Swept away: Port Royal’s quake

Boatmen still assert that on stormy eveings one may hear the tolling of Port Royal’s cathedral bell, lying fathoms deep beneath the waves. Harry A. Franck (1920).

The morning of June 7, 1692, dawned bright and humid, with not a hint of breeze or the faintest suggestion that disaster was about to befall the 8,000 citizens of Port Royal, Jamaica.

Here, in the town where profit and the pursuit of pleasure were paramount, aging buccaneers lived out declining years in wealthy debauched ease, while merchants made fortunes in the slave and muscovado sugar trade, or in victualing Royal Navy vessels. Even brothel owners, catering to seamen from the hundred or more merchant vessels always in the harbor, could expect to retire to England to live as well as any duke or duchess.

Port Royal was a key trade link in a cyclical marine route connecting England with the colonial towns of St. John’s, Boston and Jamestown, Va. The port unabashedly displayed the fruits of seaborne wealth in its many elegant, well appointed homes. The wealthy employed slaves or indentured servants to run their households and imported tutors from England to educate their children. But even with its sophistication, the town could not hide its lawless nature. Arguments fostered by drink at the town’s plentiful and always open alehouses and taverns tended to end in street confrontations where fists, pistols and swords settled grudges with frequent and swift finality.

Nowhere in this wickedest of English colonial port towns could one find the puritanical angst and religious navel-gazing rife in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where in just three days, condemned witch Bridget Bishop would be executed for “crimes” that would hardly be noticed at Port Royal.

Life was good, the inhabitants of Jamaica’s capital thought, and they had every expectation that the town’s prosperity would continue to increase as it had each year since England wrestled Port Royal from Spain in 1655.

The first tremors began just before noon, noted Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Heath, a local resident who witnessed and survived the disaster. He wrote of the quake in a letter to England on June 19 from his temporary home aboard the sloop Granada anchored in Port Royal Harbor. Interestingly, the good clergyman’s tale reveals he was having a few drinks with a friend in one of those numerous taverns when the earthquake began. “When I first felt ye Earth Quake I wondered what was ye matter hearing a great humming noise and finding ye earth playing under my feet,” Heath wrote.

His three-page letter describes how he got out of the building without injury, then continues:

“As I made my way towards it (the fort) ye Earth opened and swallowed up many People before my face, and ye Sea I saw come mounting in over ye wall,” and “the destruction was very sudden and surprising, it being over in 4 minutes: multitudes were killed by the falling of houses, multitudes both of men and houses were swallowed up by ye gaping Earth, and many others were swept away by ye inundation (earthquake-induced tsunami).”

Heath’s letter concluded, “Tis a sad spectacle to see ye whole Harbour covered with dead floating carcases, with ye ruins of houses and wraks of goods, but ye smell is worse.”

HMS Swan, a Fifth Rate naval vessel in the process of being careened (having its bottom scraped) when the quake began, was picked up by the wall of harbor water rushing in to replace the large portion of the town that had slid into the sea. Swan was literally thrown down upon some damaged homes, while other ships were torn from their mooring lines to drift ashore or out to sea. When the quake ended, less than 10 percent of the town’s buildings were left standing, and 2,000 citizens were dead.

Port Royal’s glory days never returned after the earthquake of 1692. Many of the town’s survivors left, and the Royal Navy moved most of its operations to the safer port of Kingston. Today Port Royal is little more than a sleepy fishing village. Only the port’s old Fort Charles and a few tombstones, remain to tell the tale.

J. Gregory Dill


By Ocean Navigator