This past May, my rogue and I took an anniversary trip to Jamaica. It was our first visit to the tropical island and neither of us knew what to expect, other than beautiful flowers, lush vegetation, and reggae music. (Red, red wy-een!) High on my to-do list—unbeknownst to my rogue—was Port Royal. Jamaica, I quickly learned however, is a very large island. It took our shuttle one and a half hours to drive us from the airport to Ocho Rios. When we questioned our resort consultant about the possibility of touring Port Royal, I was saddened to learn that a trip to ye old pirate port would take six hours by taxi. Since we’d committed to our resort, that news unfortunately meant I wasn’t going to be able to see THE Golden Age of Piracy’s stronghold. But I found ways to assuage my bitter disappointment with rum and… where was I? Oh, yes. When I returned home, I consoled myself with research. What I’ve discovered is intriguing and sobering, especially as Hurricane Matthew passes over Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba. And what I found is exactly what I’d like to share with you today.
At the tip of Palisadoes Point near Kingston, Jamaica, sits the once famous pirate stronghold of Port Royal, originally called ‘cayagua’ in Carib-Spanish, meaning ‘island of water’. The port city gained its official name during the restoration of Charles II, in 1660. Surprisingly, Captain Henry Morgan and his men (recruited from waterfront taverns and lured from Tortuga to help shore up the port’s defenses) preferred to use a version of ‘cayagua’, calling the town Cagway. And oh, what a port it was! A clear-cut diamond at the heart of Caribbean shipping routes, Port Royal could easily accommodate hundreds of ships. In its prime, the city boasted thirteen doctors, ten tailors, four goldsmiths, twenty-five carpenters, and one hundred and twenty-five merchants.
Little Cagway with its hordes of unstable sociopaths, brilliant leaders, wanderers, sentinels, and buccaneers grew and prospered with enterprising speed. Three forts were built to protect the port from aggression. Ferries traveled six miles to deliver fresh water from Rio Cobre (Copper River). Buildings, built with imported English bricks, stood four stories high. There were two prisons to house the derelict, Marshallsea for men and Bridewell for women. And regrettably, between 1671 and 1679, twelve thousand slaves were sold from wharf auction blocks.
“The town of Port Royal, being as it were the Store House or Treasure of the West Indies, is always like a continual Mart or fair where all sorts of choice merchandises are daily imported, not only to furnish the island, but vast quantities are thence again transported to supply the Spaniards, Indians and other Nations, who in exchange return us bars and cakes of gold, wedges and pigs of silver, Pistoles, Pieces of Eight and several other coins of both metals, with store of wrought Plate, jewels, rich pearl necklaces, and of Pearl unsorted or undrilled several bushels… almost every House had a rich cupboard of Plate, which they carelessly expose, scarce shutting their doors in the night… In Port Royal there is more plenty of running Cash (proportionately to the number of its inhabitants) than is in London.” ~ Lawyer Francis Hanson, 1683, The Pirate Dictionary
Port Royal thronged, nearly equaling Boston in size, with eight-thousand people and two thousand buildings crowded onto a strip of coastline. Men and women hailed from France, Portugal, Holland, and England, but were all eager to spend coin while frequenting grog shops, gaming houses and brothels like The Black Dog, Blue Anchor, Cat and Fiddle, Cheshire Cheese, Feathers, Jamaica Arms, Three Crowns, Windmill, Three Tunns, Three Mariners, Sugar Loaf, Sign of the George, Sign of the Bacchus, Sin of the Mermaid, The Ship, The Salutation, King’s Arms, and Green Dragon. These licensed establishments multiplied in 1661 and by 1680 there were one thousand per three thousand residents. As an example: John Starr, owned the largest brothel in Port Royal and had twenty-three ladies working for him at a time. And what did these adventurous men and women thirst for… a drink called ‘Kill-devil’.
