Port Royal Earthquake (1692)
During the 17th century the seaport of Port Royal was the wealthiest and largest maritime commerce center on the island of Jamaica. During this time Kingston had hardly developed and the city was known as one of the best or worst depending on how you looked at it, Locations in the New World.
However, the destiny of Port Royal was tied with its inhabitants and was not destined for a long and full life. At 11:43 on 7 June 1692 a massive underwater earthquake hit the city of Port Royal causing the northern most part of the island to literally fall into the sea and the destruction of the rest of the city.
The Port Royal Earthquake of 1692 was one of the worst disasters of all time and saw an extreme loss of life. Few people survived this incident and the ones who did described a horror scene out of a war. Homes and buildings that sat on loosely packed sand were destroyed and sunk into the ocean with their inhabitants.
Many of the forts such as Fort James, Fort Rupert and Fort Carlisle were destroyed. While Fort Charles survived, a large section of the island called Morgan's Line was utterly destroyed.
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami killed between one thousand and three-thousand people, almost half ofPort Royal's population at once. After the natural disaster, many were left homeless and were killed by rampant disease and improper medicine, clean water and fresh food.
Disease caused by rotting corpses killed another estimated 2,000 people. This disaster nearly wiped out the entire population of Port Royal in a single blow.
As the news of Port Royal's destruction spread throughout the world it was portrayed as a sign of divine retribution for the debauchery and sins of the pirates, slavery, prostitutes or the wealthy.
An eyewitness account by Edmund Heath stated that "there was no wind stirring" and all was calm on the island, however suddenly within "four minutes" or so many homes and people were "swallowed up by the gaping earth." Even Henry Morgan's final resting place in 1688 was destroyed during the quake along with nearly two thirds of the entire town.
This was not the first time quakes occurred in the area, however this time it was much worse. When the quakes did not stop, Heath grabbed his family to flee however along the way they "the Earth opened and swallowed up many People before my face" right before seeing massive tsunami wave "mounting in over the wall,".
Edmunds then goes on to account the death and destruction that befell Port Royal that day, of which he was an unlikely survivor.
Heath's account is one of the few primary source, first hand accounts we have of the disaster and goes on to describe the terrifying details of the day that resulted in one of the largest losses of life in the New World. However, it is important to understand this was earthquake was not divine retribution but in fact has very real, scientific explanations.
The major destruction at Port Royal occurred through a process called liquefaction which causes the sand to literally disappear into the ocean. Port Royal was built atop a sandy beach at the tip of the harbor which is highly unstable especially in the earthquake prone Jamaica area. Compounding the problem, the colonists constructed heavy stone buildings like they knew back in Europe.
When the earthquake struck the sand vibrated with the water and parts of the town were literally swallowed up by the sea. We can only understand this with modern day science and while many superstitious and religious people in the 17th century attributed this to the wickedness and the sin of Port Royal, this event was always destined to happen at some point or another if the construction continued.
The earthquake of 1692 signaled the symbolic end of the buccaneering era in Port Royal and the city would never regain its prominence that it once had. The majority of the settlers moved inland to Kingston and with the buccaneering era coming to a close the tides turned completely and Port Royal became more known for the place of their execution. The nooses at Gallows Point in 1720 awaited many pirates such as Charles Vane and 'Calico' Jack Rackham and their crews. Eventually the city started to decline in popularity throughout the 1720's.
- Port Royal Origins
- Port Royal Forts
- Life in Port Royal
- Port Royal Economy
- Port Royal Earthquake (1692)
- Port Royal Decline
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Crocket, Captain (1692) A true and perfect relation of that most sad and terrible earthquake, at Port-Royal in Jamaica, which happened on Tuesday the 7th. of June, 1692. [microform] : Where, in two minutes time the town was sunk under ground, and two thousand souls perished: With the manner of it at large; in a letter from thence. London: : Printed by R. Smith, and are to be sold by G. Croom ... and William Miller.
Ellis, Colonel (1892) Great Earthquake at Port Royal. Popular Science Monthly vol. 40. pgs 774-84.