Thursday, June 07, 2007

On this date: Port Royal Destroyed


There has been a lot of talk about pirates lately. This is probably the result of the latest Hollywood film that deals with the genre in its typically romantic manner. But the history of piracy is not a pretty one. Its interesting to note that today is a bit of a red letter date in pirate history.

On this day (June 7th) in 1692 the city of Port Royal in modern day Jamaica was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. Port Royal was even then a place whose very name had become synonymous with Sodom and Gomorrah. It was described simply as "the wickedest city on earth." Since then of course it has become the stuff of romantic legend. However this is one case where the legends probably pale next to the reality. In its heyday Port Royal was the wealthiest city in the new world. But it had really only three industries... piracy, rum, and women of easy (or at least commercial) virtue. At its hight the city had one drinking house for every ten residents! In the final years before its destruction an effort was made to clean up its vices and to replace piracy and the bordellos with a more respectable form of commerce... the slave trade.

But of course it is the city's colorful and criminal reputation that lives on. It was an almost entirely lawless city inhabited by pirates, thieves, cutthroats, prostitutes and drunks (not necessarily in that order). Charles Leslie describes the pirates thus...
Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that… some of them became reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2 or 3,000 pieces of eight in one night; and one gave a strumpet 500 to see her naked. They used to buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.
Most of the pirates made their short lived fortunes by raiding the rich treasure ships bound from the Spanish Main and packed with gold and silver. However unlike in Hollywood movies and other romantic silliness real pirates were not all like Errol Flynn. These pirates generally murdered the crews of those ships unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. And of course after a hard days work at sea the pirates would retire to Port Royal to unwind. Gambling, murder, drunkenness and debauchery were so common that their absence would have been far more remarkable than their presence.

Against this background (and the introduction of the slave trade) one is almost compelled to wonder if God is really completely disinterested in what goes on in this world.
On June 7, 1692, a devastating earthquake hit the city causing the sand spit on which it was built to liquefy and flow out into Kingston Harbour. The water table was generally only two feet down prior to the quake. The effects of three tidal waves caused by the earthquake further eroded the sand spit, and soon the main part of the city lay permanently underwater, though intact enough that archaeologists have managed to uncover some well-preserved sites. The earthquake and tsunami killed between 1,000 and 3,000 people combined, over half the city's population. Disease ran rampant in the next several months, claiming an estimated 2,000 additional lives.
Coincidence or divine justice?

Read more here.

1 comment:

Anam Cara said...

Wish I had seen this in the morning before I went to work. My boss is a huge Pirates of the Carribean fan.

I remember when I was a child reading an article in National Geographic all about Port Royal. I can still picture the two page fold out of an artist's rendering of the city with streets and buildings. All the protion that was sunk was colored slightly lighter to give the appearance of being under water.

What a great magazine that was to read as a child. Thanks for the memories!