Wicked pirate port

John Taylor's plan of Port Royal in 1688

Few maps survive of Port Royal prior to the earthquake. Visitor John Taylor drew this one four years before disaster struck.

Thanks to Disney, everyone now knows that Tortuga was a centre for Caribbean piracy. However, the Hispaniola “Turtle island” was far from the most notorious pirate enclave. That title belongs to the Jamaican town of Port Royal. Once dubbed “the wickedest city in the world”, it was for the second half of the 17th century a magnet for smugglers, pirates and privateers – and for those who wanted a share in the  plunder they brought ashore.
An English foothold in a predominantly Spanish world, Jamaica freely issued letters of marque so that armed ships might legally attack the Spanish foe. Port Royal was the island’s principal town. It had a sheltered harbour which was perfect for careening (the scraping clean of ships’ hulls.) It was protected from attack by no fewer than 4 heavily-armed forts.
Port Royal welcomed pirates – indeed, it relied upon them. They spent their  stolen wealth freely in the shipyards and the markets …and in the bars and brothels that lined every street.
Port Royal grew and grew, until it was bigger than New York. Its free-spending inhabitants threw away their money in gambling, whoring and drinking, and the town developed a reputation as a den of wickedness and godlessness. One visitor claimed that for every ten residents there was a bar selling strong drink, and added with disgust that the taverns did not even shut on a Sunday. This was no exaggeration: in just one month of 1661, forty new taverns opened. A vicar who sailed there to save the miserable sinners from hell returned immediately to England, saying that…
“Since the majority of its population consists of pirates, cut-throats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole world, I felt my permanence there was of no use.”
The pirates’ antics on the island were the stuff of legend. They would spend two or three thousand pieces-of-eight in a single night of dissipation, losing even their shirts in the bawdy and gambling houses. One pirate gave “a common strumpet” 500 pieces-of-eight to strip. (You could buy a cow for two pieces-of-eight, so this was enough to stock a large farm.) Another bought a cask of wine, opened it in the street, and with a cocked pistol in his hand, forced everyone who passed to have a drink.
Port Royal’s evil reputation came to a sudden and dramatic end on the 7th of June 1692, when it was at the peak of its prosperity. Just before noon, a massive earthquake struck Jamaica. Built on soft sand, Port Royal was literally swallowed up by the shaking ground in the space of a few minutes. Everything – pirates, taverns, privateers, gambling dens, smugglers, brothels and all – was sucked down, or swept out to sea by the tidal wave that followed.
For the pirates and their hangers-on, it was a disaster. But for the religious, it was divine justice. Port Royal was “Sodom fill’d with all manner of debauchery” and now God had destroyed it.A report of the earthquake that swallowed Port RoyalIf you want to know more, you may be able to find in a library Robert F Marx’s 1967 book Pirate Port, the story of the Sunken City of Port Royal. There is also comprehensive Wikipedia page.


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