In 1692, Jamaica’s Port Royal was the richest, busiest, and most nefarious port in the new Americas. It was frequented by smugglers, pirates, prostitutes and all other unsavory types who roamed the Caribbean Sea. Feared pirates like Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, and Captain Morgan attacked Spanish ships and returned with their booty. Port Royal was so notorious it was considered the “Sodom of the Seas, The Wickedest City on Earth,” an out-of-control haven of booze, gold, and sex. Think of an R rated Pirates of the Caribbean movie and you get the idea. All that rapidly changed the morning of June 7, 1692 when Port Royal was hit by a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Most of the port city literally sank into the sea like Atlantis.
Port Royal sat entirely on a triangular sand spit of about 50 acres, sticking out into the deep harbor of Kingston, Jamaica. It was one of the busiest ports in the Americas, with over 200 ships visiting a year. Port Royal was also densely populated, filled with close to 6,500 souls. Founded originally as a Spanish colony over a 150 years earlier, Jamaica was taken over during an English invasion in 1655. In Port Royal, then-governor Edward D’Oyley was forced to a recruit a coalition of pirates and privateers to protect his port against the Spanish. The English turned Port Royal into a military naval base. Its strategic location in the middle of the Caribbean made it ideal for trade, smuggling, and ill-gotten loot.
Under English control, Port Royal went through a remarkable growth in wealth and reputation.
In 1692, it was the largest and richest English town in the Americas. Visitors were impressed with the numerous brick buildings, in contrast to the wooden houses of other colonial towns. Port Royal was laid out with wide, unpaved lanes, named after familiar London streets, each lined with buildings up to four stories tall. Some were constructed right out onto the water, on top of the coral reef. Rents ran as high as London and it rivaled Boston in size and power.
The riches brought in from trading slaves and sugar, saw Port Royal turn into an unhinged haven of debauchery. A quarter of its buildings were eithers taverns, gaming dens, or brothels. Pirates routinely attacked and plundered poorly-defended Spanish ships and ports of the Caribbean, while spending their riches on a hedonistic lifestyle in Port Royal. The pirate crews’ voracious taste for wickedness became legendary along the coast. The buccaneers had a free hand to do whatever they pleased, as they were technically the ‘defenders’ of Jamaica.
Amongst them lived and worked various professions – bricklayers, carpenters soldiers, shoemakers, pastors, smiths, tanners, tailors, armorers and their families. They lived and worked in nearly 2,000 multi-story, often brick buildings, all built, not on bed rock, but rather in the loosely packed sand of the spit.
The earthquake struck without warning on Saturday morning, June 7, 1692 at 11:15 AM.
Survivors said it continued for almost 15 minutes, during which time it destroyed nearly every structure on the peninsula. Rev. Emmanuel Heath, the Anglican rector in Port Royal, was new to Jamaica. He was yet to embrace the humid climate, the unwashed populace, or the sordid town itself. That particular day, after finishing his morning prayer service at St. Paul’s Church, he walked to a nearby tavern to meet with a friend, John White, the island’s Council President. Soon goblets of wine were brought to them and White lit a satisfying pipe of tobacco. Suddenly, the wooden floor beneath their feet began to rumble and shake. A shocked Rev. Heath turned to his friend and asked, “What is this?” There was not time for a response as a multitude of screams erupted.
Larger brick houses began crumbling immediately. Smaller ones began sliding off into the waters of the harbor. The earthquake had caused a liquefaction of the spit’s sand, sending it undulating into waves. Fissures opened and closed, crushing helpless people. Not only were its buildings destroyed with people inside, when the unthinkable happened. A major portion of the liquifying sand then sank beneath the surface of the harbor.
Two thirds of Port Royal sank beneath the sea, drowning thousands more. The city’s graveyard split open! Survivors had to contend with a frightening scene of coffins, bodies, and bones floating around with those just killed. And if all that was not bad enough, the sinking caused an underwater landside which produced a deadly 40 foot tidal wave, which swept into Port Royal and nearby Kingston.
Many of those not killed instantly inside a fallen structure, or swept into the sea, were killed by the massive tsunami. It swept more than twenty vessels off their moorings and sunk them in the harbor. The HMS Swan was carried from the harbor and deposited on top of a building on the mainland.
Over Two Thousand were killed instantly by the Triple Threat.
Another two thousand would die in the days to come from injuries, disease or scavengers. Many stuck alive beneath falling buildings were later devoured by hungry dogs and vultures. As dazed survivors searched the water and rubble for loved ones, thieves were quick to take advantage of the situation, robbing the dead of their valuables and looting the crumbled warehouses.
After the earthquake, only twenty of those fifty acres of Port Royal were still above water. Thousands of the dead bobbed about the harbor for days, causing an intolerable stench. Others disbursed by the tsunami lay unburied on the rocks and sands where they were washed up. In the aftermath, virtually every building in the city was uninhabitable, including two English forts. Meanwhile, throughout Jamaica, deep mile-long gaps were opened, often 20 feet wide. Mountains were levelled, and the courses of rivers had changed.
Rev. Heath survived and describes dashing through narrow streets, “the houses and walls fell on each side of me.” He stumbling his way back to his home, that he might “meet Death in as good a stance as I could.” Heath and White both somehow survived. Many, including Rev. Heath, felt the quake and tidal wave to be a sign of divine retribution for Port Royal’s being the ‘wickedest city in the world.’ He hoped that this terrible judgment would stand as a warning, and that God would make people of ill repute reform their lives.
Many survived the disaster by holding on to a tree branch or floating wood. They described the streets rising and falling like waves of the sea. They saw people disappear into the sand, then watched as the sand itself dropped away into the harbor. Geologists now believe it to have been of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that struck Jamaica, with Port Royal at the epicenter.
Poor Port Royal would never recover.
Aftershocks discouraged survivors from completely rebuilding. Instead, the nearby port of Kingston was expanded and later became the capital. While many colonists relocated to Kingston, some fishermen and merchants remained in Port Royal. A devastating fire swept through the rebuilt town in 1703. Two hurricanes ravaged the area in 1722, and again in 1744, cementing the town’s future. Two earthquakes hit again, one in 1770 and another with a tsunami in 1907, destroying the old fort. Another fire, in 1815, did extensive damage. By the turn of the century, there were less than 100 homes in Port Royal.
For a hundred years, sailors feared the Sunken City, still visible below the blue-grey waves. They noted the unnerving sensation of floating over the tombs of dead. Today, the remains lie under about 40 feet of water, attracting sightseers and scuba divers. Port Royal provides an underwater museum and a unique site of archeological research. The submerged ruins are a time capsule of everyday life in a 17th century colonial port. In 1969, explorer Edwin Link discovered a brass pocket-watch, dated 1686, with the time stopped at exactly 11:43 am.
Visitors to Port Royal today will find a small, isolated fishing village at the tip of a sand spit that extends into Kingston Harbor for about 18m/29km. With a few sleepy residential streets and a handful of bars, the town is a far cry from its decadent past. Visitors would ever think that it was once the Sodom of the Seas, or the Pompeii of the Caribbean. In 1981, archaeology expeditions began on the underwater site, yielding a wealth of artifacts. Aside from the relics recovered, the site remains largely unchanged.
History often repeats itself so, for better or worse, in January of 2020, the first of many massive cruises ship docked at Port Royal. An innovative new floating pier extends out into the harbor, welcoming 2,000+ smiling passengers onto the small spit, eager to have some hedonistic fun and spend their well-earned booty.