Imagine a bustling port city in the 1600s. Merchant ships loading and unloading their cargo, pirate ships unloading their loot, mariners spending gold and Spanish doubloons at the local taverns and brothels, buccaneers and British Navy commanders barking orders, tavern keepers tossing drunken sailors into the street.
And then, a deafening noise like an explosion, the earth shakes violently, buildings collapse, a tidal wave destroys ships and sweeps the harbour. People scream in terror and run for their lives. But there’s nowhere to go. Fires erupt, causing more mayhem and destruction. The city is gone.
This is what happened to Port Royal, the “richest and most wickedest city in the world,” on June 7, 1692. The town was founded close to Fort Charles in the 1650s by the British, who had wrestled the island of Jamaica from the Spanish Crown. Port Royal became the base of operations of the pirates and buccaneers who harassed the Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. One of them, the infamous Henry Morgan, was even rewarded with a knighthood and was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
Most of the city sank but the rebuilding of what was left began right after the earthquake. However, Port Royal never recovered its former splendour, although it later became a key British naval station in the Caribbean. Further earthquakes and hurricanes made short work of the remaining buildings. Nowadays, Port Royal is a quiet fishing village.
Port Royal today
I visited Port Royal on a sunny afternoon in early May. I learned not to have great expectations in Jamaica, so I went with an open mind and enjoyed every bit of it. The visit to Fort Charles (1656) started in one of the barracks, where a young, knowledgeable guide explained the history of Port Royal and of the objects on display.
One of the objects is the coat of arms of Captain Nelson, which was recovered from one of the battlements. Horatio Nelson was appointed post-captain in June 1779, and oversaw the defences of the island. He went on to become Britain’s greatest naval hero at Trafalgar.
The “indoor” guide delivered us to the ‘outdoor” guide, another local young man. He took us around the grounds and showed us the battlements, the gun emplacements, where the water would have been before the area silted up, and pointed at the sunken city (which, it being under the sea, we could only imagine) and across the bay to Kingston, the “new” settlement after the earthquake. He interspersed stories from his childhood growing up in Port Royal and playing hide-and-seek in the Victorian tunnels. Someone asked if his mother knew and he said yes, but what could she do? Boys will be boys, right?
The most fun part of the visit was the Giddy House. This stone building dates from 1888 and functioned as the Royal Artillery Store. The earthquake that hit in 1907 half buried it (what we see is the top floor) and shifted it to a 45-degree angle. It’s called the Giddy House because some people feel giddy or unsteady. Would you believe I felt a little dizzy! We then went to the former jail, now a bar, for refreshments.
St. Peter’s Church
St. Peter’s Church is located outside Fort Charles. The current building replaced the one destroyed in the earthquake in 1692 and another one destroyed in a fire in 1703. This one dates from 1725-26. Naturally, much restoration has taken place. However, the black and white tiled floor is original.
The church looked like it was closed. I asked a local lady and she said it was open. I tried to open the garden gate but found it impossible. Another neighbor saw me and opened it for me. She left and came back with the front door key. Inside, the whitewashed walls, the dark wood and the smell of polish immediately transported me to England. Only the heat and the lush vegetation outside reminded me I was in the Tropics!
Rickety stairs took me up to the organ loft, which dates from 1743 and was modelled after a ship’s forecastle and commands a 180-degree view of the lovely church.
St. Peter’s church -and Port Royal- was my favourite place to visit in Jamaica.
If you go
Port Royal is a quiet fishing village located at the end of the Palisadoes, past the airport. It’s best reached by car or taxi.
Admission to Fort Charles is US$10 for non-residents.
Hours of Operation: Sunday to Saturday 9 AM to 4:45 PM except for Good Friday and Christmas Day.