Port Royal


The Most Wicked City on Earth

It’s a tiny little fishing village on a strip outside of the capital city of Kingston, just beyond the Norman Manley International Airport. Locals visit often for the seafood al fresco or to visit the artifacts left behind from a world that once was.

Port Royal was once dubbed the most important town in the Western Hemisphere. It was a town where explorers stopped to rest and care for their ships while discovering the New World. It became a thriving trade town and naval station and buccaneers here drank, gambled and brought in their treasures from the seas. The debauchery rampant in Port Royal in the 1600s gave it a solid reputation as the “most wicked and sinful city in the world.”

It began in 1655 when the English fought the Spaniards they found here on the island. To the English, the harbour was important for its ability to dock over 500 ships and its position placing it at the center of the trade channel. They built forts to defend their newly acquired harbour from enemy ships entering. The Spaniards were wealthy but weak and came under constant attacks from British pirates recruited worldwide to steal from Spanish ships passing. From Fort Charles to Fort Carlisle of Sir Henry Morgan, a pirate famous on the seas for his wicked attacks, the entire Port Royal was just about impregnable with over five forts baring 18-26 canons each. After only seven years of British hold, they had acquired so much gold and silver from piracy that there was more liquid cash there in proportion to the population, than in London.Two prisons were built within the confines of the forts to hold unruly elements that were inevitable in a society built on theft.

Port Royal was the center for the exchange of wines, linen, silks, fruits, ironwork, naval stores, dairy products and fresh and salted meats. Spanish gold and silver was the currency here and ships departing carried with them sugar, indigo, cocoa, cotton, ginger, logwood, rum, hides and tallow.

A count in 1688 tallied 8000 inhabitants in the small town. in 1692 disaster struck the town in the form of a disastrous earthquake sinking almost 90% of its land area. Over 2000 people perished in the quake and the tidal wave that followed. Forts James and Carlisle rested 25 feet underwater and was covered by sand. Looting, profiteering, sickness and religious fanaticism ran rampant throughout the town. Amazingly only 10 years later the town began to rise again, that is until fire in 1703 abruptly halted the reconstruction efforts. While the seamen preferred Port Royal, merchants began to move across harbour to Kingston after this second disaster.

Three hundred years later, many attempts have been made to conserve the artifacts and expose the archaeological site considered to be the most important of the seventeenth century in the world. Experts have come from Britain, the USA, Sweden and Holland to help in the conservation process. It took many years of trial and error and some important pieces have been lost in the attempts as these pieces have been submerged for hundreds of years.

The Museum of Historical Archaeology is now open in the Old Naval Hospital in Port Royal displaying some of these artifacts that have been preserved. The Fort Charles Maritime Museum was also opened at the Police Training School in Port Royal in a restored house that was once occupied by Horatio Nelson (1778) while he was captain of Fort Charles.
Fort Charles is the only fort left of the six that once protected Port Royal. The museum on the ground of the property displays artifacts, maps of the old Port Royal, canons still standing and the infamous giddy house, left permanently slanted after a subsequent earthquake in 1907.

Plans are afoot to revive the sleepy town and put on show its rich underwater world with an underwater attraction and development of cruise ship docks as well as boardwalk restaurants and attractions.

- by Monique Solomon