Boris Savinkov, Revolutionary Patriot

This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Soviet Union class at the University of South Florida.

Early in his career Boris Savinkov was a passionate, courageous fighter for a radical cause that he believed in.  He built a reputation as a “man of action” among social revolutionaries as he took the helm in their terrorist activities.  Disillusionment and depression set in after the betrayal of a comrade and again with the Bolshevik takeover.  His own writings are suggestive of someone struggling but still fighting.  The man of action seemed unable to succeed at anything but was still an influential figure in the battle for Russian freedom.

Savinkov was born in 1879 in Ukraine and received his secondary education in Warsaw.  He had his first encounters with protest and law enforcement as a student, when he was arrested three different times and expelled from Petersburg University for his participation in disturbances and distribution of manifestoes.  He was finally exiled to Vologda in 1902, where he came under the influence of Breshko-Breshkovskaia and became interested in populist socialism.  After his escape in 1903, he made his way to Geneva, where he joined the Battle Organization of the Social Revolutionary Party, serving under a man named Evno Azev (Biggart, 1983).  Savinkov occupied a bit of an odd niche among his new comrades.  His father had been a military court judge, which left him as one of few revolutionaries who was familiar with military life.  His education in Poland also made him sympathetic to the cause of Polish nationalism (Footman, 1958).

Once in the SR’s Battle Organization, Savinkov rose to a leadership position and became responsible for planning their terrorist activities (Florinsky, 1961).  He wandered illegally in and out of Russia for years on SR business.  He orchestrated the assassinations of Interior Minister Plehve in 1904 and the Governor-General of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, in 1905.  He organized the execution of a police informant in 1906, the same year he made a spectacular escape after he was arrested in Sevastopol (Footman, 1958).  His activities at this time in his life gave him a reputation as a “man of action,” and he eventually rose to the ranks of the SR Central Committee (Biggart, 1983).  Savinkov seems to have been a happy and passionate true believer in these early years – the kind of revolutionary who wrote poetry over dinner to win a bet.  His first book, Memoirs of a Terrorist, reflects this perspective – it is full of idealist hero-terrorists who abandon their missions rather than throw bombs at children (“Portrait,” 2009).

The golden age of the Battle Organization came to a halt in 1908 when its leader, Azev, was revealed to be an agent of the tsar’s secret police force.  With their terrorist activities discredited, the group was in shambles and never recovered.  Savinkov finally gave up trying to rebuild it in 1911 (Biggart, 1983).  Savinkov himself appears to have had a hard time recovering his idealism and belief in the revolutionary cause.  Tired and disappointed with his comrades, he shocked other members of the SR in 1909 when he asked “If it’s all right to kill a person, then what difference does it make who and with what motive? (“Portrait,” 2009)”  The two novels he wrote in exile in France following Azev’s betrayal suggest a man struggling with depression and disillusionment.  The Pale Horse depicts a passionate, ruthless hero, but one who is not a true believer.  The idealist in the group is shown with sympathy, but the narrator-protagonist is not driven by the same sense of righteousness – he is merely doing his job.  David Footman refers to the novel as “Savinkov as Savinkov liked to see himself.”  The second novel, That Which Was Not, is a miserable work that finds hope only at the end, in the wisdom of peasants and workers.  Later at his trial, Savinkov admitted that he was a member of the SR, “though a bad one,” and this sense of disconnection readily comes though in his fictional work (Footman, 1958).

Savinkov found purpose at the outbreak of war in 1914, when he saw a new chance to fight for freedom and volunteered for the French army.  He had fought against the oppressive regime of the tsar, and upon his return to Russia in 1917 he turned to fighting the oppressive regime of the Bolsheviks.  He told Winston Churchill, “I know them well, Lenin and Trotsky.  For years we worked hand in hand for the liberation of Russia.  Now they have enslaved her worse than ever (Churchill, 1973).”  His reputation led Prime Minister Kerenski of the Provisional Government to give him a post as the commissar of the 7th Army on the southwestern front and later to appoint him as the Assistant Minister of War.  The SR was unhappy with his advancement, but by then he was too disappointed in them to care (Biggart, 1983).  Even his comrades in the government were surprised by the appointment of the assassin to such a post, but no one could deny his abilities (Churchill, 1973).

