Jamaica Port Royal

Port Royal - Most Economically Significant English Settlement in the Americas

During the late 17th century, Boston, Massachusetts and Port Royal, Jamaica were the two largest English towns in the Americas.

As one walks along the narrow streets of the poor fishing village of Port Royal today, it is hard to imagine that it was once the largest and most economically significant English settlement in the Americas or that the town served as the headquarters of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean where Horatio Nelson, then a young Royal Navy officer, was stationed.

Today, it is a sleepy fishing village at the end of a long peninsula across the bay from Kingston, with a small population who proudly view themselves as 'Port Royalists,' rather than as simply Jamaican.

Port Royal circa 1690 prior to the 1692 Earthquake

Port Royal circa 1690 prior to the 1692 Earthquake
Painting courtesy of Peter Dunn, Archaeological Reconstruction Artist

port royal

Richest and Most Evil City

Port Royal was the center of shipping commerce in Jamaica in the 17th century. During this time, it gained a reputation as not only "the richest", but also "the wickedest city in the world". It was a popular place for pirates and privateers from as far away as Madagascar on the far side of Africa who brought and spent their treasure in a display of wealth and loose morals. Their presence was actively encouraged by the British as it provided a dual-benefit of discouraging attacks from the Spanish and the French as well as providing opportunity for local givernment officials to grow wealthy through collusion with the buccaneers.

The 1692 Earthquake and An Important Underwater Archaelogical Site

Unlike most archaeological sites where civilizations evolve then disappear through the passage of time, or sites where buildings were built and later neglected or abandoned, eventually being destroyed and then possibly rebuilt; Port Royal is a city that existed in one minute and gone the next, pertually frozen in the state it was, when disaster struck.

Around 11:43 on 7 June 1692, Port Royal was hit by a disastrous 7.5 magnitude earthquake. An estimated 2000 persons were killed in an instant with an additional 3000 citizens dying of injuries and disease across the island in the ensuing days. Two thirds of the city sank into the caribbean sea along with many inhabitants. Ships that were anchored within the harbor, immaediately sank. A large tidal wave engulfed the narrow spit of land that hosted the town, throwing ships on the streets and destroying buildings that were already damaged by the tremor.

Today the sunken city is considered one of the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere. The area is a historical treasure trove perpetually under study by various academic institutions. It belongs to a small group of sites that include Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, the Ozette Indian Village in the state of Washington. This group share 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 then.

Port Royal's underwater city has been the subject of many studies. The most extensive was done over a period of 10 years in 1981 by Texas A&M University in conjunction with the Jamaica National Heritage Trust and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.

Rebuilding after the Earthquake

Port Royal underwent a major rebuilding initative in the years following the earthquake, only to be ravaged by fire six years later in 1703. The town was again devasted by another earthquake on January 14, 1907 and experienced two more in 1722. The painting below is a reconstruction of what the town would have looked like in 1840 after it was rebuilt. Today, after centuries of earthquakes and hurricanes, it is an even smaller version of what is depicted below. But, the small town is experiencing a renaissance as a result of the government making investments in a major new cruise ship terminal. The new terminal had its first cruise ship, the Marella Discovery II, with approximately 2,000 guests aboard on January 20, 2020.

Port Royal circa 1840 after rebuilding from the Earthquake

Port Royal circa 1840 after rebuilding from the Earthquake
Painting courtesy of Peter Dunn, Archaeological Reconstruction Artist