While many times when you hear of Port Royal Jamaica, it relates to the 1720’s, during the Golden Age of Piracy, the most riveting event in the city’s history happened nearly 30 years before.
Let’s start with a little geography. When it comes to Jamaica, Port Royal is a small city on the tip of a spit of land that is on the southeastern side of the island.
The spit of land that Port Royal sits on is called the Palisadoes.
In the beginning of the 1690s, Port Royal was a massive city, bustling with trade both legal and illegal. It was a way point for all in the Caribbean. The harbor and docks were always filled with ships.
When it came to every day life, Port Royal was nothing like other cities. The word royal in it’s name very much describes how the people lived. Because of all the trade coming in and out of the port, they were rich. While in other parts of the world, people would keep their valuables hidden, for fear of theft, in Port Royal, life was so decadent that doors were left open with valuables in clear view. Even the poorest in town had their share of precious metals and gems. There was no threat of theft, as they were all rich enough to have the things they wanted.
It was not just material possessions they had in abundance. Descriptions of the town said one out of every four to five buildings were a brothel, gaming house or tavern, allowing plenty of options for people to enjoy their vices.
The city also had an abundance of defenses. There were a number of forts with over 300 cannon defending the area. For a ship to come in to port, it would have to come into the Kingston Harbour.
The harbor entrance was flanked by three forts that would be able to easily do away with the ship if it were a threat.
It was a very crowded town as well. Some 2,000 buildings were crammed on to the small spit of land that is Port Royal. Many were two stories and space on land became so cramped that there were buildings being built on stilts into the water to offer more real estate. All of that real estate was needed to house the nearly 8,000 people believed to live in Port Royal at the time.
While it was referred to as a city of sin and even called the ‘Wickedest City on Earth’, Port Royal was also a very religious city. The tallest building in town was St Paul’s Anglican Church. But there were plenty of other places to worship. There were Baptist and Presbyterian churches, a Quaker meeting house, a Roman Catholic chapel and a Jewish synagogue.
The Day the Earth Shook
Things were going along just fine in Port Royal until the morning of June 7, 1692.
It was late morning, church services had wrapped up and not long before noon, the ground began to shake. (A pocket watch found during archeological digs 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. In the map above, you may have noticed that Port Royal 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 caused the water in the Kingston Harbor, between the mainland and the Palisadoes peninsula, to start to swish back and forth, like ripples in a bathtub.
Those who experienced the quake said it felt like the ground 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 partially sank 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 limestone of the Palisadoes may have been washed out by the back and forth motion of the water. This is called liquefaction, and caused about 1/3 of the city (the west side) 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.
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.
(National Geographic Depiction of the quake in Port Royal)
Here is a first person account of the quake from John Uffgress, a town merchant:
Betwixt 11 and 12 noon, I being at a tavern, we felt the house shake and saw bricks begin to rise in the floor, and at the same instant heard one in the street cry, “an earthquake!”
Immediately we ran out of the house, where we saw all people with lifted up hands begging God’s assistance. We continued running up the street whilst on either side of us we saw the houses, some swallowed up, others thrown on heaps; the sand in the streets rise like the waves of the sea, lifting up all persons that stood upon it and immediately dropping into pits; and at the same instance a flood of water breaking in and rolling those poor souls over and over; some catching hold of beams and rafters of houses, others were found in the sand that appeared when the water was drained away, with their legs and arms out. The small piece of ground whereon 16 or 18 of us stood (praise be to God) did not sink.
As soon as the violent shake was over, every man was desirous to know if any of his family were left alive. I endeavored to go to my house upon the ruins of the houses that were floating upon the water, but could not. At length I got a canoe and rode upon the great sea towards my house, where I saw several men and women floating upon the wreck [possibly HMs Swan] out to sea; and so many of them as I could I took into the boat and still rode on till I came to where I thought my house stood, but could not hear of either my wife nor family; so returning again to that little part of land remaining above water. But seeing all the people endeavoring to get to the island, I went amongst them in hopes I might hear of my wife or some part of my family, but could not.
Next morning I went from one ship to another, till at last it pleased God I met with my wife, and two of my Negroes. She told me, when she felt the house shake she ran out, and called all the house to do the same. She was no sooner out, but the sand lifted up, and her Negro woman grasping about her, they both dropped into the earth together, when at the very instant the water came in, rolled them over and over, till at length they caught hold of a beam, where they hung, till a boat came from a Spanish vessel and took them up.
And here is another merchant’s account:
Those houses which but just appeared the fairest and loftiest in these parts were in a moment sunk down into the earth, and nothing to be seen of them; such crying, such shrieking and mourning I never heard, nor could anything in my opinion appear more terrible to the eye of man: here a company of people swallowed up at once; there a whole street tumbling down; and in another place the trembling earth, opening her ravenous jaws, let in the merciless sea so that this town is becoming a heap of ruins.
Dr Trapham, a physician of this place, was miraculously saved by hanging by his hands upon the rack of the chimney, and one of his children about his neck, we’re both saved by a boat, but his wife and the rest of his children and family were all lost.
Several people were swallowed up by the earth, when the sea breaking in before the earth could close, were washed up again and miraculously saved from perishing; others the earth received up to their necks then closed upon them and squeezed them to death with their heads above ground, many of which the dogs eat. Multitudes of people floating up-and-down, having no burial. The burying place at Palisados is quite destroyed, the dead bodies being washed out of their graves, their tombs beat to pieces, and they floating up-and-down; it is sad to think how we have suffered.
At the time of the earthquake there were close to 8,000 people living in Port Royal. Nearly 1/3 of them 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. The shape of the city was also forever changed as you can see in the drawings below.
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.
While life did continue in Port Royal, it was never quite the same. The port never built back up to the massive presence it had been before the quake.
Today In Port Royal
If you go to Port Royal 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.
Treasures from Port Royal
For a portion of the 1960s, Underwater Archaeologist Robert Marx pretty much made Port Royal his second home.
He led a small team that worked tirelessly to recover thousands of relics from the sunken city.