Savinkov’s reputation and passion gave him the ability to restore order to the chaos of the front, even among those soldiers who had murdered their own officers.  His organizational abilities soon had the administration repaired and the army was able to win a battle at Brzezany in July.  After the disastrous battle at Tarnopol later that month Savinkov requested that the general, Gutor, be replaced by a popular commander named Kornilov.  This tough, rigid, capable soldier seemed like the perfect compliment for the smart, scheming Savinkov.  Together with Kerenski, they might have been able to keep Russia out of Bolshevik hands, but it was not to be (Churchill, 1973).

What came to be known as the Kornilov Affair is debated by historians.  Some see it as an attempted coup, others as a terrible misunderstanding.  According to Richard Pipes, paranoia of a right-wing takeover on Kerenski’s part led him to distrust Kornilov far more than he should have, and potentially set him up to appear as though he were attempting a dictatorial coup.  Savinkov, then Kerenski’s Deputy Minister of War, saw the disconnect between the two men: “[Kornilov] loves freedom…but Russia comes for him first, and freedom second, while for Kerensky…freedom and revolution come first, and Russia second.”  When Savinkov came to Kerenski with information that the Bolsheviks were going to support a German advance in September, Kerenski sent Kornilov to Petrograd and told him to impose martial law there to stamp out the uprising, an odd move on his part since he did not take the Bolshevik threat seriously.  In fact, he may have been orchestrating Kornilov’s downfall (Pipes, 1995).

At this point, a conservative former Duma member named Vladimir Lvov stepped into the situation and created a perfect storm for Kornilov’s dismissal.  He went back and forth between Kerenski and Kornilov telling each that he represented the other and driving a wedge between them.  Savinkov suspected a misunderstanding when Kerenski thought Kornilov was demanding dictatorial power and begged the Prime Minister to talk to the general again, but by then he was demanding his own dictatorship to crush Kornilov’s imaginary coup.  Meanwhile Kornilov advanced on Petrograd against an imaginary Bolshevik coup and asked for the city to be placed under martial law, in Kerenski’s mind confirming his fears.  In the end, both men tried to motivate the Russian peasantry to rise up against the other.  Kerenski had Kornilov charged with treason, despite Savinkov informing him of Lvov’s interference (Pipes, 1995).

The Kornilov affair alienated the Prime Minister from people on both ends of the political spectrum and benefitted the Bolsheviks immensely.  Many of them were released from prison, they made huge gains in the municipal elections at the expense of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, they ended up with thousands of weapons that Kerenski himself had given them to help him defend Petrograd against Kornilov, and Kerenski lost the support of the military, who then did nothing to save him from the October Revolution (Pipes, 1995).  For his part, Savinkov was given the post of Military Governor of Petrograd for all of three days before Kerenski dismissed him (Footman, 1958).  When he was summoned before the SR Central Committee to account for his role in the affair, he didn’t even care about what they thought enough show up, ending his relationship with the party (“Portrait,” 2009).  Other authors have characterized the Kornilov Affair as a failed mutiny (Florinsky, 1961; “Portrait, 2009) or a confusing result of the chaos of war (Churchill, 1973).  According to John Biggart, Savinkov blamed Kerenski for betraying the army (Biggart, 1983).

Savinkov spent the rest of the Russian Civil War fighting with whichever counter-revolutionaries would have him.  He joined a group of Cossacks in a failed attempt to take the Winter Palace from the Communists, a venture that might have changed everything had they been successful.  Along with General Kornilov, he helped to establish the White Army.  He tried and failed to found the Union for the Defense of the Motherland and Freedom (“Portrait,” 2009).  Under General Alekseev, he recruited 5,000 officers and sought financial and political help for a unit of the White Army that was supposed to wait in Yaroslavl for the rest of the army to make their approach and then lead an uprising.  It might have gone better had not the mistress of one of his officers betrayed them to the Cheka and gotten 100 people arrested and executed.  Afraid of losing his men and short on cash, Savinkov made his move, taking Yaroslavl and two other nearby cities.  He later claimed that the Allies had promised help and may have believed that success for his group would inspire a popular anti-Communist rebellion, but neither the help nor the rebellion ever came and the Communists took back Yaroslavl after sixteen days of fighting.  Savinkov escaped, but 350 of his men were executed (Pipes, 1995).  His books from this time suggest that he had fallen back into despair (“Portrait,” 2009).

