I recently took a day trip to Port Royal and toured the remaining fort there, Fort Charles, and several of the surrounding heritage sites. As I toured the Fort, the “Giddy House” and the Victoria and Albert Battery, and St Paul’s Church, the following thought came to me: what do we really know about Port Royal? Yes, we know it went through a “wicked” phase in its early development as a British colonial town, being the place of choice for British-sanctioned buccaneers such as Henry Morgan, who eventually became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, and the playground for pirates such as Jack Rackham; but what else is there to know about the history of this sleepy fishing village?
1. Located at the tip of the Palisadoes Spit, Port Royal actually started out as a separate island.
Port Royal was actually one of a string of cays that, over a period of time, became connected by sediment coming down from the Hope and Cane Rivers. This eventually formed a spit that gradually extended itself westwards, with one end attached to the shore and the other sticking out into the Caribbean Sea. In fact, the Palisadoes Spit was still forming when the Spanish first arrived towards the end of the 15th century, with the future site to be called Port Royal a separate island.
When the British took control of Jamaica and made Port Royal their centre of activity, they filled in the marshy swamps, thus connecting the island of Port Royal to the rest of the Palisadoes (Senior 2003). It should be noted, however, that throughout its history Port Royal has been disconnected from the mainland as a result of disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes. In fact, after the great 1692 earthquake, Port Royal once again became an island, of a much smaller size. This again occurred during hurricanes in the 1700s and in 1903 (Senior 2003).
For centuries after the English occupation began, Port Royal was only accessible by boat. This was until 1936, when the road along the Palisadoes, from Harbour Head to Port Royal, was completed by the Public Works Department, utilising the labour of inmates from the General Penitentiary (Neita 2008).
2. The Spanish originally named Port Royal “Cayo de Carena” meaning Careening Cay, reflecting the main use they found for the town: “to beach their ships and scrape barnacles from the hull” (Senior 2003, pg. 392).
In fact, based on the historical documents, the Spanish did not seem all that interested in developing Cayo de Carena, which reflected their overall lack of interest in developing the island on a whole. According to Michael Pawson and David Buisseret in their book, Port Royal, Jamaica (2000, pg. 6), “the point [the name the English also called Port Royal] was virtually bare when the English came.”
When the English arrived they mistakenly called Cayo de Carena “Point Cagway,” taking the Spanish name for Passage Fort, “Caguaya,” as that for the Point. The British officially changed the name from Point Cagway to Port Royal in February 1674 (Cundall 1915).
3. The British began fortifying the Point as soon as they captured the island from the Spanish. Port Royal eventually became Britain’s naval base in the British West Indies.
When they captured the island from the Spanish in May 1655, the British immediately saw the strategic importance of the Point and, in early July 1655, began constructing a fort, which they named Fort Cromwell, to protect the harbour and the island’s capital at St Jago de la Vega (Cundall 1915). The fort was renamed Fort Charles in 1662 in honour of the restoration of the British monarchy in 1660 (Senior 2003; Pawson and Buisseret 2000). Fort Charles remains the oldest standing British fort in Jamaica.
In a greater effort to improve the town’s defenses in light of growing hostilities with the French and Spanish, and also the growing strategic importance of Port Royal as a trading centre, five more forts were constructed between 1660 and 1690: Fort James, Fort Carlisle, Fort Rupert, Walker’s Fort and Fort Morgan, with a total of 145 guns (Pawson and Buisseret 2000; Senior 2003).
Figure 3: Several of Fort Charles’ guns. (Click each to enlarge.)
The 1692 earthquake laid waste to the town’s fortifications, except Fort Charles, which was later remodelled to something of its current shape. After 1692, the naval forces at Port Royal were strengthened as Jamaica grew in importance to the British as a very profitable sugar colony, and the relationship between England and its European neighbours became more contentious. The Port Royal dockyard was expanded to the point that by “1750, … it was now well equipped to receive ships after the trans-atlantic crossing, re-victual them, water them, refit them, and send them out on those Caribbean operations which were mounting in intensity” (Pawson and Buisseret 2000, pg. 181). Further improvements on the dockyard continued into 1900. By 1905, however, the dockyard was found an inadequate base for Britain’s powerful fleet of steam warships, and the dockyard was eventually closed, resulting in the end of Port Royal as Britain’s base of naval operations in the Caribbean.
