As one walks along the narrow streets of the poor fishing village of Port Royal today, it is hard to imagine that it once was the largest and most economically significant English settlement in the Americas. It is now an isolated place at the end of a long peninsula across the bay from Kingston. It has a small population of about 1800 people, who view themselves as 'Port Royalists,' rather than as simply Jamaican.
Port Royal was the centre of shipping commerce in Jamaica in the 17th century. During this time, it gained a reputation 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 and privateers 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.
Pirates from around the world congregated at Port Royal coming from waters as far away as Madagascar on the far side of Africa. Several 17th and early 18th century pirate ships are sunk within the harbor and being carefully harvested under controlled conditions by different teams of archaeologists. Other "digs" are staked out along various quarters and streets by different teams.
Today it is considered the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere, yielding 16th-17th-century artifacts by the ton and many important treasures from indigenous peoples predating the 1588 founding from as far away as Guatemala.
Unlike most archaeological sites where civilizations come and go through the passage of time, buildings built, became neglected, abandoned, eventually collapsed, or razed, and then possibly rebuilt, Port Royal is a city that existed one minute and disappeared the next.
It belongs to a small group of sites that includes Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, Ozette in the state of Washington, and shipwreck sites. This group shares a common fate; a natural disaster or event that causes,"time to freeze". In these undisturbed sites, life in the past is revealed as it was lived.