Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Rise and Fall of Port Royal

Port Royal was once a shining jewel of shipping and commerce in the Caribbean on the island of Santiago. Founded by the Spanish in 1518, the village was built on a sandy spit of land at the mouth of Kingston Harbor. Spain ruled over the island for nearly a hundred and fifty years before it was invaded by the English who took control in 1655 and renamed the island Jamaica. Soon Jamaica had become a chief sugar exporter. By the late 1600’s, Port Royal was one of the largest English cities outside of Europe. It was also known as the most “wicked and sinful city in the world”.

Here’s why.

Port Royal was a safe haven for privateers, buccaneers, and pirates. How did that happen? First, we must understand why the city was important. The harbor was large enough to receive many ships, upwards of five hundred or more. The waters were deep enough to anchor very close to the shore and bay acted as natural protection from angry tropical weather. The English didn’t have enough resources to protect their hold of Jamaica and it’s unofficial capital Port Royal. They were surrounded on all sides by an enemy with which they were at war, Spain. And so they turned to privateers and pirates to help defend the city.
in some areas shallow enough ships could careen and make repairs. It proved an ideal outpost for trading goods with easy access to all the shipping lanes. And, because it sat on a long finger of land, the

Situated in a sweet spot between the Spanish Main and the Atlantic, the location was perfect for, say, attacking ships laden with Spanish treasure and launching attacks on Spanish coastal towns. The pirates were pretty much given free sanction to pillage and plunder and the stolen goods would come through Port Royal. Pirates, merchants, and locals became stinkin’ rich, the Crown received a quarter of the gains, and the city was protected. It was a win for all involved. Well, except the Spanish. Yep, life was good in the booming port. Debauchery reigned as spoils were spent. Taverns and brothels were full and rowdy.

Even as the England and Spain drew a truce, Port Royal was the place to be to make a fast fortune. The seed had been planted. Craftsmen, slave traders, and entrepreneurs came in droves. The town rivaled cities like Boston and London. Its narrow streets and two thousand two-to-four story buildings crammed on just over fifty acres and boasted of a population of almost eight thousand. And while pirates were no longer needed, a former and notorious pirate captain, Henry Morgan, had been appointed the Lieutenant Governor. Over time, the port was no longer the sanctuary for pirates as it once was. Still, much to the displeasure of upstanding citizens, Port Royal had a reputation of being the “Sodom of the New World”. Drinking and prostitution were as rampant as ever. It had been estimated there was one tavern for every ten people. Wow. That’s a lot of partying.

In 1692, busy Port Royal was arguably one of the wealthiest ports in the Caribbean. All that changed
in a matter of minutes on June 7th  in a trifecta of catastrophe. At approximately 11:43 in the morning, a massive earthquake rocked the island. The ground split, buildings crumbled. There was no place to hide from the destruction. No place safe. The earthquake was just the beginning. As the ground shook, the water-saturated sand beneath the city separated and became unstable, behaving like quicksand. This phenomenon is called liquefaction. Entire buildings sank straight down into the earth, taking everything and everyone with them. The earthquake shocks reportedly created liquefaction waves. With each passing wave, people became trapped in the ground as the sand solidified, crushing them to death. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. The earthquake created a tsunami. As the tsunami rushed through Kingston Harbor, it bounced off the surrounding shores, sending multiple waves back to batter Port Royal.

Once the cataclysms subsided, two-thirds of the city (about thirty-three acres) had sunken beneath the sea and thousands of people lost their lives. The aftermath included a great many floating, decaying corpses and looting of homes, businesses, and bodies. No rest for the wicked. Many in the rest of the world felt that the destruction was divine intervention. But in all likelihood, being built on a sandy peninsula in an active fault zone doomed the port town from the beginning.

Though not completely swallowed up by the sea, Port Royal never regained her power and wealth.

About the Author
Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.



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