Savinkov next participated in an anti-Bolshevik raid from Kazan under General Kappel before moving on to Omsk, where he fell in with Minister of War Kolchak and Avksentiev of the Omsk Directorate.  By then his many failures kept him from any real responsibility.  The Omsk authorities sent him as an envoy to Paris, where he worked with the British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, to send British supplies back to Russia (Footman, 1958).  He found himself quite popular among Russian émigrés in France, who seemed to have forgiven him for his past misdeeds as a terrorist as well as his role in the Kornilov Affair (“Portrait,” 2009).

In 1919, with the White Army defeated, Savinkov was invited to Warsaw to discuss the possibility of him raising army units comprised of Russian refugees living in Poland.  At the outbreak of the Russo-Polish War and the failure of Ukrainian separatists to come to Poland’s assistance, he finally got the chance to organize his men.  At this point in his life, Savinkov seems not to have found anyone worthy of his effort.  He did not get along with anyone, did not like any of the possible commanders, wanted the Russian units to be independent even though Poland was footing the bill, treated his deputy Derenthal poorly, and there were even rumors about his relationship with Mrs. Derenthal.  With an armistice signed while they were still in camp, the Russian units decided to fight alone.  The Russian National Army of Liberation advanced to Mozyr before meeting Red opposition and was subsequently decimated in fighting that was nasty even against the atrocities of the Russian Civil War.  Savinkov blamed the commanders that he had not liked in the first place (Footman, 1958).

With this final disappointment, Savinkov came the conclusion that the Bolsheviks could not be overthrown by an external force, but would have to be taken down from within, by the Russian workers and peasants he had praised a decade earlier in That Which Was Not.  Even so, he kept fighting.  He launched the Green Movement, which demanded the abolition of the Cheka, free elections in the Soviets, and the right to private property, in an attempt to unify opposition.  He formed the Russian Political Center in Warsaw, and wanted a return to the use of assassination and sabotage.  Financed by Poland and France, he recruited agents from what was left of the Russian National Army of Liberation and sent them into Russian territory, where they probably gathered some intelligence but never managed to whip up enough fervor among the peasantry for an uprising.  A lack of loyalty and control among his agents resulted in double-crossing and banditry, and yet another failure.  Finally, he was expelled from Poland at Russia’s request, and returned to France (Footman, 1958).

Ever the schemer, Savinkov kept in touch with his revolutionary organizations, talked with Mussolini, and visited Czechoslovakia.  He wrote The Black Horse in 1923, about a disillusioned hero who kept fighting anyway.  Lured back to Russia with the promise of an underground group there waiting for him to lead them, Savinkov was arrested at the border on August 20th, 1924.  His trial, one which lacked the trappings typical of Soviet state trials, ended in the middle of the night on August 29th, and his death sentence was commuted to imprisonment that evening.  He spent most of his trial describing his own disillusionment, but did manage to say that he had found that the Russian people liked the Soviet regime, despite not having seen or talked to any of them (Footman, 1958).

Imprisoned at Liubianka, Savinkov was kept comfortable with books, newspapers, visitors, and occasional car rides through the city.  He continued writing short stories and open letters to his left-wing comrades, telling them that the Russian people were working hand-in-hand with the government to fix the problems with the regime.  His friend Burstev, the man who had outed Azev as a double agent back in 1908, called him a liar.  Soviet authorities announced Savinkov’s death five days after it had occurred, on May 12th, 1925 (Footman, 1958).  They claimed he threw himself out of a prison window, but to this day no one knows if that is actually true.  Many of his former SR comrades were now working for the Cheka, and could easily have gotten rid of him.  It has even been claimed that he was murdered at the border in 1924 and everything else was staged (“Portrait,” 2009).

Savinkov’s trial and death created much controversy among his Russian émigré friends.  Some kept faith with him, but others believed that he had set everything up with the Soviets himself before his return and considered him a traitor.  According to David Footman, the precarious position of the Soviets in the 1920s would have led them to seek the cooperation of men like Savinkov.  If they could get him, someone so central to the counter-revolutionary cause, to turn on his friends, it would help solidify their situation.  Burstev wrote that Savinkov probably never believed the promises of acquittal and government jobs that were being made in exchange for his confession and support, but thought himself crafty enough to outwit the Soviet authorities, if he played his cards right.  For their part, the Soviets did not believe a word he said either, so his plans failed one last time (Footman, 1958).

