Port Royal was the center of shipping and commerce in Jamaica until an earthquake on June 7, 1692 largely destroyed it, causing two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea. Port Royal's role was taken over by the city of Kingston.
Situated at the western end of the Palisadoes sandspit that protects Kingston Harbour, Port Royal had gained a reputation in the 17th century as both the "richest and wickedest city in the world". It was notorious for its gaudy displays of wealth and loose morals, and was a popular place for pirates to bring and spend their treasure. During the 17th century the British actively encouraged and even paid buccaneers based at Port Royal to attack Spanish and French shipping. For much of the period between the English conquest of Jamaica and the earthquake, Port Royal served as an unofficial capital while Spanish Town was being rebuilt.
On June 7, 1692, a devastating earthquake hit the city causing the sandspit on which it was built to liquefy and flow out into Kingston Harbour. The effects of tsunamis caused by the earthquake further eroded the sandspit, and soon the main part of the city lay permanently underwater, though intact enough that archaeologists have managed to uncover some well-preserved sites. The earthquake and tsunami killed between 1,000 and 3,000 people combined, over half the city's population.
Some attempts were made to rebuild the city, starting with the one third of the city that was not submerged, but these met with mixed success and numerous disasters. An initial attempt at rebuilding was again destroyed in 1704, this time by fire. Subsequent rebuilding was hampered by several hurricanes in the first half of the 18th century, and soon Kingston eclipsed Port Royal in importance.
A final devastating earthquake on January 14, 1907 again liquefied the sandspit, destroying nearly all of the rebuilt city and submerging additional portions. Today the area is a shadow of its former self with a population of less than 2,000 and has little to no commercial or political importance. The area is frequented by tourists but is in a state of disrepair. The Jamaican government has recently resolved to further develop the area for its historic and touristic value.
Port Royal, located along the shipping lanes going to and from Spain and Panama, provided another safe harbor for pirates . Originally claimed by the Spanish, England acquired it in 1655. By 1659, two hundred houses, shops, and warehouses surrounded the fort. Since the English lacked sufficient troops to prevent either the Spanish or French from seizing it, the Jamaican governors turned to the pirates for defense of the city.
The buccaneers found Port Royal appealing for several reasons. Its proximity to trade routes allowed them easy access to prey. The harbor was large enough to accommodate their ships and provided them a place to careen and repair these vessels. It was also ideally situated for launching raids on Spanish settlements. From Port Royal, Henry Morgan attacked Panama, Portobello, and Maracaibo. Bartholomew Roberts, Roche Brasiliano, John Davis, and Edward Mansveldt (Mansfield) also came to Port Royal.
By the 1660’s, the city had gained a reputation as the Sodom of the New World where most residents were pirates, cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole world. When Charles Leslie wrote his history of Jamaica, he included a description of the pirates of Port Royal:
Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that…some of them became reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2 or 3,000 pieces of eight in one night; and one gave a strumpet 500 to see her naked. They used to buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.
Port Royal grew to be one of the two largest towns and the most economically important port in the English colonies. At the height of its popularity, the city had one drinking house for every ten residents. In July 1661 alone, forty new licenses were granted to taverns. During a twenty-year period that ended in 1692, nearly 6,500 people lived in Port Royal. In addition to prostitutes and buccaneers, there were four goldsmiths, forty-four tavern keepers, and a variety of artisans and merchants who lived in two hundred buildings crammed into 51 acres (206,000 m²) of real estate. Two hundred thirteen ships visited the seaport in 1688. The city’s wealth was so great that coins were preferred for payment rather than the more common system of bartering goods for services.
Following Henry Morgan’s appointment as lieutenant governor, Port Royal began to change. Pirates no longer needed to defend the city. The selling of slaves took on greater importance. Upstanding citizens disliked the reputation the city had acquired. In 1687, Jamaica passed anti-piracy laws. Instead of being a safe haven for pirates, Port Royal became noted as their place of execution. Gallows Point welcomed many to their death, including Charles Vane and Calico Jack Ransom, who were hanged in 1720. Two years later, forty-one pirates met their death in one month.
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