Kingston, Kingston and Saint Andrew, Jamaica
This is an excerpt from a letter written on June 28, 1692 by the Reverend Emmanuel Heath, rector of St. Paul’s Church, in Port Royal, Jamaica:
Since that fatal day, the most terrible I have ever seen in my life, I have lived on board a ship, for the earthquakes of the earth return from time to time. Yesterday we had a very large one, but it looks less terrible on board ship than on land, but I have ventured to Port Royal not less than three times since its desolation, among the destroyed houses, to bury the dead, pray with the sick and baptize the children.
Last Sunday I preached among them in a tent – the houses that remain are so compromised that I dare not preach in them. The people are very happy to see me among them and they wept bitterly when I preached. I hope that by this terrible judgment, God will make them reform their lives, for there were no more wicked people on the face of the earth. It’s a sad sight to see this entire harbor, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, covered in the corpses of people of all conditions floating up and down without a grave.
Three weeks earlier, an earthquake had devastated the city. Heath, traumatized to the point of staying aboard the ship at anchor the entire time, fearing he would be swallowed up by the earth, prayed that the survivors would change their behavior, after God’s “terrible judgment”, as he wrote.
The certainty that divine wrath had fallen on the city because of its residents made sense to the faithful. Port Royal, until that fateful morning of June 7th, was the piracy capital of the Caribbean, a den of gambling, debauchery and vice. The Church called it “Christendom’s most immoral city”.
If Jamaicans speak English today, it is because the English took this former colony from the Spaniards, where Christopher Columbus arrived in 1494, bringing the pachydermic subtlety of colonization. In 1670, the British officially took control, with an eye on the island’s strategic position for their business in the Americas.
They built forts and harbor. They stimulated trade, both legal and piracy. Privateers, a kind of pirates sanctioned by the state, arrived in spurts to enter, and profit, in the maritime war between English and Spanish for the control of the seas.
Port Royal’s position, in a protected bay on an island in the middle of the Caribbean, close to Cuba and Hispaniola, halfway between the Yucatan Peninsula and Venezuela, made it an ideal starting point for attacking the Spanish possessions that surrounded it. to Jamaica. With that, Port Royal became the mecca of piracy.
Henry Morgan, one of the most famous privateers in the service of England, commanded invasions of Cuba, Panama and Venezuela. He became filthy rich, became a knight of the Crown and governor of Jamaica – which shows how much the king encouraged the practice.
Port Royal, with the profits from piracy, became a wealthy city, with townhouses, running water, taverns and brothels to spare. Morgan died in 1688, inspiring, from then on, a series of products based on, or just inspired by, his life. From Donald Duck story to rum brand, he has starred in dozens of books, movies, music and video games.
On the morning of June 7, 1692, the earth shook. According to Dean Heath’s account, the ground opened up and swallowed people and houses. The sky turned red, geysers spewed water violently. The sea became a huge wall that sailed furiously towards the harbor.
“In the space of three minutes, Port Royal, the fairest city of all English plantations, the finest market in this part of the world, exceeding in its riches and abounding in all good things, was shaken and torn to pieces,” Heath wrote.
The earthquake, which would have been 7.5 on the Richter scale, triggered a tsunami. Tens of thousands of people died in the catastrophe, which even destroyed the cemetery where Morgan was buried. His remains are gone forever.
Much of the city sank, swallowed by sea and land. Only one of the four forts resisted.
Today, scientists believe that much of the destruction occurred because the soil liquefied. This happens when an earthquake hits sandy ground, filled with water, exerting such pressure that the ground turns into a kind of quicksand. That’s what explains the reports of entire buildings slipping underwater.
Port Royal lay forgotten beneath the surface for nearly 300 years, leaving the place vacant for Kingston to become Jamaica’s premier city. There were some reconstruction processes, but nothing up to what it was, even more so after another earthquake, in 1907, destroyed almost everything again.
Starting in the 1980s, divers began to rescue pieces that recount this story. Chinese porcelain, tin cutlery and other objects that denote the wealth in which those people lived. Interestingly, they discovered intoxicating amounts of bottles and barrels. The rum was flowing freely.
When they found a clock made in Amsterdam in 1686, they were able to confirm the exact time of the apocalypse. The hands stopped at 11:43.
Today, Jamaica does not ignore the tourist potential of a city that lives in the imagination of any fan of pirate stories. From Hollywood’s golden age films to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, to Michael Crichton’s book and the game “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag”, Port Royal is the inspiration for all types of setting.
In 2019, the site gained a floating pier for cruise ships. The first of them arrived in early 2020, just before the outbreak of the pandemic. There is still a lot to be done, but given the cultural importance and proximity to Kingston (half an hour’s drive), getting to know Fort Charles, the only one left, and seeing the submerged ruins of the “immoral city” could be more interesting. .
Last year, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness visited Port Royal and reinforced the untapped potential of local tourism. He announced plans to restore the buildings that were not swallowed by the sea, build a museum and invest in publicity. Henry Morgan fans, prepare your loot.