwellings by 1692. As they began to run out of land on which to build, it became common practice to either fill in areas of water and build new infrastructure on top of it, or simply build buildings taller. In addition, buildings gradually became heavier as the residents adopted the brick style homes of their native England. Some urged the population to adopt the low, wooden building style of the previous Spanish inhabitants, but many refused. In the end all of these separate entities combined were a disaster waiting to happen. According to Mulcahy, “[Modern] scientists and underwater archaeologists now believe that the earthquake was a powerful one and that much of the damage at Port Royal resulted from a process known as liquefaction.”. Liquefaction occurs when earthquakes strike ground that is loose, sandy, and water-saturated, increasing the water pressure and causing the particles to separate from one another and form a sludge resembling quicksand. Eyewitness accounts attested to buildings sliding into the water, but it is more likely that they simply sank straight down into the now unstable layer.

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 by fire. Subsequent rebuilding was hampered by several hurricanes in the first half of the 18th century, including flooding from the sea in 1722, a further fire in 1750 and a major hurricane in 1774, and soon Kingston eclipsed Port Royal in importance. In 1815 what repairs were being undertaken were destroyed in another major fire, while the whole island was severely affected by an epidemic of cholera in 1850.

Although a work of historical fiction James Michener's The Caribbean details the history, atmosphere and geography of Port Royal accurately.

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. This is in part a result of abandonment of plans begun in the early 1960s to develop the town as a cruise ship port and destination; the plans for which stimulated the archaeological explorations on the site, which in turn led to suspension of the development.

In 1981 the Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University began a ten-year underwater archaeological investigation of the portion of Port Royal that sank underwater during the 17th century. The area the team focused on had sunk directly into the sea, and suffered very little damage. Due to very low oxygen levels, a large amount of organic material could be recovered. The efforts made by the program have allowed everyday life in the English colonial port city to be reconstructed with great detail.

In 1998, the Port Royal Development Company commissioned architectural firm The Jerde Partnership to create a master plan for the redevelopment of Port Royal, which was completed in 2000. The focus of the plan is a 17th century-themed attraction that reflects the city's heritage. It has two anchor areas: Old Port Royal and the King’s Royal Naval Dockyard. Old Port Royal features a cruise ship pier extending from a reconstructed Chocolata Hole harbour and Fisher's Row, a group of cafes and shops on the waterfront. The King’s Royal Naval Dockyard has a shipbuilding museum and the headquarters for the Admiral of the Royal Navy. The plan also includes a five-star hotel.

Port Royal has been featured as a location within Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean film series, though much of the location work for Port Royal was actually done on the island of Saint Vincentmarker, not in Jamaica.


  1. Historic Earthquakes retrieved April 9, 2008
  2. frozen hands on a retrieved watch, the first time in history archaeologists have an (nearly) exact time for an earthquake (History Channel Ancient Almanac)
  3. Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  4. Peter Briggs, Buccaneer Harbor, Vol. I (New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, Children's Book Division, 1970).
  5. Donny L. Hamilton, "Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica," in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, ed. Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, 13-30 (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2006).
  6. Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  7. Donny L. Hamilton, "Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica," in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, ed. Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, 13-30 (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2006).
  8. Donny L. Hamilton, "Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica," in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, ed. Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, 13-30 (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2006).
  9. Donny L. Hamilton, "Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica," in X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, ed. Russell K. Skowronek and Charles R. Ewen, 13-30 (Gainesville, Florida: University Press of Florida, 2006).
  10. Nuala Zahedieh, "Trade, Plunder, and Economic Development in Early English Jamaica, 1655-89," The Economic History Review 39, no. 2 (1986): 205-222.
  11. Nuala Zahedieh, "Trade, Plunder, and Economic Development in Early English Jamaica, 1655-89," The Economic History Review 39, no. 2 (1986): 205-222.
  12. Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2000).
  13. Nuala Zahedieh, "Trade, Plunder, and Economic Development in Early English Jamaica, 1655-89," The Economic History Review 39, no. 2 (1986): 205-222.
  14. Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  15. Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (London: Oxford University Press, 1975).
  16. Professor Larry Gragg, "The Port Royal Earthquake of 1692," History Today 50, no. 9 (2000): 28-34.
  17. Matthew Mulcahy, "The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica," Early American Studies 6, no. 2 (2008): 391-422.
  18. Matthew Mulcahy, "The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica," Early American Studies 6, no. 2 (2008): 391-422
  19. Matthew Mulcahy, "The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica," Early American Studies 6, no. 2 (2008): 391-422.
  20. Donny L. Hamilton, "The Port Royal Project: History of Port Royal," Nautical Archaeology Program, June 1, 2001, (accessed March 20, 2009).

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