Sin city: Jamaica’s Port Royal | On this day

It was once known as “the Sodom of the New World” — until a catastropic earthquake sent it tumbling into the sea. On the 500th anniversary of its founding, James Ferguson recalls the history of Jamaica’s infamous Port Royal

  • Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

A forty-minute drive or ferry ride takes you from Jamaica’s hectic capital of Kingston to a very different “city.” This is Port Royal, today a sleepy and slightly scruffy fishing village, where half-ruined brick-built forts and warehouses stand among modest homes and wharves for vessels both humble and luxurious. It is situated on the tip of the nine-mile sand spit known as the Palisadoes, which offers natural protection to Kingston’s harbour by almost entirely closing it off from the Caribbean Sea. It is this strategic position, controlling access to the city and its port, that has determined Port Royal’s history as a naval base and pirates’ lair, and it is its geological situation on a narrow sandbar that determined its catastrophic demise.

Indigenous Taino communities had established fishing settlements on what they called Caguay or Caguaya from time immemorial, but with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494 and ensuing Spanish colonisation, they were virtually extinct within two centuries. The Spanish recognised that the Palisadoes was an ideal location for repairing and cleaning boats’ hulls (a process known as careening), and so in 1518 — precisely five hundred years ago — the site of present-day Port Royal was officially founded as Cayo de Carena, probably little more than a cluster of timber warehouses.

Spain’s colonial plans for Jamaica were distinctly unambitious, especially when none of the hoped-for gold was to be found. There was some agriculture and small-scale African slavery was introduced, but the island’s main role was as a refitting and supply base for the more lucrative colonies on the South American mainland. It was hence no great surprise that the small Spanish population put up scant resistance to an English invasion in May 1655, led by General Robert Venables, whose earlier attack on more populous Spanish Santo Domingo had been easily repulsed. Jamaica was second best within the terms of Oliver Cromwell’s land-grabbing “Western Design,” but it gave the English an important toehold in the New World, and in 1670 the Treaty of Madrid ceded the island to England.

The arrival of the English rapidly and dramatically changed the face of the tiny Spanish settlement on the sand spit. At first, they anglicised its Taino name to Cagway (there is still a Cagway Street), but soon after Cromwell’s death in 1658 it was renamed Port Royal. By 1659, there were reportedly about two hundred shops, houses, and warehouses built around a central fort, and thirty years later six forts were in place to defend the town from Spanish reprisals and French invasion. From a population of 740 in 1662, the town had expanded to house some seven thousand people, including 2,500 slaves. According to UNESCO:

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Centred on the slave trade as well as export of sugar and raw materials, Port Royal became the mercantile hub of the Caribbean and the most economically important English port in the Americas. The city boasted merchants, artisans, tradesmen, captains, slaves, and notorious pirates who all participated in an expansive business network. It had a governor’s house, king’s house (court of chancery), four churches, and a cathedral.

Effectively the capital of Jamaica (Kingston was still open countryside), Port Royal also enjoyed a less than salubrious reputation. This was largely because the town’s authorities actively encouraged privateers or buccaneers to operate from the protected port, attacking and looting Spanish, French, or Dutch ships. Piracy was hence officially sanctioned by England, and the booty was shared between the Crown and the town’s resident buccaneers. One notorious pirate, Henry Morgan, led successful assaults on Spanish settlements such as Portobello on the mainland, returning with huge amounts of money and valuables. He was rewarded by being made lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

State-sponsored criminality fuelled the spectacular rise of Port Royal, attracting merchants and conmen as well as pirates from many nations. Writing in 1682, Francis Hanson was amazed at the wealth he observed: “bars and cakes of Gold, wedges and pigs of Silver, Pistoles, Pieces of Eight and several other Coyns of both Mettles, with store of wrought Plate, Jewels, rich Pearl Necklaces and of Pearl unsorted or undrill’d several Bushels . . .” Needless to say, such ostentatious opulence did little to promote good behaviour, and the town became a byword for immorality and decadence, “the Sodom of the New World,” filled with cutthroats and prostitutes. A disapproving historian, Charles Leslie, noted of the privateers:

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.

With the appointment of Henry Morgan as lieutenant governor, pirate culture ironically began to decline, and anti-piracy legislation was harshly enforced with the hangings of Calico Jack and others. The slave trade became increasingly important as privateering diminished, while the arrival of facilities for the Royal Navy suggested that Port Royal was facing a very different future.

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Nature, it seemed, had other ideas. On 7 June, 1672, a massive earthquake hit the whole of Jamaica, causing extensive damage and loss of life. But Port Royal, on its sand spit, was particularly vulnerable, as the quake was followed by a violent tsunami which swept through the town. The heavy brick buildings whose foundations stood on sand often collapsed as large parts of the Palisadoes were washed away. In what scientists call liquefaction, the ground became a saturated quicksand, as a survivor reported: “I saw the earth open and swallow a multitude of people; and the sea mounting in upon us over the fortification.” At least three thousand people perished immediately, with perhaps as many again in ensuing epidemics. Only a third of the town remained unsubmerged.

Many believed that divine retribution had been visited on the “wickedest city on earth.” Whatever the case, the disaster was certainly exacerbated by an unstable geological situation, overcrowding, and inappropriate architecture. Port Royal was quite literally built on shifting sands. As a result, the focus of urban development shifted to the more solid site of Kingston, founded that year as a tented camp for homeless survivors. By 1716, it was the largest town in Jamaica, and in 1872 it became the island’s capital.

Attempts to rebuild Port Royal were obstructed by fire, hurricanes, and cholera. The Royal Navy, however, viewed the site as strategically important, and a dockyard, hospital, and warehouses were built in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But the end came on 14 January, 1907, with another earthquake, which shattered the remaining buildings, shaking one — the so-called Giddy House — into a bizarre tilted posture.

Today, half a millennium after its founding, Port Royal remains a rather melancholy place, but a treasure trove for underwater archaeologists. It may have failed in its bid to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but its historic associations and aura of nefariousness remain compelling.