Written by: Dr. Roli Degazon-Johnson, Ph.D

Port Royal is located at the tip of a finger of land where the “Brethren of the Coast” or buccaneers used to store their booty and to carouse and gamble their gold and jewels on prostitutes. Today, the popular “Miss Gloria’s” Seafood Restaurant has replaced some of the bawdy houses, warehouses, slave stockades and gambling dens of yesteryear. Without question something in the salty atmosphere, sea breezes and sunshine of this former “Cesspool of Christendom” also referred to as a “Gilded Hades”, conjures up a sense of the past, lost wealth, debauchery and ghostly excitement which makes one wish to return to visit time and again.

As a little girl who grew up on the island of Jamaica, I came to love this barren outstretch of land where my parents would often take the family for a swim on a Saturday afternoon. Passing the old British naval homes erected with chimneys despite the Caribbean heat, I would run across the burning hot sand to cool my feet in the clear blue waves lapping the Palisadoes beach. We swam at a location known as Morgan’s Harbor, so called after Sir Henry Morgan, the pirate, privateer and later Lieutenant Governor of the island. To this day, a visit to St. Peter’s church will reveal a silver tankard with a whistle affixed to the handle. Morgan is said to have used this when he wished his tankard replenished. It took very little effort to imagine what this place must have been in times gone by.

Sir Henry Morgan's tankard
Sir Henry Morgan’s tankard. Photo Rinald Mamachev

A memorable school outing in my teens was taking the ferry with a gaggle of school friends across Kingston Harbor to visit the “Giddy House”. This was originally the artillery store built on two levels by the British Navy at Fort Charles. The first level sank under the sand in the 1692 earthquake leaving the remnants of the building at a 45-degree angle. Today those who dare enter it risk feeling dizzy or giddy, making it the “Go-To” spot for a bit of fun and laughter. In later years, my own daughters straddled the hefty cannons guarding Fort Charles, where it is said the young Horatio Nelson strutted. Fort Charles is now a sought-after venue for weddings and receptions in stark contrast to its former purpose as a military location to defend the island against attacks by the Spanish and French.

Giddy House
Giddy House. Photo: Rinald Mamachev

“Sodom and Gomorrah of the New World”

The tremors of the 7.7 magnitude earthquake which hit Jamaica on Tuesday 28th January, 2020 were felt in Kingston, the island’s capital, and as far afield as the Cayman Islands and Florida. Despite significant aftershocks, there were no reports of people injured, nor a major tsunami. Whilst some cracks did appear in some of the island’s buildings, all stood their ground.

How different was the impact of the earthquake which hit Port Royal on June 7th, 1692. From that moment at 11:43am this “City of Sin”, was destined for a destruction which would never again see Port Royal restored to its former prominence as the richest city in the Western Hemisphere.

By the account of one Reverend Heath, an Anglican priest, on that day in 1692 the earth was observed to heave and swell, crack open and shut, swallowing up the people who were caught in it, pressing them to death. Fortunately, the life of this prelate assigned to the Church of St. Peter’s located in the square at Port Royal was spared as he lived to tell the tale. However, based on the population count at that time, some 2,000 persons or 65% of the population lost their lives. Following the quake, a huge tidal wave washed over the land destroying four-fifths of the buildings in the town. Only Fort Charles – formerly Fort Cromwell renamed after the Restoration of Charles II to the English throne – was left standing.

St Peter's Church, Port Royal
St Peter’s Church, Port Royal. Photo Rinald Mamachev

From that day forward, Port Royal would decline in its importance and the city of Kingston – across the harbor from the finger of land known as “Palisadoes” – would rise. In the 20th century, Palisadoes became the landing point for – not only ships, but – airplanes. Today it boasts the Norman Manley International airport, the island’s first major international airport, so called after one of Jamaica’s national heroes.

