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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425


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Notorious Pirate Havens
Part 4: Port Royal
By Cindy Vallar

Port Royal, located along the shipping lanes going to and from Spain and Panama, provided another safe harbor for pirates.  Originally claimed by the Spanish, England acquired it in 1655.  The English built a fort on a sandy spit of land that formed a natural harbor.  By 1659, two hundred houses, shops, and warehouses surrounded the fort.  Since the English lacked sufficient troops to prevent either the Spanish or French from seizing it, the Jamaican governors turned to the pirates for defense of the city.

Henry MorganThe buccaneers found Port Royal appealing for several reasons.  Its proximity to trade routes allowed them easy access to prey.  The harbor was large enough to accommodate their ships and provided them a place to careen and repair these vessels.  It was also ideally situated for launching raids on Spanish settlements.  From Port Royal, Henry Morgan attacked Panama, Portobello, and Maracaibo.  Bartholomew Roberts, Roche Brasiliano, John Davis, and Edward Mansveldt (Mansfield) also came to Port Royal.

By the 1660’s, the city had gained a reputation as the Sodom of the New World where most residents were pirates, cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole world.  When Charles Leslie wrote his history of Jamaica, he included a description of the pirates of Port Royal.  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.

Port Royal grew to be one of the two largest towns and the most economically important port in the English colonies.  At the height of its popularity, the city had one drinking house for every ten residents.  In July 1661 alone, forty new licenses were granted to taverns.  During a twenty-year period that ended in 1692, nearly 6,500 people lived in Port Royal.  In addition to prostitutes and buccaneers, there were four goldsmiths, forty-four tavern keepers, and a variety of artisans and merchants who lived in two hundred buildings crammed into fifty-one acres of real estate.  Two hundred thirteen ships visited the seaport in 1688.  The city’s wealth was so great that coins were preferred for payment rather than the more common system of bartering goods for services.

Following Henry Morgan’s appointment as lieutenant governor, Port Royal began to change.  Pirates no longer needed to defend the city.  The selling of slaves took on greater importance.  Upstanding citizens disliked the reputation the city had acquired.  In 1687, Jamaica passed anti-piracy laws.  Instead of being a safe haven for pirates, Port Royal became noted as their place of execution.  Gallows Point welcomed many to their death, including Charles Vane and Calico Jack Ransom, who were hanged in 1720.  Two years later, forty-one pirates met their death in one month.

On 7 June 1692 around 11:40 in the morning, three earthquakes and a tsunami struck Port Royal.  Sixty-six percent of the city disappeared into the sea, while ships anchored in the harbor were swept inland.  Two thousand people died instantly, and disease and injuries claimed an estimated two thousand more lives in the weeks that followed.  As news of the devastation spread, so did the belief that this was God’s punishment for the wickedness and sinning that had made Port Royal infamous.

Reverend Heath, a survivor of the devastation, wrote: [S]ome were swallowed up to the Neck, and then the Earth shut upon them; and squeezed them to death; and in that manner several are left buried with their Heads above ground.  A merchant described the city as [t]hose houses which but just now appeared the fairest and loftiest in these parts were in a moment sunk down into the earth and nothing to be seen of them….  One year later a visitor noted that the principal parts of Port Royal now lie four, six or eight fathoms underwater.  Indeed, ‘tis enough to raise melancholy thoughts in a man to see chimneys and the tops of some houses, and masts of ships and sloops, which partaked of the same fate, appear above the water, now habitations for fish.
 

Oil Lamp
Onion Bottle
Pewter

Artifacts recoved from Port Royal include a juglette (salt-glazed stoneware that probably contained medicine or oil), clay smoking pipes, a copper oil lamp, glass “onion” bottle (contained wine or distilled spirits), pewter plate and spoons, iron shot from swivel guns, and a copper buckle.

Today, about 1,800 people reside in Port Royal, now a poor fishing village.  Most visitors are tourists.  Others are archeologists who conduct underwater excavations of old Port Royal.  It is a unique site for when the earthquake struck, it froze Port Royal like a photograph captures an image.  The catastrophe preserved life as it was lived at that precise moment in time rather than permitting erosion by the passage of years or alteration by succeeding generations.  Since the 1980’s, the Institute of Nautical Archeology at Texas A & M University has studied and archived what remains of Port Royal in 1692.

© 2002, 2006 Cindy Vallar

Read Part 5 of this series on Pirate Havens


 
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