Once a wealthy and romantic seaside town, Port Royal derived its fame from trade and booty, its notorious pirates giving it acclaim as the 'wickedest city in the world'. Port Royal was originally designed as a defensive port to secure the entrance to Kingston Harbour. Its position and structure made it the perfect location for ships to conduct the business of loading and unloading their cargo, or to be serviced. Out of this arose trading opportunities which were soon capitalized upon, especially by merchants, ships' captains and others who had reason to visit the port. This resulted in a very rigorous and expansive trade mechanism, typified by what has been referred to as the 'buccaneer era', which was responsible for Port Royal's economic prowess. It soon morphed into the busiest port in the Americas, its activities largely controlled by buccaneers and pirates. It inspired the growth of other industries and rapidly became a trading mecca for slaves, sugar and raw materials. A true home for pirates, the taverns were always overflowing, the brothels were always full, and where religion was concerned, it was anything goes. By the late 1600's, Port Royal's splendour, debauchery and reputation could only be rivalled by the US city of Boston.
Sir Henry Morgan – the 'Privateer Pirate'
Contrary to popular belief, one of Port Royal's most famous pirates was actually not a pirate at all! In fact, Sir Henry Morgan was a privateer, which means he had documents sanctioned by the English government for him to fight against the Spaniards. He joined various naval captains in their raids on Spanish ports, gaining significant booty from plundering, arriving in Jamaica in the 1600's as a very wealthy man. His plundering and pillaging continued while he was stationed in Jamaica, with attacks on countries such as Panama, where he and his men returned with an abundance of riches. His remarkable contributions to Port Royal's prowess as the richest city in the world earned him acclaim as 'the island's greatest hero' during his time, and, after being imprisoned in England, it was determined he should return home to Jamaica. In 1675, in an event which took many by surprise, Morgan was knighted prior to his return! When he arrived in Jamaica, he was soon appointed Deputy Governor, and also acted in the capacity of Governor, posts he served with respectability and grace, his days of plunder now behind him.
It All Comes Crashing Down
Just before midday on June 7, 1692, a disastrous earthquake shook Port Royal, ravaging the city, with 66 percent of the 'storehouse and treasury of the West Indies' destroyed; devoured by the Kingston Harbour. It is estimated that 2000 persons were killed instantly, while another 3000 or so died from the injuries and diseases which occurred as a result of the earthquake. As if the disease outbreaks weren't bad enough, looting was rampant, as were general chaos and disorder. Alas, the city had been devastated, its grandeur extinguished. Had God singled out Port Royal because of its wickedness and meted out His punishment to its citizens as they rightly deserved? Many persons thought so, especially with a litany of natural disasters plaguing the city over time. Years subsequent to the earthquake, brave attempts were made to rebuild the city, but this was just not to be. In 1703, it was ravaged by fire. Thereafter, Port Royal has been battered by at least 16 various hurricanes and approximately 6 earthquakes, never returning to its former glory.
Port Royal Today
Its days of piracy now just a part of its history and mystique, Port Royal today is best described as a shadow of its 17th century self. It does prove an interesting field trip for tourists and history buffs who are keen to hear a good story and to stand in some of the historic spots such as the 'Giddy House' a building which partially went underground in the earthquake; Jamaica's own 'Leaning Tower of Pisa', if you will. The town has an unassuming presence – the atmosphere is relaxed, the people are friendly and there is virtually no crime, a feat few other towns in the country can boast. No longer characterized by racketeering or rigorous trade machinery, most of the activities in Port Royal come from islanders, and some tourists, who make the long drive along the shoreline of the Kingston Harbour, past Norman Manley International Airport, to indulge in the tasty seafood dishes for which the town has gained its new reputation. Thus it has come a long way from being the 'wickedest city in the world' – instead catering to the seafood cravings of Jamaicans across the island and visitors alike is now the sparkling jewel in its crown.