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Caribbean Beat Magazine

Port Royal, Jamaica — return from the deep

The fascinating history of Jamaica's Port Royal is being brought back to life. Mark Wilson reports

  • Royal Artillery Store (popularly known as the "Giddy House"), built in 1888 at the same time as the Queen Victoria and Prince Albert Battery. The building was tilted during the 1907 earthquake. Photograph by Jamaica National Heritage Trust
  • Pewter pint measure, Marx collection. Photograph by Jamaica National Heritage Trust
  • Facette-cut straight-stem wine glass, Marx collection. Photograph by Jamaica National Heritage Trust
  • Side view of Fort Charles. Photograph by Lloyd Crouldbourn/ Port Royal Development Co.
  • Prince Charles views Henry Morgan's will on a tour of St Peter's Church, re-built in 1726 after the great earthquake of 1692. At left is Phillip Paulwell, Minister of Industry, Commerce and Technology; Robert Stephens, managing director of the Port Royal Development Company is at right. Photograph by Lloyd Croudbourn/ Port Royal Development Co.

It must be the travel bargain of the Caribbean. For six Jamaica dollars (US15 cents for a 20-minute ride), a ferry chugs a half-dozen times a day across the muddy waters of Kingston Harbour to Port Royal. On board, Saturday shoppers return to the little town that is not quite part of Kingston. The only foreign faces are two smiling Belgian nuns and their young accountant nieces. Not a tourist mecca.

The view is perfect. Kingston looks best from the water– a line of buildings, green hills rising behind. Close at hand are mangroves and seabirds. Step off at Port Royal, and there’s a cluster of bars selling Red Stripe, fish and bammy, a game of pool … and not much else. Venture further? Run-down streets of public housing, a stretch of scrubland, and, across the narrow peninsula, a litter-strewn gravelly beach. No map, and only an ancient cast-iron signboard to guide the visitor. Morgan’s Harbour, outside the town, is a small oasis – a good hotel with a well-equipped marina.

But Port Royal is one of the Caribbean’s great historic sites. Fort Charles dates from 1655. The former British naval headquarters is now a maritime museum. There is the Giddy House, built in 1888 and skewed out of line by Kingston’s 1907 earthquake. The old Naval Hospital is one of the world’s earliest examples of system building, erected in 1819 from sections prefabricated in Britain, and the largest cast-iron structure in the western hemisphere. There is the Victoria and Albert Battery, an old gaol, and the tiny National Museum of Historical Archeology.

But the real wonders are beneath the water. Port Royal was founded in 1650. A few years later, it rivalled colonial Boston as the largest English-speaking city in the Americas. The lines between naval shipping, piracy and trade were thin. The legendary Captain Henry Morgan terrorised the Caribbean. In the shadow of St Paul’s church, along Lime Street, Queen Street and High Street, stood taverns, brothels and gambling dens. But then, Port Royal was struck by the earthquake of June 7, 1692. The waterlogged sand on which the town was built turned to liquid; two-thirds sank beneath the sea, while a freak wave washed large ships onto dry land. Since then, the site has been further battered by 16 hurricanes, nine earthquakes and three devastating fires.

The shallow waters north of the present-day town look muddy and impenetrable, but sonar surveys completed last January allow us to peer through 20 metres of mud beneath the water, revealing not only remains of the sunken buildings, but their foundations and the sand beneath them.

And thanks partly to a ten-year marine archaeology programme led by Donny Hamilton of Texas A and M University from 1981 until 1991, organised in cooperation with the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, parts of the sunken city have been explored in detail. Buildings have been excavated, with brick floors in place, and part of the walls still standing – a pipe shop, a tavern, a cobbler’s. Next to the frame of an old leaded window were Chinese porcelain cups, bowls and Fo Dogs. There were blue-and-white delft porcelain from the Netherlands, oil lamps, silver forks and spoons, calabash dippers, a gold ring, a precious pearl. Even the remains of a ship which ripped through the walls of a building.

In London, the records of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers allow us to reconstruct the story of Simon Benning, who left his home for Port Royal. Some pewter plates carry the initials NC and IC. Did they belong to Nathaniel Cooke and his wife, Jane, named in records? As in Pompeii, or St Pierre in Martinique, there are signs of a suddenly interrupted daily round – a discarded corn cob, a litter of clippings where the ‘quake struck a barber’s shop in mid-haircut. None of the artifacts is worth much on its own, but together they tell a story. And stories, for the new tourism, can make money.

Bobby Stephens of the Port Royal Development Company bubbles with enthusiasm. Jamaica’s director of tourism until 1992, he sees the pirate theme as a marketing draw. Potential for a cruise ship port, with mooring space for two 2,500-passenger megaships. The tourism industry has little interest in Kingston itself as a destination, and that won’t change. But Port Royal? Re-development would bring spending power and jobs to the Kingston region. Shopping, living history, entertainers, storytellers, excursions to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, to the Blue Mountains, Spanish Town. Or boat trips to beaches on the tiny offshore island of Lime Cay.

Stephens says the cruise industry’s growth potential lies in the western Caribbean, with home ports in Houston, Mobile, Tampa and Port Canaveral, and ports of call in Cuba, the Caymans, Jamaica and Mexico. Ocho Rios or Montego Bay can be supplemented by a stop at Kingston. Further down the line, with an international airport minutes away and a seaport across the harbour, there may be potential for cruise ship supply and home-porting.

The cost? For the planning, design and development study, US$2.2 million. For the project itself, US$60 million, half debt and half equity, By mid-2000, Citibank, the project’s financial advisors, plans to complete an Initial Private Offering aimed at large private-sector equity investors. There is strong support from two key government development agencies, the Urban Development Corporation and the Tourism Product Development Company. Says Stephens, “The Tourism Product Development Company understands fully the unique potential that the development of Port Royal offers not only Jamaica but the entire Caribbean. Without a doubt this project could become the Pompeii of the Caribbean because we have in Port Royal an absolutely perfect example of a city frozen in a moment in time.”

And there has also been high-profile overseas support. Prince Charles, keen to promote architectural conservation and archeology, visited the site last February 29, Says the deputy British High Commissioner, Jim Malcolm, “Port Royal is ready for development which protects the national heritage and the local community. This is a potential World Heritage Site.”

Construction is scheduled to start by the end of the year, with the first passengers, perhaps, stepping off in the 2002 winter season.