“The Spaniards wondered much at the sickness of our people, until they knew the strength of their drinks, but then wondered more that they were not all dead.” ~ Governor Modyford, The Most Evil Pirates in History
“This town is the Sodom of the new World and since the majority of its population consists of pirates, cut-throats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world, I felt my permanence there was of no use.” ~ 17th Century Clergyman on his return to England, The Pirate Dictionary
“Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that in a little time some of them were reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2000 – 3000 pieces of eight in one night; and one gave a strumpet 500 to see her naked. They used to buy a pipe of wine (a pipe was a cask of 105 gallons or 840 pints), place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.” ~ Charles Leslie, 1740, History of Jamaica
As wicked as Port Royal may have seemed, the foundations for redemption were laid in St. Paul’s Church, financed by Henry Morgan, a tough, cunning, ruthless, and ferociously clever Welshman who came to the Caribbean as an indentured servant. A brilliant tactician, Morgan’s courageous acts during his expeditions propelled him to astonishing success. After taking Puerto Bello, he sailed into Port Royal with five hundred thousand pieces of eight, a mountain of loot, and three hundred slaves. While his men engaged in debauchery, Morgan preferred Barre’s Tavern, a refined establishment operated by Charles de la Barre, Secretary to Governor Lynch, where he ordered ‘syllabub, cream tarts and other quelque choses’.
Morgan purportedly operated a private employment agency in Port Royal to former buccaneers, collecting 10% of the prizes taken under secret directives. Years later, accused of siphoning coin for his own gain, and his notoriety as a brigand worthy of reverence and applause fading, Morgan spent more of his days and nights in Port Royal taverns. In 1688, ravaged by alcoholism, he no longer resembled the man he’d once been.
He was “lean, sallow colored, his eyes a little yellowish and belly jutting out or prominent.” ~ Sir Hans Sloan, young physician at Port Royal, 1688
Morgan’s sand-glass wasn’t the only one that had run out of time. Misfortune darkened Port Royal between 11:00 a.m. and noon on June 7th, 1692, when the first of three earthquakes hit the city. A tsunami immediately followed the third quake, killing two-thirds of its inhabitants. Buildings slid into the sea, including the old churchyard housing Captain Morgan’s grave, leaving only ten acres of land intact. Two thousand souls died that day, and another two thousand from festering wounds, disease and fever.
“Nothing else was seen but the dead and dying, and heard but shrieks and cries.” ~ The Pirate Dictionary
John Pike wrote, “I lost my wife, my son, an apprentice, a white-maid and 6 slaves and all that I ever had in the world. My land where I was ready to raise 5 houses, and had room to raise 10 more, is all sunk, a good sloop may sail over it as well as over the Point.”
Jamaica’s Atlantis is still visible three hundred years later, her footprint left thirty feet below a crystal clear sea, exactly where the earth collapsed in 1692.
Humans do what they do best after a catastrophic event, joining together to rebuild. But like Sodom and Gomorrah, Port Royal wasn’t to be spared. In 1703, fire destroyed the city. A hurricane demolished the port, destroying 38 ships and 9 in Kingston, in 1712. Storms and earthquakes further damaged the city in 1722 and 1744, reducing the population and its resilience considerably.
“There was as much wind in my opinion as could possibly blow out of the heavens… all the merchantmen in the harbor foundered or drove ashore excepting one sloop.” ~ Chaloner Ogle, HMS Swallow, Off Port Royal, August 28th, 1722
Check out Lewis Galdy’s tombstone! When the earthquake hit, he was supposedly “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.” For more information on this, click here.
Today, Port Royal is the only sunken city in the New World. Efforts are being made to declare it ‘an underwater Pompeii’. And excavations are underway in hopes that Henry Morgan’s grave may someday be found. Oh, if only I could have looked into that crystal clear water and seen the footprints of an age beyond my ken when I was there.
Have you been to Port Royal, Jamaica? Would you have wanted to witness it in its heyday?
The Pirate Dictionary by Terry Breverton
A History of Pirates, Blood and Thunder on the High Seas by Nigel Cawthorne
The Most Evil Pirates in History by Shelley Klein
The Scourge of the Seas, Buccaneers, Pirates and Privateers by Angus Konstam
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates, Fascinating Facts About the World’s Infamous Pirates by Gail Selinger with W. Thomas Smith, Jr.
Some interesting sites for more information and images of Port Royal, Jamaica