Sunken Pirate City: The Port Royal Earthquake of 1692

By Delia O'Hara

earthquake jamaica

17th century Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken’s  engraving of the Port Royal earthquake.

“I doubt not but you have heard of the dreadful calamity that has befallen this island by a terrible earthquake, which has thrown down almost all the houses, churches, sugarworks, mills, and bridges in the island.

I had been at prayers, which I did every day since I was rector of Port Royal, to keep up some show of religion among a most ungodly and debauched people, and was gone to a place near the church, where the merchants used to meet, and where the president of the council then was.

We had scarce dined before I felt the earth begin to heave and roll under me. Said I, 'Lord, Sir, what’s this?' He replied, very composedly, 'It is an earthquake, be not afraid, it will soon be over.' But it increased and we heard the church and tower fall, upon which we ran to save ourselves.”

Portions of a Letter from the Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Heath, 1692, to a "Dear Friend"

sunken buildings in port royal jamaica

Oliver Cox’s 1984 rendition of some of the Port Royal buildings buried beneath the sea, part of the Texas A&M University and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust’s archaeological findings.

Port Royal, Jamaica

The English colonial town of Port Royal, Jamaica, called the "Sodom of the Universe" by some contemporaries, was known as a haven for pirates, reprobates, thieves, and other unsavory characters. The likes of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Captain Henry Morgan—namesake of the rum—attacked Spanish ships and returned with their booty, which made it one of England’s most profitable colonies. The town of Port Royal, because of its situation on a natural deep harbor, was one of the busiest ports in the new Americas, as evidenced by the records of port traffic which show 213 ships entering Port Royal’s Harbor in 1688—carrying both legal and contraband trade—when only 102 ships made land at Barbados and just over 200 ships were tallied at all the ports of New England in that year.

Rev. Emmanuel Heath was relatively new to Jamaica and had yet to fully embrace the climate or the inhabitants, or indeed the town itself, where at least 20 percent of the town’s structures were brothels, gaming house, and taverns. One the morning of June 7, 1692 he finished his prayers at St. Paul’s Church and walked to a nearby tavern to meet with John White, the island’s council president whom he heldin high esteem. He lingered while White lit and smoked a pipe. It was at this time the earthquake, which historians now believe to have been of a magnitude 7.5, struck Jamaica, with Port Royal at the epicenter.

Port Royal may indeed have been the wickedest city in the world, but it was apparently also the weakest. Built not on bedrock, but on densely layered sand, 33 acres disappeared into the sea in a matter of seconds. Buildings collapsed, the graveyard floated bones along the streets, and the earth swallowed up people and their homes. Rev. Heath describes finding his way back to his home, that he might "meet Death in as good a Posture as I could," having to cross and run through very narrow streets, "the houses and walls fell on each side of me." When he gained his home he was amazed to find "all things in the same order as I left them."

Heath and White both miraculously survived, while 2,000 died either during or because of the earthquake, or the tidal wave the immediately followed (another 2,000 would succumb over the next few weeks and months to disease, injuries, and vandals). 

Port Royal would never recover. Though it continued to serve as a British Navy base, its commercial prominence in Jamaica was forfeited to Kingston. A devastating fire in 1703 and a hurricane less than 20 years later cemented the town’s decline. One hundred years later, there were not 100 homes in Port Royal, while the pre-earthquake estimates imagine a town of more than 6,000 people.

scuba diver in port royal

Scenes from under the sea, photo credit credit the Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University. 

Up until the end of the 19th century, visitors reported the sunken city still visible below the waves, noting the unnerving sensation of floating over the tops of homes and tombs. Today, the remains lie under 40 feet of water, attracting explorers and sightseers. In 1969, explorer Edwin Link discovered a pocket-watch at the site, dated 1686, with the time stopped at 11:43, which agrees with contemporary reports.

ceramics found in port royal

A recovered green glaze chamberpot from building 4/5 in illustration above

In 1981, formal expeditions began on the earthquake underwater site. The Nautical Archaeology Program at Texas A&M University and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust conducted archaeological examinations, which lasted until 1990. Their investigations yielded a wealth of artifacts, and indicated that while the immediate port areas of the 1692 earthquake, those at the edge of the harbor, likely slid and jumbled as they sank, some areas—likely further inland in 1692—sank vertically, with minimal disturbance. Aside from relics recovered by this team, the site remains largely unchanged and untouched.

glass pottery tortoise shell found in port royal

From the National Museum Jamaica (left to right): Sophisticated Port Royal tin-glazed earthenware. Possibly of English or Dutch origin, they date to the latter part of the 17th century. Tortoise shells comb and comb cases. The armorial bearings of the crest on the case has been identified as belonging to Sir Henry Morgan, Welsh buccaneer and one-time Lt. governor of Jamaica. Mostly found as shards and pieces, these rare whole apothecary bottles are part of the Museum’s Port Royal Collection.

Tombstone Tells the Tale 

The earth did indeed swallow up many poor souls on that fateful 7th of June, 1692. But for one man, apparently it just wasn’t his time. Though the initial tremor did send Lewis Galdy beneath the surface of either land or water, a subsequent tremor spat him into the sea, where he was able to swim to safety. He remained in Port Royal, and lived for another 47 years.

While many colonists relocated to Kingston after the earthquake, some fishermen and merchants remained in Port Royal. Galdy was one of them. He continued working as a merchant in and around Port Royal, dabbling in commodities such as wine, cocoa, and sometimes slaves.  Later, at the bidding of the governor, he pursued pirates off the coast of Jamaica. His last many years were dedicated to public service, including serving as a Port Royal assemblyman and as a parish churchwarden. He was also devoted to the rebuilding of his home town, and oversaw the construction of St. Peter’s Church in 1726.

tombstone from port royal

Here lies the body of Lewis Galdy who departed this life at Port Royal on December 22, 1739 aged 80. He was born at Montpelier in France but left that country for his religion and came to settle in this island where he was swallowed up in the Great Earthquake in the year 1692 and by the providence of God was by another shock thrown into the sea and miraculously saved by swimming until a boat took him up. He lived many years after in great reputation. Beloved by all and much lamented at his Death.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine March/April 2018 issue. 

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published