Ghosts of Port Royal Past:

Among the personalities that have survived the test of time is Henry Morgan, a name writ large in the history, legend and lore of the city of Port Royal. Considered to be the “boldest buccaneer of them all” 1 this rogue and brigand switched from being a pirate, when England was not at war with France or Spain, to become a privateer, whenever it was. Privateers carried “letters of marque” issued by the crown which made their plunder of the enemy ‘legitimate’, but nothing else in their conduct and behaviour differed to raw, unadulterated piracy. Harry Vendryes in an article on Port Royal’s “Sunken Treasure” 2 noted that the only difference between the two was that: “the privateer was permitted to share the profits of his piracy with the Crown, whereas the pirate was hung for not doing so.”

Captain Morgan Rum
Captain Morgan Rum. Photo: by Vershinin89
Captain_Henry_Morgan_before_Panama,_1671

Morgan gained notoriety for attacking and destroying Spanish settlements in Panama City, Porto Bello, Maracaibo and Gibraltar, Vera Cruz and Havana, Cuba between 1663 and 1671. In breach of the peace “Treaty of Madrid” signed by England and Spain, Morgan sacked Panama City and for this was arrested, taken to Britain and tried. The outcome amazingly, was that he was knighted by Charles II, becoming for his sins in 1674 Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica, Chief Judge and Custos of Port Royal.

Sir Henry in his new capacity proceeded to aggressively curb piracy and buccaneering in Jamaica with a violence equal to his lawless days, constructing a “Gallows Point” where he hung his former colleagues without mercy, leaving their bodies to blow in the wind as a warning to all those who persisted. As a consequence of his excessive consumption of alcohol he died in 1688, escaping the devastating earthquake of 1692 by just four years. Not surprisingly for at least the last century, his name has been associated with a popular beverage called “Captain Morgan’s Jamaican Rum”.

In stark contrast to Morgan the brigand buccaneer, a visit to Fort Charles today reveals the coat-of arms of the much-celebrated English naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson whose statue stands in London’s Trafalgar Square. The following inscription appears over a doorway in Fort Charles:

“IN THIS PLACE DWELT HORATIO NELSON,

Ye who tread his footprints remember his glory”.

At the tender age of 13, young Nelson was first sent to the Caribbean aboard the merchant ship Mary Ann to gain experience at sea. He was swiftly promoted and at 22 years was made Commander of Fort Charles and was in charge when the French planned to attack the fort.3 He is said to have considered the port the most important place in Jamaica in protecting the island from attack by sea. Little more is known of his time at Port Royal but elsewhere in the Caribbean in 1787 on the tiny Caribbean island of Nevis, Nelson met and married Fanny Nisbett, a young widow.4

Portrait of Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Portrait of Nelson.
by Lemuel Francis Abbott

In the boisterous, bawdy, brazen, male-dominated society of old Port Royal, it beggars belief that two lady buccaneers, Anne Bonny and Mary Read flourished and were far from marginalized. One may think that it is only in films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the Netflix series “Black Sails” that such fables are realized, but if history can be believed, these women disguised as men arrived in the Caribbean on the ship of another notorious pirate “Calico” Jack Rackham. They fought alongside their male counterparts “slitting throats and plundering” 5 until 1720 when a government sloop surprised them, captured and brought them to trial, when it was discovered they were both pregnant. Mary was sentenced to hang but died of a fever the day before her execution. Anne managed to avoid the hangman’s noose, entirely.

Allen & Ginter (American, Richmond, Virginia) Anne Bonny
Allen & Ginter (American, Richmond, Virginia) Anne Bonny, Firing Upon the Crew, from the Pirates of the Spanish Main series (N19) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, ca. 1888 American, Commercial color lithograph; Sheet: 1 1/2 x 2 3/4 in. (3.8 x 7 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (Burdick 201, N19.32) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/408879
Allen & Ginter (American, Richmond, Virginia) Mary Read, The Duel, from the Pirates of the Spanish Main series (N19) for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes, ca. 1888 American, Commercial color lithograph; Sheet: 1 1/2 x 2 3/4 in. (3.8 x 7 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (Burdick 201, N19.35) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/408882

Fact proved stranger than fiction in the case of Lewis (Louis) Galdy, a French Huguenot who fled to Jamaica to escape religious persecution in his homeland. Galdy became a prosperous businessman who supplied slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Americas using Port Royal as his base. In the 1692 earthquake he was swallowed up in the earth and was thrown by a further shock into the sea off Port Royal where a fisherman in his boat saved his life. He lived for more than 40 years after the earthquake, dying at the age of 80 in 1739. Galdy’s tombstone which was initially laid at Green Bay across the water from Port Royal, was later moved to the graveyard of St. Peter’s Anglican Church where it can be seen to this day.

