I never really understood why we have the group-specific History Months. Like it’s all history right? Why the need to occasionally single out this group or that group?
A couple of weeks ago in one of my anthropology classes some guy from the department asked us to do a survey so they could figure out if we were learning the right things, and gave each of us a question. I don’t recall the exact wording of mine, but I was supposed to define the concepts of sex vs. gender and write about a recent change in gender roles. I picked a quick & easy topic: women entering the workforce during World War 2 & the long-standing changes that stemmed from that. Easy. I could write about that in my sleep.
In that moment, I realized that I have no idea what that experience looked like in any other racial community. Like I’ve never seen a non-white Rosie the Riveter (not one of the original ones anyway). Not once in my life have I come across a photo of a bunch of women building bombs and not every single one of them was white. I’m sure they’re out there but I’ve never seen them. It never even occurred to me to look for them, which says a lot about how I’ve been educated. Chalk it up to media racism in the 1940s, ethnocentrism, whatever, it doesn’t matter, I’ve taken a zillion history classes and nobody’s ever brought it up. We don’t talk about black people between slavery & civil rights. Not much is ever said about Hispanics outside of colonialism and whatever happened in Texas. Asians get passing mentions with the railroads & internment camps, maybe somebody mentions a Chinese laundry, but that’s about it.
I still don’t care much for the special History Months, but I think that’s because it’s not really an inclusive concept, plus they recycle the same history over and over. Make all of history class inclusive. Bring in more perspectives on a wider slice of of life. Please!
As the silt from the landslides drifted down the rivers and out into the bay, it settled in a fine layer over the ruins of Port Royal, sealing away a perfect snapshot of seventeenth-century Jamaican life. The first real archaeological survey of any importance occurred in 1959, when Edwin and Marion Link led an expedition sponsored by National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Institute of Jamaica. This was the first mission with their new boat Sea Diver, the first in the world specifically designed for marine archaeology. The precise time of the earthquake is known from x-rays of one of their finds: a brass pocket watch with hands stopped at 11:43. They discovered the location of a shipbuilder when they uncovered a trove of ship parts with no fittings and unearthed a fifteenth-century Spanish swivel-gun that may well have been on a vessel belonging to Christopher Columbus. They found that a man named James Littleton was likely running a tavern by the amount of kitchen equipment cemented together within the ruins of a building that property maps said was his house, including a copper pot still containing the bones of a turtle being cooked for lunch. They even know what the building looked like because the muck preserved red roof tiles, blackened hearth bricks, and white plaster still imprinted with patterns of the wattle walls it had covered. Numerous clay pipes and beer bottles gave them a good idea of what the inhabitants did with their spare time (Link, 1960).
In the mid-1960s a plan emerged to develop Port Royal into a tourist destination with hotels, condos, a marina, and a huge cruise ship pier that would require dredging of the sea floor. A series of small earthquakes shifted the silt around enough to reveal walls and small artifacts, which were immediately picked over by treasure hunters and sold to tourists. The Jamaican government realized that the only way to protect the site from looting was to excavate it themselves, and hired marine archaeologist Robert F. Marx to lead the project. In just his first day of exploratory diving, he found shipwrecks, anchors, and numerous objects from the time of the earthquake. He also discovered a clay pot that was the first evidence of an Arawak Indian settlement on the site. Years of uncovering buildings and artifacts stymied private development by rich outsiders, despite arguments with the government and threats to Marx himself (Marx, 1973). This is fortunate because Port Royal was by then considered one of the best late-seventeenth-century sites anywhere in the world. The Link and Marx excavations proved that the area had the potential to be better than any other British colonial location of its time period (Mayes & Mayes, 1972).
Throughout the 1980s Donny Hamilton led the Port Royal Project, a joint venture by the Nautical Archaeology Program of Texas A&M University, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust. His team found that the oxygen-free mud had preserved a large amount of organic material for the last three hundred years, including the remains of the HMS Swan, which they were able to identify because it was still lying on top of a house. Another building in their investigation was divided into three separate two-room shops. Leather scraps, shoe soles, and a lathe revealed that one probably had a cobbler and wood turner in the front room, while animal bones suggest that a butcher occupied the rear. Pipes, bottles, and kegs in the other two sections show that both were most likely taverns or wine shops (Hamilton, 2000a, 2001, 2006). Historical documents such as wills and probate inventories kept in the Jamaican archives allowed the archaeologists to connect their finds directly to the people who had lived and worked in Port Royal around the time of the earthquake. The combination of written records and recovered objects allowed them to find out exactly who owned particular houses, what sort of trades they practiced, and how their lives intersected with those of their neighbors (Hamilton, 2000b).