During the 18th century, the naval vessels at Port Royal were also engaged in chasing pirates, the most famous of such being the hunt and capture of the pirate, Jack Rackham.
4. Port Royal was one of the first parishes established by the British when they captured the island from the Spanish in 1655.
According to Olive Senior (2003) within the English system of local administration the parish was an ecclesiastical division that reflected the close union between Church and State. As such, when the British took control of Jamaica, the country was divided into parishes for easier administration, and almost everything became Saint this or Saint that.
In 1662, a census of the island revealed that the country was divided into ten districts (Cundall 1915, pg. 40), the remains of the Spanish occupation: “the Precincts of Port Moranto; Morant, Yealoth; and Legene; the town of Saint Angelo Delvega [St. Jago de la Vega]; Between Black River, Bower Savana and thereabouts; In the Angles Quarter; In the Seven Plantations, Macaria; Quathebeca; In the Quarters of Quanaboa and Quardelena; and Point Caugway.”
In 1664, when the new Governor, Sir Thomas Modyford, arrived in Jamaica from Barbados with 1000 settlers, he ordered a survey of the island and found that “there is in the said island but seven established parishes: videlicet, the town and parish of St. Katherine’s, St. John’s, the town and parish of Port Royal, Clarendon, St. David’s, St. Andrew’s, and St. Thomas” (Cundall 1915, pg. 40).
As we’d learnt in a previous post, How The Parishes Came To Be, the British authorities went a bit parish-crazy after the initial establishment of these seven parishes and by 1867, the island had a total of 22 parishes. On April 23, 1867, “as part of the reformation scheme of Sir John Peter Grant” (Cundall 1915, pg. 43) the Counties and Parishes Act was passed, reducing these 22 parishes to the 14 we know today. The parish of Port Royal became no more; it was absorbed into Kingston, and became a town within that parish.
5. Port Royal was once a rich merchant town with a large population for its small size.
According to Pawson and Buisseret (2000, pg. 85): “The history of Port Royal’s economic development is above all the history of her traders.” A vibrant merchant town grew around Fort Charles and the other fortifications, not only supplying goods and services to the town and the rest of the island; but also re-exporting goods that had originated in Europe and North America to the rest of the British West Indies and other countries (including an illegal trade with Spanish American territories, seeing as though England and Spain were enemies at this time). In 1682, a Mr Francis Hanson made the following observation in his account of Jamaica (Cundall, 1915, pg. 51):
The Town of Port Royal, being as it were the Store House or Treasury of the West Indies, is always like a continual Mart or Fair, where all sorts of choice Merchandizes are daily imported, not only to furnish the Island, but vast quantities are thence again transported to supply the Spaniards, Indians and other Nations…
Port Royal eventually became one of the most important towns in the New World. Pawson and Buisseret (2000, pg. 105) notes that: “It was Port Royal’s advantages as a trading centre which enabled it to grow in 25 years from a barren sandy spit to the largest and most opulent town in the English Americas.”
Not only was Port Royal the centre of trade in the pre-1692 period, but it was also home to many talented craftsmen who produced “work which competed with the best which could be imported” (Pawson and Buisseret 200, pg. 144). These included carpenters, coopers, combmakers, gunsmiths, hatmakers, ivory makers, pewterers and sailmakers, to name a few.
Along with the rapid economic development of the town was the rapid growth in the town’s residents. By 1692, as much as 6,500 persons called Port Royal home, of whom an estimated 2,500 were slaves. A significant number of the white population were indentured servants, men and women bonded to their masters and mistresses for a period of 10 years (Pawson and Buisseret 2000).
The result was a tightly packed town of people and structures of all sorts (houses, business places of all sorts – markets, rum shops, taverns – churches, forts, prisons and store houses) in an area no larger than 60 acres in size, with wealth coming in from a very lucrative trade that attracted even more people with questionable backgrounds, including pirates and buccaneers.
6. Port Royal earned the moniker, the “wickedest city on earth,” as it developed up to the year 1692.
This description of the town seems to be all that many know about Port Royal; but is it one that’s warranted? Let’s see. As the town grew in opulence, its debauchery also grew. The source of that wealth also had much to do with it. Much of Port Royal’s wealth came from privateering: the town served as a base for the buccaneers who traded their ill-gotten gains with the locals, all with the blessing of the island’s governor. So how were buccaneers different from regular old pirates? Buccaneers were actually granted permission/licensed by the Governor of Jamaica to sell their loot in the island and to provide Jamaica with additional protection if ever they were threatened by Britain’s enemies, namely the Spanish and French. They were also encouraged to attack Britain’s enemies at sea. This privateering lasted from 1657 to 1671 when the buccaneers were outlawed. In fact, one of the most famous buccaneers, Henry Morgan, became a Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, a title earned as a result of his privateering activities for the colony.