The Grave of Lewis Galdy at the St Peter's Church, Port Royal. Photo: Rinald Mamachev
The Grave of Lewis Galdy at the St Peter’s Church, Port Royal. Photo: Rinald Mamachev

The knowledge that 4/5ths of the city of Port Royal sank in the 1692 earthquake has brought waves of treasure seekers to the sunken city in search of fabled riches believed to be submerged beneath its waves. In the 1860s, a celebrated professor of paleontology, Lucas Barnett, drowned when diving to survey the Port Royal site. 6 Similarly to the Egyptologists who lost their lives seeking riches from the pyramids of pharaohs, some have met with great success but others have encountered failure and death.

Out of Tragedy …….a Good Service

There is a sharp right-angle corner on the road to Port Royal, a few kilometers after the airport. Today, there are warning signals and road signs alerting drivers to proceed with caution. As a child travelling with the family on a Saturday afternoon for a swim at Morgan’s Harbour, I recalled being told of Dr Hyacinth Lightbourne a much respected and beloved doctor who served as Medical Officer (Health) for the parish of St. Thomas. On 7 April 1956 she was driving out to Port Royal when failing to navigate this sharp corner- which had no warning signs at that time – she met in a fatal accident. In response to her tragic passing and as a memorial to her life and contribution, the Hyacinth Lightbourne Visiting Nursing Service was established through the instrumentality of Lady Foot, wife of the governor of Jamaica at that time, Sir Hugh Foot, later Lord Caradon. This voluntary organization of nurses who care for convalescents in their homes, survives to this day.

Plans – Past, Present and Future

Whether it was when Jamaica’s aborigines, the Arawak (Taino) Indians used it as a fishing ground, or later when the Spanish fleet careened their ships to scrape and repair their hulls or when the English turned the port into a hub for pirates, privateers and slavers, Port Royal retains an atmosphere of history that resonates in the cooling breezes that blow steadily across the Kingston harbour. Certainly, its importance as a historical location and monument internationally is massive and its potential to advance the Jamaican tourism product is vast.

Redevelopment of Port Royal has been a commitment and undertaking of successive Jamaican governments for at least the last century. Ever since the colonial era, there have been efforts to repair the city after earthquakes and at least one fire. A series of hurricanes and earthquakes culminated with “Charlie”, the worst of the hurricanes in the 1951 season which wrought significant havoc and destruction. Major efforts were made then to reconstruct and rebuild the city.

Since the island gained independence in 1962 there have been plans to optimize Port Royal’s historical significance and potential. The tourism potential is to be developed and most recently a pier has been opened for cruise ships. In Vision 2030, the Government of Jamaica’s National Development Plan, Port Royal is slated for residential and commercial development to improve its economy, physical infrastructure and investment possibilities. 7

Old Port Royal

An application to have Port Royal declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site has been underway since 2009 and since 2019 efforts have been redoubled by the current administration to attain this status. Hopefully with the granting of such status, a new era will dawn for the elevation and development of this once great New World city.

References:

[1] Source: “Duppies of a Wicked City” by Gay Burk, National Library of Jamaica

[2] Source: “Secret of Port Royals Sunken Treasure” from a broadcast by Harry Vendryes, National Library of Jamaica

[3] Source: “Jamaica in Fact and Fiction” from the West Indian Review. National Library of Jamaica

[4] Source: “Jamaica in Fact and Fiction” from the West Indian Review. National Library of Jamaica

[5] Source: “Duppies of a Wicked City” by Gay Burk, National Library of Jamaica

[6] Source: “Secret of Port Royals Sunken Treasure” from a broadcast by Harry Vendryes, National Library of Jamaica

[7] Source: “Port Royal Then And Now” in “Get the Facts” – publ. Jamaica Information Service