Port Royal Pirate History Seen in Japanese Earthquake

Sometimes we can learn about the history we portray by watching what is happening in the modern day.  In this case, the horrific earthquake and tsunami in Japan are a perfect example.

As I have watched report after report come out of Japan about the quake and ensuing tsunami and aftershocks, I thought about how it must have been for those who were living in Port Royal, Jamaica on June 7, 1692. I saw the images of the northern coast of Japan before and after the tsunami and had a flashback to the before and after images I had seen of Port Royal.

When the movies portray Port Royal, Jamaica in the Golden Age of piracy (1720s) they act as if it were still a massive, bustling city and den of piracy. While, yes, the city was there, it was not nearly the force it had been just 30 years before.

Things were going along just fine on the morning of June 7, 1692. Church services had wrapped up and then some time between 11:15 and noon the ground began to shake. The exact time is under slight debate, but a pocketwatch that was found during archeological digs in the area was x-rayed and the hands stopped at 11:43 a.m.. This coincides with written reports of the earthquake hitting.

First, you need to understand where Port Royal is in Jamaica. As you can see in this map, it is a little finger of land that sticks out at the bottom of the country. It’s called the Palisadoes peninsula. The quake struck in the Blue Mountains, on the mainland to the north. The ripple effect did cause the water in the Kingston Harbor, between the mainland and the Palisadoes peninsula to start to swish like ripples in a bathtub.

Those who experienced the quake said it felt like theground was sailing on top of waves, it was rolling. Then the ground started to disappear, some described it as ground turning to water, as one side of the city began to sink below the surface.  There were multiple shocks, two smaller ones, leading up to one large ‘main shock’.

Researchers believe a few things were happening. First, that washtub effect of the harbor was causing the ground to become saturated with water and people would begin to sink into the ground, much as you would at the beach when you step on wet sand. It was during this phase of the quake that many people sank into the earth or were swallowed up by the ground. Those who only partiallysank were trapped as the rest of the disaster played out. There were also reports that at times the ground opened up and then closed again, trapping people inside. Witnesses differed in how long the earthquake lasted. Some said as long as 15 minutes, but the majority set the time at 2-3 minutes.

Additionally, the layers of sand that were beneath layers of limestoneof the Palisadoes may have been washed out by the back and forth motion of the water. This liquifaction caused 1/3 of the city (the westside) to literally slip below the surface of the waterline in just moments. To this day, you can see the cobblestones continue down into the water of the harbor. They also stick out of the ground nearby as well.

If you go there today, there are markers that will give you an idea of how massive of an area went below the surface, telling you, for instance, where Fort James is.


And this picture shows what that portion of the city looks like in modern times… a photo I shot as the Schooner Wolf sailed in a few years back…That 1/3 of the city is still below the surface.

As if these two things were not enough, finally there was a tidal wave or tsunami. The tidal wave pulled people and property out and because of it’s time onshore drowned many of the people who had found themselves trapped in the ground.

At the time of the earthquake there were approximately 6,500 people living in Port Royal. Nearly 2,000 of those people died in the quake and ensuing tidal wave. Another 3,000 were injured. Up to half of these people later died of their injuries.

In the wake of the disaster, the people of Port Royal were on their own. The waves had knocked out the land between the Palisadoes and the mainland, and damaged or completely destroyed many ships, so the rest of Jamaica could not help them, at least not as much as they desperately needed.

After the quake there are reports of aftershocks that went on for some time as well as the ugly side of human nature. Looters ransacked all the buildings they could, taking anything of value. There are even stories of the dead being robbed as they lie on the ground.

To really grasp how the landscape changed because of the earthquake and tsunami, I offer this picture, this shows the shoreline before and after the quake, and how the island has rebuilt ground in the generations since.

Now that you have the history, let’s fast forward to today.

An earthquake off the coast of Japan has a similar impact. Look at the before and after pictures…many areas that were solid ground are now below water due to an effect not unlike what happened in Port Royal 319 years ago.

When we do living history, we try to understand not only what happened, but how people thoughts and felt. Until this point when I would talk about Port Royal, I could only imagine what it looked like, what people felt like, how they responded to what happened…. Now I can see it. I can feel it.

I felt my blood run cold as I saw the images of that wall of water devouring everything in it’s wake.

I prayed for a father running with his child hoping to be safe from water that kept rising…

I felt moments of hope as I saw survivors working together trying to pull victims out of the rubble and those who have strength, aiding those who did not

I cried with the people who were suffering when I saw the pain and agony they are experiencing with the loss of those they loved to the ferocity of Mother Nature.

And I am in awe and fear of the chaos left behind.

While I would never wish for such a horrific event as this to happen, and my heart goes out to all those who have been impacted, I will tell you, the next time I give a presentation on the earthquake that destroyed Port Royal, I will likely have images from this modern-day disaster running through my mind.

I will see desperate faces being confronted by such a fearful force. I will visualize the unimaginable destruction. I will remember their losses and pain and be able to better express what it must have felt like, or bring images to the minds of the public as I have them recall this devistating event.

3 comments on “Port Royal Pirate History Seen in Japanese Earthquake
  1. Pingback: Port Royal Special This Weekend! « Presenting the Past

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