Today, Port Royal is a town of just two thousand inhabitants. Little of its wild past remains on the surface: just two historic buildings, both of which date from after the earthquake. The underwater ruins, however, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pots remained in their hearths with bits of charred wood attached to them and one trash barrel still contained the remains of a 1692 haircut. It is the only submerged city in the Western Hemisphere and the slice of life preserved there gives us a clear picture of how people lived in a time of colonial expansion and industrial transition. Its artifacts and documents reveal how trade flowed across the world and what people wore, ate, and used in their everyday lives. (“The Underwater City”).
Port Royal burned hot and bright but only for a moment. Despite existing for just thirty-seven years, it was among the wealthiest and most important cities in the colonial Western Hemisphere. It was populated by people from an unheard of variety of classes, nationalities, professions, and faiths. Three hundred years after its demise, it has become one of the most important archaeological sites of its time period anywhere in the world. The homes, belongings, and in some cases the bones of its residents provide an unparalleled view of what their lives were like at the very moment of destruction. Not much has been excavated so far, and Port Royal undoubtedly has many more lessons to offer.
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
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.)
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).
I attended a wonderful lecture this week by Dr. Stephen Mandal of the Irish Archaeology Field School about their work on the Black Friary in Trim, County Meath, just north of Dublin. He covered not only the history of the site and the excavation, but what they call community archaeology – making it relevant to the local public.
The Black Friary was founded in 1263 by Geoffrey de Geneville and occupied by French Dominicans who wore black robes, leading to them being known as the black friars. At the time, Trim was a strategically important town to England for their on again off again wars with the French, and the influx of soldiers needing people who were praying for them led to friaries popping up all over the place. After Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church in the 1530s so he could take all their stuff, the Black Friary was abandoned. A building boom in the 18th century led to the friary being dismantled down to its foundations for material and the site was left as a field where locals walked their dogs.
The importance of the site was only realized when 12 skeletons showed up in a drainage digging project. The archaeologists have found a wide variety of artifacts that show us many different layers of culture and history. Bits of decorative stonework shipped in from England and delicate shards of stained glass show that these people had a ton of money. A uniform button from a militia based in another town was confusing until they found historical records of the group spending the night in the field on their way to a battle in Dublin. Based on what they haven’t found in the dig, they think the friars took the floor tiles and whatever other valuables they could carry with them when they left. In six seasons of digging they’ve found one hundred unmarked graves scattered around the site, from ancient burials of soldiers killed in battle to unbaptized infants secretly interred within the last century. One man’s teeth show wear patterns of having a pipe clamped between them for years. Local people living around the site regularly find human bones in their backyards! In fact the graves are the reason there’s anything left there at all; the people taking the stone for their own projects dug down only until they found a skeleton – anything at or below that level was reburied.
The Black Friary is just one of several standing Medieval ruins in Trim, and they’ve worked really hard to get the community on board with the dig. Every year they have tours, mock excavations for children, and classroom outreach. Their field school students stay in the homes of local families and bring their enthusiasm back with them at the end of the day. I don’t know if I could afford their field school, but I desperately want to visit this town, it sounds incredible.
I feel like most people don’t realize how broad of a field archaeology is. Everybody thinks of excavating ancient sites and trying to understand cultures that haven’t existed for many hundreds or thousands of years. There’s a lot of that, but there’s a lot more. Medieval churches, Renaissance cemeteries, Colonial forts, even World War battlefields all fall under the archaeologist’s efforts to understand the past through physical evidence. There are ongoing excavations at a former slave townsite in Illinois, a 17th-century castle in Ireland, and a synagogue in Poland that was looted by Nazis. I’ve had people tell me that everything’s already been discovered. They’re wrong.
Recently I attended a lecture at the Sedona Public Library about Charles Lindbergh’s work in archaeology. While flying over Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, he began to wonder if the Mayan ruins he was seeing had ever been found by scientists, and it occurred to him that the ability to spot buildings and patterns on the ground from the air could be of real use to the archaeological community. As it turned out, he was right. Working with the Carnegie Institution he and his wife Anne discovered and photographed many previously unknown ruins tucked deep in the canyons of the American Southwest. They could cover in just a few hours what would take weeks or months to explore on foot. Ancient roads, sacred kivas, and hidden pueblos impossible to see from ground level became plainly obvious from the air.
Besides the discoveries themselves, these photos also give us an idea of what some of our most famous public lands looked like nearly a century ago, when they were still untouched by tourism. Many of these places have since acquired parking lots, visitor’s centers, hordes of camera-wielding vacationers, and probably quite a bit of graffiti, but the Lindbergh photos give us an idea of what they were like before society marched into them.