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.
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.
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.’
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.
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