While the buccaneers were welcomed in the town to trade their loot, their lawless behaviour was not. According to Senior (2003, pg. 395): “duels, drunkenness and ‘all kinds of vices’ were common” when they came to town. Richard S. Dunn (1972, pg. 149) observed that: “Thanks to the buccaneers, Port Royal became known as the Sodom of the Indies.” After 1671, however, those buccaneers who continued with their lawless behaviour were hunted as mere pirates and served the ultimate punishment: they were hung.
I really don’t think Port Royal was the “wickedest city on earth” or more wicked than any other seaside town of its time (eg. Tortuga) that saw such an upswell in its riches as a result of “an abundance of suddenly rich and temporarily idle seamen” (Pawson and Buisseret 2000, pg. 161). I think the nature of the town’s destruction as a result of the 1692 earthquake, which many at the time thought was the hand of God punishing a town that experienced such phenomenal growth in such a short time with the accompanying vices that many witnessed, had much to do in permanently stamping the town with this moniker.
7. The great 1692 earthquake destroyed Port Royal, sinking a section of the town into the sea.
On Tuesday, 7 June 1692, at approximately 11:40 a.m., the town of Port Royal, and the rest of Jamaica for that matter, was shaken to its core by a great earthquake, involving at least three major shocks. The death toll was larger in Port Royal than in the rest of the country: an estimated 2,000 persons died in Port Royal during the earthquake, and more still afterwards, compared to an estimated 50 persons across the rest of the country. During the third shock, the sea rolled in onto the town (a tidal wave) that washed people to their watery graves and caused major destruction where the waves hit the town’s buildings. The majority of the town’s buildings were destroyed during the earthquake, including its fortifications, except Fort Charles. Many persons were swallowed by the earth as it opened up during the shocks, while one very lucky man, Lewis Galdy, was swallowed by the earth during one shock, thrown out with his life by another shock and flung into the sea. He lived to the ripe old age of 80 years. His grave can be viewed in the cemetery of St Paul’s Church.
Part of the town sank into the sea – the sunken city – from which several archaeological expeditions have found everyday items used during this period, such as combs, pipes, pots, watches, etc., still intact under the sea. These retrieved items can be viewed in the Fort Charles museums. However, I was told by one of my trusty tour guides that, due to silting and other materials coming down from the rivers, it is now very hard to see the sunken city, even on a bright and sunny day.
Due to the condition that the town was in after the earthquake, many of the survivors relocated across the harbour to the future site of Kingston. Resettlement of the town was forbidden for a while, but many refused to relocate and continued living and conducting business in Port Royal for many years afterwards, despite facing other disasters that destroyed sections of the town at other times, such as the great fire in 1703, and several major hurricanes. Port Royal was eventually eclipsed as a major town by Kingston, and lost its status as a parish in 1867, and was absorbed by Kingston (see #4 above).
So in conclusion…
I could go on and on about Port Royal and its quite glamorous and infamous history; but I won’t (this article is long enough!). Instead, a good read for all you Port Royal history fans is Pawson and Buisseret’s Port Royal, Jamaica (2000). I bought this book back in 2001, and still enjoy reading it today, especially to get a sense of the everyday life of the town and the people who once called Port Royal home. The authors have done a fantastic job conducting the research.
Question: What else do you think could be done to promote Port Royal’s history and the town as a heritage tourism site?
Until next time…
Buisseret, David (1996). Historic Jamaica from the Air. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.
Cundall, Frank (1915). Historic Jamaica. London: Institute of Jamaica, West India Committee.
Dunn, Richard S. (1972). Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624 – 1713. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.
Moxon, James (1677). A New Mapp of Jamaica. According to the Last Survey. London: James Moxon.
Neita, Hartley (2008). Palisadoes and its Airport. Jamaica Gleaner, Saturday, January 26, 2008.
Pawson, Michael and David Buisseret (2000). Port Royal, Jamaica. 2nd ed. Kingston: University of the West Indies Press.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers, Ltd.