This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Caribbean class at the University of South Florida.
As Port Royal’s residents prepared for lunch, the ground began to shake. Earthquakes were common in Jamaica and this one was no surprise to longtime residents like John White, President of the Council, who told his frightened companion Reverend Emmanuel Heath not to be afraid, that it would not last long. When the shaking only increased and then the church collapsed, they knew this was an extraordinary event. The two men became separated as they ran frantically through town. The Reverend first went towards Fort Morgan, thinking he would be safe out in the open, away from falling buildings. He changed his mind when he saw the fort tumbling into the sea and people being swallowed up by the earth. Deciding to go home and meet his certain demise there, he made his way back with houses and walls coming down all around him. Somehow getting through the chaos unscathed, he found that his home and those of his neighbors had hardly been touched. He spent part of that afternoon praying with other residents, trying to convince them to repent, for surely this was the vengeance upon “a most Ungodly Debauched People.” Exhausted from the heat and activity, he finally moved to safety aboard the Siam Merchant, a ship anchored in the harbor. On his way he found that the bustling wharf, the lovely brick houses around it, and even buildings two streets inland had disappeared into the sea. Once on board he met his friend the council president and spent a sleepless night listening to the cannons rattle as wave after wave of aftershocks struck the island (Heath, 1692).
While Reverend Heath was running around, a tsunami sank ships tied up in the harbor and the HMS Swan plowed right over the tops of several houses. The sand rose in waves from the streets, lifting people up and then dragging them back down as the ground yawned open, sometimes leaving arms, legs, or heads exposed on the surface. Some were swept out to sea clinging to what remained of their houses, and in a few cases were saved when they were sucked down into the earth and then thrown back out as the ocean washed in through the heaving ground. A French immigrant named Lewis Galdy was among this lucky handful, a fact noted on his gravestone when he died in 1739. The fresh bodies floating in the harbor were soon joined by those from the destroyed cemetery. As the shaking subsided, survivors wandered across the floating houses and ruined boats searching for loved ones (Marx, 1973).
As the solid limestone base of the cay shook, the sand built up around it had liquefied and was simply shaken down flat, taking two thirds of Port Royal to the sea floor with it. Other parts of Jamaica somehow fared even worse, “for scarcely a planter’s house or sugar-works withstood the shock anywhere.” Landslides in the interior caused forests to vanish and rivers to change course, while in the harbor the cays that made up the Palisades were once again separated from each other (Ellis, 1892). To the east, near Port Morant, an entire mountain was said to have sunk into the earth, leaving a ten-mile-long lake in its place. In all three thousand people were lost, two thousand of those in Port Royal (Marx, 1973).
Of the original fifty-one acres, thirty-three vanished within minutes (Hamilton, 2006).
In the midst of aftershocks, the residents of Port Royal were already stealing from each other. Reverend Heath was afraid to stay there because at soon as they were hidden by darkness the ruffians came out to break into the rich warehouses and take what they wanted from their neighbors’ abandoned homes, while in some cases the buildings were still falling on them as they did it. “And those audacious Whores that remain still upon the Place, are as Impudent, and Drunken as ever.” Even a natural disaster can’t slow some people down (Heath, 1692). He and the other authoritative citizens of the town hid on ships moored in the harbor, leaving the ruins to the criminals. Less than ten percent of the houses and only one of the forts, Charles, were left standing. Everything else was either a pile of rubble or underwater (Marx, 1973). The ground shook off and on for three weeks. Many of those who survived the initial disaster soon succumbed to disease and exposure as they camped on the site of what is now Kingston (Ellis, 1892).
By the time Colonel Ellis wrote about Port Royal two hundred years after its destruction he understood the event to be a natural phenomenon, but in 1692 it was considered retribution from God (Ellis, 1892). Doomsday predictions had been a mainstay of life in Port Royal for years without anyone paying much attention to them – there was too much money to be made. The wife of a preacher who had left Port Royal before the earthquake had once said that it “could not stand but would sink and be destroyed by the judgment of God,” a prophecy which the current minister had spoken of in his sermon the very Sunday before it happened (Marx, 1973). Reverend Heath preached to the survivors in a tent, not daring to enter the damaged houses, hoping that “by this terrible Judgment, God will make them reform their lives, for there was not a more ungodly People on the Face of the Earth” (Heath, 1692).
The earthquake had entirely turned the tide of peoples’ fortunes: rich men had become destitute and poor men had become rich by looting the destroyed buildings (Marx, 1973). Shipwreck salvage divers, or “wrackers” had been at Port Royal from its establishment and went to work immediately pillaging what they could from the vessels and houses left at the bottom of the bay. What was left of the town was destroyed again in 1703, this time by fire, finally pushing the merchant center of the Caribbean across the bay to Kingston. A century later there were just two hundred houses on the site of what had been the wickedest city in the world (Mayes & Mayes, 1972).
A True and Perfect Relation of That Most Sad and Terrible EARTHQUAKE, at Port-Royal in Jamaica. Caribbean National Weekly, June 7th, 2016
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
Heath, Rev. Emmanuel. A Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake at Port Royal in Jamaica : Written in Two Letters from the Minister of That Place : From a Board the Granada in Port Royal Harbour, June 22, 1692 (Original broadside in Early English Books Online, requires access. Slightly modified version in Lapham’s Quarterly.)
Marx, Robert F. Port Royal Rediscovered, 1973
Mayes, Philip, and P. A. Mayes. “Port Royal, Jamaica: The Archaeological Problems and Potential.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration, March 1972, pg 97-112 (Online archive requires access.)