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.


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




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).


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.)




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).


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.

This Week (and Last Week) in Awkwardness

I found a coyote by the side of the road who was hobbling around on three legs.  I contacted the Arizona Fish & Game people but they said as long as it was still mobile it was best to leave it be to heal on its own. :/

I shot some new light painting of dead trees & cacti & whatnot.


I can now add earthquake to the list of natural phenomena I’ve survived.  (a list that includes tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, Hanson, and about seven different doomsday prophesies)  The 4.7 magnitude quake that struck Sedona on Sunday night had me confusedly wandering through my apartment trying to figure out if the furnace had finally blown up and whether or not there was a burglar in my pantry.

I found out that Skinheads aren’t what we think they are.  I discovered this when I read about SHARP, Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, and thought that sounded like the end-all anachronism.  I always associated Skinheads with Neo-Nazis and the KKK, just another group with a massive superiority complex based on their skin color.  It turns out Skinheads are a sub-culture like any other, with an identity based around their favored music and fashion styles, and basically nothing to do with politics on any organized group level.  They just ended up with a bunch of racists in their ranks giving them a bad name.

Crossed Off the Travel Map:

Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, AZ


Added to the Travel Map:

Someplace Where I Can See a Whale Shark.

Someplace Where I Can See a Great White Shark (from a large boat, way up off the water.  not a cage in the water.  you people are crazy.)

Vogelsang, Germany – abandoned Soviet town/base.

Rock-A-Hoola Water Park, Newberry Springs, California – abandoned. (a water park in the desert, really?  you didn’t see that coming?)

Ordensburg Vogelsang, Morsbach, Germany – abandoned Nazi college.

Suoi Tien Cultural Amusement Park, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – the world’s only Buddhist-themed water park.

Washington, D.C.

Austrian National Library, Vienna, Austria – the library from Beauty & the Beast is real!

Longbridge Tunnels, Longbridge, England – abandoned, left over from World War 2.

Xihai Scenic Area, Jiangxi, China

Wolf’s Lair, Ketrzyn, Poland – ruins of Hitler’s bunker.