This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Caribbean class at the University of South Florida.
Less than forty years after the beginning of its development under British rule, Port Royal was rivaled in prosperity in the New World only by Boston. A colonial Sin City at the heart of seventeenth-century trade, Port Royal was home to merchants, tradesmen, pirates, prostitutes, and slaves, who together made it as fashionable and densely-populated as London. Buccaneers frequented the numerous brothels and pubs, parting with their loot as fast as they stole it and making everybody rich. The party came to an abrupt end in a matter of minutes in June of 1692, when the earth shook and two thirds of the town slid into the sea, preserving a snapshot of life in a place unlike any other.
Port Royal lies at the west end of the Palisades, a string of small islands that protects what is now Kingston Harbor, which was thought of as among the best and largest natural ports in the Americas. On the north side of town the land dropped off suddenly to a depth of six fathoms (eleven meters). The steep slope allowed large sea-going vessels to tie up directly to the wharf, eliminating the need to anchor offshore and use smaller boats to move cargo back and forth. At the time this was a selling point on the value of the town as a trading post, but it would prove disastrous later (Marx, 1973).
Although Jamaica was held by the Spanish for one hundred and fifty years, at the time of their control the cays of the Palisades were largely separated from each other so they never built anything on them. Port Royal did not get started until Jamaica was captured by Oliver Cromwell in 1655, by which time the ocean currents had filled the gaps between the islands with sandbars. Recognizing the strategic value of a point of land guarding a deep-water port in the very center of the Caribbean Sea, the British began work on a small stockade, which attracted a few settlers to build around it. At first they were only building on the center of the cay, which had a solid limestone base, but as the town grew it spread onto the sand built up around the edges, which had no foundation at all. Once they had built on every square inch of the natural area of the island the residents began expanding it artificially. They sank wooden pylons into the sea bed and then backfilled them with sand brought in from elsewhere. The result was a new surface to build on, but not an especially stable one. The sides of this artificial land sloped so steeply into the deep harbor that the prows of the largest ships frequently extended over the tops of the houses (Ellis, 1892).
By 1692 the village had become a thriving trade center protected by six forts: three on the channel that ships had to use to approach from the sea to the south, and three those ships then had to face as the rounded the point and entered the harbor on the north side of town. Together Forts Rupert, Charles, Morgan, Walker, James, and Carlisle housed over three hundred cannons and several hundred troops, making the tiny spit of sand one of the best defended places in the Caribbean (Marx, 1973). Between six thousand and ten thousand inhabitants occupied about two thousand buildings crammed onto just fifty-one acres. Port Royal had grown faster than any other English New World colony and had become incredibly wealthy as a central part of the Atlantic trade system as well as an exporter of sugar and other raw materials. The town was rich enough to have buildings made of brick and, uniquely among English colonies at the time, used coin currency instead of a barter system (“The Underwater City”). It had a structural density similar to Cheapside in London, with rent prices to match, and was rivaled in population in the New World only by Boston (Hamilton, 2006).
The merchants of Port Royal controlled trade throughout the Caribbean. They were the only legal point of entry into Jamaica and most of the slaves on their way to Spanish colonies passed through their hands. In a bid to further protect the town from the Spanish, Jamaican governor Edward D’Oley had invited the Brethren of the Coast to stay in Port Royal, occasionally even hiring them to assault Spanish interests for the English crown. The buccaneers, including the infamous Henry Morgan, made themselves rich attacking Spanish colonies and then brought their plunder back to town and made themselves poor again while making the brothels and pubs rich. The merchants were making money with both hands: at the same time they were trading with the Spanish, they were trading in the loot the pirates stole from the Spanish. The pirates lost their money quickly, but the merchants who gained it used it to finance plantations and make themselves richer, and clandestine trade continued long after the Treaty of Madrid had outlawed privateering in 1670. Henry Morgan was imprisoned for a time in London before returning to Port Royal as Sir Henry Morgan, lieutenant-governor of Jamaica, with the job of ending piracy on the island. (Hamilton, 2006).
Hundreds of ships visited Port Royal every year, full of sailors who’d been cooped up on them for months and were more than ready for a good time. A 1690 account describes a town where every fourth or fifth building consisted “of brothels, gaming houses, taverns, and grog shops.” One priest arrived and went straight back to England aboard the same ship, saying of his brief stay in Port Royal: “This town is the Sodom of the New World and since the majority of its population consists of pirates, cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world, I felt my permanence there was of no use and I could better preach the Word of God elsewhere among a better sort of folk.” In spite of this bad reputation, or maybe because everyone was too busy breaking as many laws as possible, Port Royal was also unique for being the only town in the New World with true religious toleration. Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Jewish people all worshiped unhindered in their own churches and synagogues (Marx, 1973).
A severe drought had just broken over the month of May and the wind had died, forcing ships to stay in the harbor and leaving the residents hot and bored. Thanks to the crowded conditions and tropical environment, diseases like malaria and smallpox already ran rampant, and now the people were even more fearful of the insect-borne fevers that the wet weather was sure to bring on. Between illness, excessive drunkenness, frequent dueling, and loose interpretations of what a doctor was, the average lifespan of a Port Royal resident was less than forty years. Oddly enough this would turn out to be the lifespan of Port Royal itself (Marx, 1973).
Ellis, Colonel A.B. “The Great Earthquake of Port Royal.” Popular Science Monthly, April 1892, pg. 774-84
Hamilton, Donny L. “Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, 2006, pg. 2-30
Marx, Robert F. Port Royal Rediscovered, 1973
“The Underwater City of Port Royal.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre.