Sepia photo of old houses
History,  Jamaica

Port Royal, the richest and wickedest city in the world

A short drive from bustling (and seedy) downtown Kingston, on a spit of land reaching out into the sea, lies the small and slightly shabby fishing community of Port Royal. Today it is hard to imagine that this secluded backwater was once described as ‘the richest and wickedest city in the world’. But its sleepy demeanour masks a notorious past.

The town was settled by the Spanish in the early 16th century; but it was only after the British captured the island of Jamaica in the middle of the 17th century that Port Royal was established as a significant town. It was even for a while the island’s capital.

Destruction

But on June 7, 1692 an earthquake largely destroyed Port Royal, causing two thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea. Three thousand people died in the earthquake, or as a result of the disease that followed it. And the town was further destroyed by fire in 1703, leaving it largely uninhabited apart from the naval base.

Many believed the destruction from the earthquake to be an act of God resulting from the city’s sinful reputation. It was the home port of a group of pirates known as the Brethren of the Coast; hence the tag of ‘the richest and wickedest city in the world’. They used it as a base from which to attack Spanish shipping, encouraged to do so by the British governor of the island. The notorious Henry Morgan had his base here; and at the height of its popularity, the city had one drinking house for every ten residents. Wikipedia quotes the historian Charles Leslie as saying of the pirates that:

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.

After the earthquake several attempts were made to rebuild the city but were thwarted by the fire mentioned above; then subsequently by hurricanes, flooding, another fire, an outbreak of cholera and finally another major earthquake in 1907. Meanwhile nearby Kingston had long since eclipsed Port Royal in importance and as the capital of the island.

Port Royal today

Nowadays Port Royal is run-down and all but deserted. It is home to the coastguard, local fishermen and some popular seafood restaurants; but in total fewer than 2,000 people live here.

It isn’t too difficult to conjure up a sense of disrepute and debauchery. Around Chocolate Hole, the former parade ground where we parked, we found a number of shabby and largely unidentified buildings which made great subjects for atmospheric photos.

As you wander among the dilapidated buildings you can perhaps feel the presence of a young Nelson; he was stationed here as a young officer and was in command of the batteries for several weeks in 1779.

Fort Charles

Nelson’s base was in nearby Fort Charles. This is one of the six forts that once guarded the town, the only one that now remains in any substance. It was built in the late 1650s and was originally called Fort Cromwell. It was renamed Fort Charles after the Restoration in 1660.

The main points of interest inside the Fort are a Maritime Museum, with its history of Port Royal (including some items dredged up from the underwater city) and the raised platform known as Nelson’s Quarterdeck. From here he is supposed to have scanned the horizon for enemy ships; although in fact this is a fairly new replacement for the actual deck he would have walked upon.  We didn’t have time to go inside; but even from outside you can get a good sense of the strength of the 1694 (i.e. post-earthquake) brickwork and some of the remaining cannons.

St Peter’s Church

A short walk from Chocolate Hole is the pretty church of St. Peter’s, built in 1725 to replace Christ’s Church which was lost in the 1692 earthquake. Unfortunately when we visited the church was locked; we couldn’t even get into the graveyard to see the famous tomb of Lewis Galdy, one of the founders of the church. Galdy was a local hero who survived the earthquake – a story told on his tomb:

‘Here lies the body of Lewis Galdy who departed this life at Port Royal on December 22, 1739 aged 80. He was born at Montpelier in France but left that country for his religion and came to settle in this island where he was swallowed up in the Great Earthquake in the year 1692 and by the providence of God was by another shock thrown into the sea and miraculously saved by swimming until a boat took him up. He lived many years after in great reputation. Beloved by all and much lamented at his Death.’

Old white church behind a fence
St Peter’s Church

The future of Port Royal

When we visited Port Royal with Dave (a driver recommended by Elise at the wonderful Blue House B&B), we were the only visitors. There has been talk for some time of maximising its potential as a tourist sight, including for cruise ships. According to Wikipedia, a plan has been created for its future development:

The focus of the plan is a 17th-century-themed attraction that reflects the city’s heritage. It has two anchor areas: Old Port Royal and the King’s Royal Naval Dockyard. Old Port Royal features a cruise ship pier extending from a reconstructed Chocolate Hole harbour and Fisher’s Row, a group of cafes and shops on the waterfront. The King’s Royal Naval Dockyard features a combination shipbuilding-museum and underwater aquarium with dioramas for views of the native tropical sealife. The Royal Naval Dockyard also includes the headquarters for the Admiral of the Royal Navy. The redevelopment plan also includes a five-star hotel.

The article goes on to say that, ‘By 2019, a floating pier where a cruise ship could dock had been built; the first ship arrived on 20 January 2020’. I guess the Covid pandemic has put any further development on hold for now; but personally I would be concerned to see this atmospheric spot overrun by cruise passengers in any large numbers. I hope they get the balance right.

Young children in school uniform
Local schoolchildren taking an interest in us

Another challenge will be the preservation not only of what is visible on dry land but also the heritage hidden beneath the sea. Several 17th and early 18th century pirate ships sank within Kingston Harbour; underwater archaeological explorations are underway to uncover the artefacts that will paint a picture of seafaring in this region over several centuries.

Personally, I am glad to have seen Port Royal in this run-down but evocative state.

I visited Jamaica in 2008

25 Comments

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Do you sometimes feel slightly guilty, as a photographer, for liking scruffy or ruined buildings rather than nice new ones that would be much more comfortable to live and/or work in? I know I do!

      • rkrontheroad

        I feel more of a guilt trip when I photograph poor places where people live or the people themselves… kind of a voyeur to the sadder side of life. But it speaks more to me (and you, I’m sure) visually than scenes of a more comfortable life.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Very interesting history on Port Royal. Though, I’m not sure how developed it is now, it must have been quite amazing to visit a place like this before the big tourist companies arrive. Your pictures are beautiful … and lovely one of the school children 😊.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 🙂 Yes, I’m not sure how it would be to visit now, although reading that Wikipedia article much of the development seems to have been put on hold because of Covid. The kids were great – they loved the attention!

  • Natalie

    I enjoyed reading this post and your beautiful photos, Sarah. I visited Jamaica a long time ago and did sightseeing in Kingston, Montego Bay, Ocho Rios, and Negril.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Natalie 🙂 We did quite a bit of sightseeing in Ocho Rios, Kingston and Negril but skipped Montego Bay, apart from flying home from its airport!

  • Jane Lurie

    Interesting post on Port Royal, Sarah. Your photos really convey a sense of place and the colorful, dilapidated buildings make for great images. Love the one with the gentleman sitting on the steps, the school kids are darling.

  • SandyL

    It’s interesting to read your portrayal of Port Royal. I grew up in Jamaica and only remember Port Royal for it’s proximity to a popular beach. That and it’s infamous pirate history. Who can forget Henry Morgan – he was a terror on the seas – until he was knighted and made Lieutennant Governor of Jamaica.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Isn’t it always the way that visitors see a place differently from a local – or maybe more accurately, see different aspects of a place! Although I do recall passing a nice beach, and also being told that a scene from a James Bond film was shot nearby.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    That’s exactly how we would like to see it too – run down and ramshackle and full of history and character is far better than regenerated, modern and false! So many places have suffered once the cruise liners start to make regular calls – although of course the economy doesn’t suffer so it’s double edged I suppose. By the way, isn’t “strumpet” just simply one of the very best old English words!? It should be revived!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re so right about the cruise ships – both the downsides but also the pluses for the local economy. Our hosts at the Blue House in Ocho Rios had a timetable of when the cruise ships were due to moor there, so they could warn us to avoid certain popular sights on those days!

  • Nancy Gordon

    Wow a large earthquake caused two thirds of the city to sink into the Sea! That’s an interesting and scary fact! We’ve been warned for decades that a lot of California could end up in the ocean after “The Big One” but I’ve been a sceptic. I love the pictures of the forts brickwork, nice that it didn’t all crumble in the earthquake, I guess it was far enough off shore.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Nancy – if you look at Port Royal on a map you’ll see it’s on a narrow spit of land as I mentioned, and it’s not so surprising then to imagine it disappearing into the sea! And (again as I mentioned 😆 ) the brickwork on the fort dates from 1694, two years after the earthquake, as it had to be rebuilt. It’s actually right by the sea, and is the only one of several forts not to be lost in the earthquake!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I though that myself when reading your post yesterday as I was working on mine at the time, but I didn’t say anything because I wasn’t certain I’d get mine finished!

  • Easymalc

    Port Royal would definitely have to be on my list if ever I was to visit Jamaica. A smashing post Sarah, and great photos as always.

  • maristravels

    Very evocative photographs Sarah, and a lovely post. I never got to see this when we holidayed in Jamaica, mainly because the island was a very dangerous place with a notorious crime rate at the time and driving with or without local driver, was not encouraged, so we never ventured far from the hotel. The ‘sort of’ lockdown in Jamaica wasn’t what we’d planned but it was easier to bear than the current one!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Glad you enjoyed this Mari 🙂 When were you in Jamaica? To be honest, some of the hotels were saying things on those lines when we were there but I wouldn’t go all that way without seeing the place and other people told us they only said that to encourage guests to stay on-site the whole time! I don’t know if that’s true, but we deliberately booked accommodation like the Blue House so we could get out and about. We trusted their driver implicitly, even going into the centre of Kingston to visit the Bob Marley Museum. If ever you plan to go back to see the island I would recommend the Blue House very very highly 😀

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