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 of about 1,800 people, who 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

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

An earthquake on June 7, 1692, largely destroyed Port Royal, causing two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea. Today it is considered one of the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere. Several 17th and early 18th century pirate ships sunk within the harbor. The area is a historical treasure trove pertually under study by various academic institutions.

The painting below is a reconstruction by Peter Dunn of what the town would have looked like in 1840 after it was rebuilt from the earthquake. The town was again devasted by another earthquake on January 14, 1907. Today, it is an even smaller version of what it was in the depiction below.

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

Unlike most archaeological sites where civilizations came and evolved or disappeared through the passage of time, with buildings built and later neglected, abandoned, eventually collapsing, or razed and then possibly rebuilt; Port Royal is a city that existed in one minute and disappeared the next.

It belongs to a small group of sites that include Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy, the Ozette Indian Village in the state of Washington, and shipwreck sites. 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.