Port Royal: The Sunken Pirate City in Jamaica

The greatest pirate story ever told won’t be launching later this year with the next Pirates of the Caribbean sequel; it has already occurred—300 years ago. It is the story of Port Royal.

The history of the city of Port Royal in Jamaica has more pirates in it than Johnny Depp’s filmography on IMDB, and the movie industry hasn’t even scratched the surface of how amazing the city actually was at its height.

Port Royal, pre-1692.

Port Royal wasn’t given the name of Jamaica’s wickedest city lightly. In fact, Port Royal had a worldwide reputation as being “the most wicked and sinful city in the world“.

The birth of a pirate legend

Port Royal is located on a small island in the mouth of the Kingston harbor. The Spaniards were the first Europeans who came to the island (coming with Christopher Columbus in 1494). It took about 15 years longer for permanent settlement to follow.

The island’s main value to the Spanish was based on its proximity to trade routes, and its convenience as a port for ship repair and hull scraping. The Spanish controlled the island for about 146 years until it was conquered by the British in 1655. That’s when things started to get interesting. The British were responsible for renaming the settlement: Port Royal.

Robert W. Nicholson created this artistic impression of events which occurred during the June 7, 1692 “Port Royal Earthquake.” The scene recreates the destruction caused by the quake and resulting tsunami which sent much of Port Royal into the sea.
Robert W. Nicholson created this artistic impression of events which occurred during the June 7, 1692 “Port Royal Earthquake.” The scene recreates the destruction caused by the quake and resulting tsunami which sent much of Port Royal into the sea.

Earning every bit of its reputation

Based on its location, Port Royal was a strategic jewel in the Caribbean, and the British were not about to leave it undefended. In 1657, the Governor of the settlement, Edward D’Oley, found a unique solution to his defense worries. He invited a group of privateers call the Brethren of the Coast to make Port Royal their home port and help safeguard the bounty that helped make Port Royal the richest colony in the British empire.

This is the same pirate group to which the famous (or infamous) Henry Morgan belonged, and yes he is the fellow they named Captain Morgan rum after—he was that famous (he also went on to become Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica – who says crime doesn’t pay). The Brethren concentrated their attacks on Spanish ships, as the Spanish shipping interests were considered to be a threat to the growth of the town.

Map Port Royal before the Earthquake
Map Port Royal before the 1692 earthquake.

This tactic had an interesting impact, redefining a lot of how the Caribbean developed. The regular attacks on Spanish shipping and settlements required the Spanish government to devote more and more of their resources to defending themselves. This left no spare assets to retake Port Royal, resulting in Governor D’Oley’s defense strategy being an incredible success.

Pirates and piracy did not just define the politics of the region, they also helped define the economy. Privateering was officially sanctioned by the British Crown, meaning that privateers with an official letter of marque and reprisal (basically a Pirate license) were required to pay a portion of all booty to the town government. Even with a booty tax in place, legendary figures of the pirate lifestyle like Edward Heath (better known as Blackbeard) are rumored to have made it a port of call at various times.

The remainder could be spent by the privateers themselves. In 1689, nearly half of the town’s population was involved in the privateer trade and the results were more amazing than you could imagine.

Port Royal from Map
Port Royal from Map.

While Port Royal had a cathedral and four churches, the remainder of the city was a bit less pious. It is said that about 25% of the city (yes, one out of every four buildings) was either a brothel or a bar. This gave swashbucklers a lot of places to spend money; and money was one thing they were not short of.

According to University of Edinburgh lecturer Nuala Zahedieh, the 300 men who accompanied Henry Morgan to Portobello in 1668 returned to Port Royale with a prize to spend of at least £60 each (two or three times the usual annual plantation wage).

Yes, that’s correct, two or three times the ANNUAL wage of a plantation worker. And this was accomplished in only one single raid! In his history of Jamaica, Charles Leslie wrote about what happened to wealthy pirates like these in Port Royal:

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. They used to buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.”

Imagine spending a few times your average annual salary in a night. Pretty mind-blowing isn’t it?

Location, economy, piracy, and all the other factors working in favour of Port Royal led to amazing growth for the town. Between 1655 and 1692 Port Royal was growing faster than any town founded by the English in the new world. By 1692, it was reported to have as many as 10,000 inhabitants and was considered to be the largest and most affluent town in the new world. It was also one of the largest english-speaking settlements, second only to Boston.

Port Royal was the capital city of pirate culture. Put in purely nautical terms, the city was the captain of the ship, and like any good captain, he went down with the ship.

The sinking of Port Royal

Usually when we talk about looking at cities of the past, we talk about the ruins of that city. For centuries, humans have built new cities upon the older ones, using the bricks and stones from one age to build the city of the next age.

We are restricted to looking at foundations; the occasional broken building; interpreting whatever discarded or lost objects we can find underground. The story is a bit different for Port Royal, all because of one fateful day in the middle of 1692.

It was June 7th—a massive earthquake struck the city, followed by a tsunami. 2,000 people died that day in an event that local clergy referred to as “God’s punishment”.

An engraving of the earthquake at Port Royal.

As it turned out, the island of Port Royal was not in fact built on bedrock, but rather on loosely packed soil. Under the combined force of the earthquake and tsunami, much of that soil liquefied, which greatly contributed to the extent of the damage.

Part of the old streets of Port Royal submerged near Kingston Harbor
Part of the old streets of Port Royal submerged near Kingston Harbour.

While the loss of human life is tragic, the result is a treasure trove for archeologists and historians. Much of the old city lies under only a few meters of water, along with hundreds of shipwrecks. Robert Grenier, a Canadian marine archaeologist notes:

This is the richest repository of historic shipwrecks anywhere, and Port Royal itself 
is part of that heritage.”

Underwater Images of what remains of Port Royal, Jamaica
Underwater Images of what remains of Port Royal, Jamaica.

This explains why Port Royal has been tentatively listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. There is still more paperwork and process to go through before the city reaches full certification as a heritage site, but the process is underway to solidifying the recognition it deserves.

Artifacts from the Port Royal of 1692.
Artifacts from the Port Royal of 1692.

In a way, the legacy of Port Royal lives on. Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica was founded in July 1692RaF, immediately in the aftermath of the destruction of Port Royal. The city was built to house the survivors of the tragedy, and it grew to become the largest city in the country.

The “capital city of piracy” might have sunk to a watery grave, but its legend lives on to this day – luring us with its siren’s song of pirate infamy, riches, and exciting adventures.