Opinions of Savinkov’s life differ.  British agents who knew him during and after the revolution had an intense admiration for him.  Winston Churchill thought highly enough of him to include an essay on him in Great Contemporaries, saying “…few men tried more, gave more, dared more and suffered more for the Russian people (Churchill, 1973).”  R.H. Bruce Lockhart called him “the famous Social-Revolutionary.”  Savinkov visited Lockhart in Prague in the company of another Brit, Sidney Reilly, the two of them scheming together to bring down the Bolsheviks (Lockhart, 1934).  Likewise Oliver Radkey, an American writing about them later, thought the true believers among the SR terrorists to be brave, hard-working souls with a difficult task (Radkey, 1958).  The Polish-American historian Richard Pipes called him “efficient and courageous (Pipes, 1995).”  On the other hand, Russian Life magazine, controlled by Russian Information Services, calls him “a disillusioned decadent who had seen and done so many awful things in his life (“Portrait,” 2009).”

Boris Savinkov was instrumental in the effort to depose the tsar, and had he succeeded in any of his many ventures against the Bolsheviks, he might have changed the history of the world.  He was influential enough among counter-revolutionaries for the Soviet authorities to set an elaborate trap for him.  Today, he is viewed as either a courageous patriot or a bloodthirsty killer, depending on the writer’s feelings about Russia and Communism.  In a meeting recounted by Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister Lloyd George said he believed the worst of the Communist revolution to be over and that the Bolshevik regime would soon collapse.  “’Mr. Prime Minister,’ said Savinkov in his formal way, ‘you will permit me the honour of observing that after the fall of the Roman Empire there ensued The Dark Ages (Churchill, 1973).’”  Given the problems encountered by Eastern European and Central Asian countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union, maybe he was right.

 

Works Cited:

Biggart, John, “Savinkov, Boris Viktorovich,” in The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, Vol. 33, Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1983, 113-16 (available in some academic/library settings)

Churchill, Winston S., “Boris Savinkov,” in Great Contemporaries, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1973, 125-33

Florinsky, Michael T., M.A., Ph.D., ed, “Savinkov, Boris Viktorovich,” in McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet Union, 1st ed, New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1961, 496-97

Footman, David, “Boris V. Savinkov: 1879-1925,” in History Today, February 1958: 73-8 (requires membership/subscription)

Lockhart, R.H. Bruce, Retreat From Glory, New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934

Pipes, Richard, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, 1st ed, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, 130-132

“Portrait of a terrorist: Boris Savinkov (born January 19, 1879),” in Russian Life, 2009, 24, Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost: 24-25 (requires membership/subscription)

Radkey, Oliver Henry, The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries February to October 1917, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1958.

 

 

 

 

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Racist History

 

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!

Port Royal Earthquake, Part 3: The Archaeology of Port Royal

This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Caribbean class at the University of South Florida.

Part 1 | Part 2

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).

Port Royal Project Archaeological Excavations, Building 4/5.

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.

References:

Hamilton, Donny L. “Archaeological Excavations.” The Port Royal Project, 2000

Hamilton, Donny L. “Historical Research.” The Port Royal Project, 2000

Hamilton, Donny L. “Port Royal Archives – Building 1.” The Port Royal Project, 2001

Hamilton, Donny L. “Pirates and Merchants: Port Royal, Jamaica.” X Marks the Spot: The Archaeology of Piracy, 2006, pg. 2-30

Link, Marion Clayton. “Exploring the Drowned City of Port Royal.” National Geographic February 1960, pg. 151-83 (Online archive requires access.)

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.)

The Underwater City of Port Royal.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre

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Port Royal Earthquake, Part 2: After June 7th, 1692, 11:43 am

This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Caribbean class at the University of South Florida.

Part 1 | Part 3

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 quotebecame 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).

Image result for Port Royal Earthquake
“A True and Perfect Reflection of the most Sad and Terrible EARTHQUAKE, at Port-Royal in Jamaica.”

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).

References:

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.)

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Port Royal Earthquake, Part 1: Before June 7th, 1692, 11:43 am

This post comes from a paper I wrote for my History of the Caribbean class at the University of South Florida.

Part 2 | Part 3

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).

References:

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.

The Black Friary

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.

A Narrow View

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.