Port Royal, a natural harbor on the island of Jamaica was a veritable den of pirate iniquity by 1692. It had been called “richest and wickedest city in the world” by some. But on today’s date, June 7 in 1692 the city was virtually swallowed up by an earthquake and tsunami which left it an uninhabitable mess, but which gave rise to one of the finest cities of the Caribbean.
Port Royal Grows Into a Pirate Haven
Established by the Spanish in 1518, by the 17’th Century it had become a center of commerce and shipping in the Caribbean. It also became a home for privateers (which were essentially free-lance pirates operating with the tacit but never open blessing of one European power or another) for nations – mainly the English and the Dutch which wanted to raid Spanish shipping without going to war with the Spanish
empire. It was during the war with Spain with the English between 1655 and 1680 that Port Royal became a haven and a hideout for pirates of every sort. As said above it was a natural harbor and thus an excellent buccaneer hiding place, and launch site for their raids. Of course along with this came all of the brothels and hundreds of taverns that went along with the pirate life. And along with this came the legal trade of slaves and sugar, and all manner off plunder that made Port Royal such a key piece of the not so legal mercantile picture in the Caribbean.
The “Ungodly and Debauched People” Are Hit By an Earthquake
Well in this corner of the Caribbean, on the morning of today’s date at about 11:40 pm the Rev Emmanuel Heath, wrote that he had concluded prayers – “to keep up some show of religion among a most ungodly, debauched people” – and was patronizing a local tavern. Then he felt the floor started to sway beneath him. Plates, wine and chandeliers all came crashing to the floor. The Reverend rushed outside just in time to see “the earth open and swallow up a multitude of people, and the sea mounting in upon us”. As Port Royal grew many of the buildings had been built on land that had simply been thrown in to fill up water. Thus, when the quake came it had only to sweep this fake land away. The tremor, the soil liquefaction and the huge tsunami that followed wiped the pirate den away with ease.
Above is a picture of the wreck of Port Royal, circa 1692.
The Frigate “Swan’s” Journey and Mr. Galdy
The the frigate H.M.S. “Swan” had been in a slipway on the east end of the Port having the barnacles scraped away from her keel. Suddenly she was thrust upward by monstrous seismic wave and was sent on a bizarre ride through the town skimming over the parts that had already been flooded, “sailing” over the tops of buildings at vast speeds. But because she had so many ropes hanging from her sides that large numbers of would-be victims were able to grab onto her as “Swan” barreled trough the town and were miraculously saved. The “Swan” finally came to rest when she was beached on top of a building which had been partly sunken. A very strange experience happened to
one Thomas Galdy. He was walking along when the second tremor opened a huge fissure in the ground before him into which he was swallowed up. A moment later came the third tremor – a seismic sea wave that forced Galdy up from his spot like a cork and onto level ground again.
The Totals of Port Royal’s 1692 Quake.
There were a total of three separate tremors on that hellish morning. They lasted it total less than two minutes. But because of the landfill on which most of the houses had been built, almost the entire town was tossed about, and then flooded under some 43 feet of water by the resulting Tsunami. I have found sources on-line and in print calculating the number of dead as anywhere between 1,600 and 3,000. But the town had been totally obliterated. The subsequent aftershocks kept a lid on any hopes of rebuilding the old pirate’s den. But in time a new city rose up nearby: the city of Kingston, Jamaica – one of the most beautiful cities in the whole of the Caribbean.
by Jay Robert Nash, Wallaby Books, New York, 1976