Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Home Ports: An End to the Wickedest City

On June 7, 1692, all Hell broke loose in what was at the time said to be the "very seat of Satan".  Virtually the entire island of Jamaica was rocked by an earthquake that today would be considered off the scale.  And the worst damage came to the town of Port Royal which, in almost Biblical fashion, quite literally sank into the sea.

According to those who lived through the disaster, the weather had been hot and literally without a breeze for several weeks.  When I lived in Southern California, we often referred to these kinds of conditions as "earthquake weather" and Port Royal's unfortunate experience seems to hold true to that superstition.  Even here in Alaska, our earthquakes tend to come as the weather warms; the devastation of Anchorage in 1964 occurred in an unusually warm spring.

If you click on the contemporary broadsheet above, it is easy to see how the earthquake mangled the city selectively.  Areas closer to the port were built on sandy ground which liquefied during the unbearably long six minute earthquake.  Houses collapsed, people were pulled down into the newly formed quicksand, and violent geysers of sand and water erupted hurling wreckage, animals and people up into the air only to send them crashing back to the rolling earth again.  Further back, on what could be called the high ground of the city - indeed High Street, the home of most of Port Royal's elite merchant class, was located there - a limestone bedrock prevented the liquefaction of the earth.  One can see that some homes, despite being built of brick in the English fashion, remained standing.  Three forts, including Morgan's Fort at the far right, also survived.

As the water receded from the sand, being pulled back toward the Caribbean to unleash the next round of terror, people were literally trapped in the now hardened sand.  Stephan Talty in his engrossing account of the life of Henry Morgan Empire of Blue Water quotes an eye witness:

That watery hiatus closed again the next moment, catching hold of some people by the Leg, of others by the middle of the Body, and of others some by the Arm, etc., detaining them in dismal torture, but immovably fixed in the ground, till they, with almost the whole Town besides, sunk under Water. 

And, as the anonymous writer noted, the "Water" was the next horror to hit Port Royal.  The tsunami that hurtled over those who were still alive was three stories high and traveling at an estimated sixty miles an hour.  Ships, becalmed in the harbor due to the recalcitrant weather, were forced up onto land.  In a happy accident Talty tells us that one, HMS Swan, fell upon the city but managed to remain upright.  Over two hundred citizens clamored aboard her and were saved from the following sea. 

Finally the lower part of the city simply collapsed into Port Royal Harbor.  Homes, storage warehouses, churches, people and livestock sank like stones.  Many were trapped in the structures with which they had sunk but many others floated up to the surface of the harbor. Over the course of the following week, corpses bobbed listlessly in the harbor, slowly rotting in the unrelenting heat.

Pestilence and anarchy fell over the city.  Port Royal, once labelled the "wickedest city in the world" for the number of pirates and whores who called it home, became even more wicked after the wrath of God apparently struck her down.  Once again it was the buccaneers, who had fallen out of favor now that Port Royal was full of "respectable" merchants trading in luxury goods, sugar cane, rum and human chattel, who gave the city a bad name.  Edward Ellyn, the receiver general of Jamaica, wrote home to England about the post-disaster environment that surrounded the survivors:

... Most of the seaman, English and Spaniards, contented themselves with what was floating in the water, tho' some instantly entered and riffled standing houses.  But the following nights and days those villains... robbed all houses, broke in pieces all scriptores, boxes, trunks, chests of drawers, cabinets and made spoil of all of value in the town, threatening to kill several inhabitants, if any durst be so hardy as to say, "This house is mine."  Our enemies could not have treated us worse than the seamen.

Even Cotton Mather, that scion of Puritan self-righteousness, saw fit to put his two cents in.  Calling the Jamaica earthquake an omen, he wrote "Behold an accident speaking to all our English America."  Get right with God, he said, or face the same fate.

Many of the British in Jamaica chose to head for home, or the North American mainland, rather than deal with the wreckage.  Others, in true colonial spirit, simply moved up and over.  They rowed across the bay and began to rebuild, eventually founding the city of Kingston.  Others clung stubbornly to Port Royal, but the great pirate capital would never be the same.  Today she is a tourist attraction more than anything else; a beloved sort of Mecca for those who crave the closeness of things touched and roads walked on by our buccaneer ancestors.

But what of Henry Morgan, arguably the most famous of Port Royal's citizens?  Dead and buried almost four years prior to the earthquake, Morgan's coffin spewed forth from the earth during the six minute tremor.  Carried out to sea, it was lost for ever in the blue waters.  And maybe that was the way it should have been all along.

Header: English broadsheet reporting the effects of the 1692 Jamaica earthquake via Wikimedia  


Timmy! said...

Maybe it was Neptune coming to claim Henry Morgan's body that caused the quake? Nah. Morgan was never a great sailor. That's not it. But it's about as plausible as Cotton Mather's "wrath of God" nonsense... just saying.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Fascinating reading, Pauline, and thank you! Too true about Morgan's body.... now he belongs to the waves.

Ah, Jamaica..... I have a son in the Peace Corps. He has a BA in English and had few job prospects, so I suggested he go out and see the world. Figured he would end up pretty far out, teaching villagers how to speak English in some remote spot. Lucky fellow.... he ended up teaching British Lit in Jamaica!! hahaha

Blue Lou Logan said...

Ahoy, Pauline. Aye, still afloat, just been off the map a spell. Still on the edge of the chart.

Tourist destination Port Royal may be, but from my understanding not MADE into one. There is no cheezy theme-park-ness there, just arguably the best underwater archaeological preserve anywhere. I would learn how to SCUBA dive just for the chance. Oh, and that Rasta bartender serving rum.

Remember my "Paint Your Wagon" reference? The fictitious California Gold Rush town literally swallowed by its own perversion? Just saying.

Port Royal today IS a piratical Mecca, because history, archaeology, and lore all come together in a place that is still off the tour routes.

When do we go???

Pauline said...

Gentlemen and rogues (I'll let you all sort it out): good to hear from you!

Timmy! While the disaster at Port Royal was certainly perceived as a "sign from God" by New England Puritans, the more pragmatic planters in the Carolinas and elsewhere saw it mostly as a loss of business. Once again, the more things change...

Wally: good on your son. Jamaica is certainly not the worst place one could end up pursuing a life's work. He's lucky to have a father like you.

Lou: So good to hear from you! I hope all is well in the new home port for you, Zane and the new feline. I think of Port Royal as a tourist Mecca the way New Orleans is the same. Neither will ever turn into a Disney attraction - thank our Gods - and their history will remain to teach and inspire. Even after disasters.

Let's all plan a trip soon :)

Charles L. Wallace said...

Why, thank you most kindly :-) Good to be back (says the gentleman rogue), but now out to sea again. (Getting underway on Friday is bad luck anyhow; we'll try again this morning).

Pauline said...

And it always has been; fair winds and a following see to you, my friend.