The Wickedest City in the World
Throughout the centuries many cities have been known for their dubious activities. Pirates found respite in a number of ports, but only one was charged with the daunting title of the “richest and wickedest city in the world.” The Jamaican city of Port Royal was as renowned for its taverns, brothels, and illicit dealings as it was for the earthquake that utterly destroyed it in true biblical fashion in 1692. The migration of Tortugan buccaneers fueled by their newfound lust for piracy would make Port Royal the ideal stomping grounds.
Jamaica became a British colony in 1655 when the British successfully took the area from the Spanish, who'd first laid claim to the island in the early 1500s. Sheltering Kingston Harbor from the Caribbean Sea was the ten-mile long Palisadoes sand spit located at the southern coast of Jamaica. A natural harbor, the area was named Port Royal, and it proved to be the perfect location for pirates and buccaneers who sought refuge, valuable information, recreation, sale of their contraband, and the ideal base for targeting Spanish ships and ports. Located south of Cuba, Port Royal was surrounded by Spanish and Portuguese territories as well as major shipping lanes for vessels going to and from Panama and Spain. This made it easy for buccaneers and pirates to attack the Spanish Main and to sack ports such as Portobello, located in what is now Panama, and Cartagena (modern-day Colombia).
The Buccaneers of Sin City
Insecure with their defense of Jamaica, the British actually encouraged buccaneers fleeing Tortuga to come to Port Royal. By making the harbor a so-called safe haven, they assured that the city would continue to grow and be defended. Four years after the island was conquered by the British, the fort at Port Royal had over 200 shops, warehouses, and homes surrounding it. A true boomtown, the port became a safe harbor to privateers, buccaneers, and pirates, all of whom were more than happy to peddle and spend their wares at any of the town's many shops, inns, taverns, gambling dens, and brothels.
In 1660, Britain and Spain finally made peace, but that didn't stop the attacking of Spanish vessels. Privateers and buccaneers who held letters of marque had little trouble securing allies when they set out to plunder Spanish ships (see Chapter 6). For the next decade or so it is said that Port Royal's fifty-one acres of land had an estimated population of over 5,000, with its harbor eventually accommodating up to 500 ships. Their bustling economy of stolen goods included gold, silver, jewels, and just about anything a pirate could steal and sell — including slaves.
In 1661, new licenses were issued to forty taverns in Port Royal. In addition to its growing population of pirates, thieves, and strumpets, the community had a number of merchants, goldsmiths, tavern owners, and artists. Though it seems unlikely given the antics of a pirate haven, the town is also said to have had several churches of different religions.
Sodom of the New World
It's no secret that rampant drinking and prostitution gave Port Royal its wicked reputation. It has been said that there was one tavern for every ten residents of the town, and if that's true, it's no wonder that so much drunken debauchery and whoring ensued. The majority of Port Royal's food was imported and expensive, but that mattered little to pirates whose goal it was to spend all of their booty on wenches and anything from inexpensive home-brewed alcohol to lethal rum concoctions.
The illicit practices of Port Royal may not have shocked the majority of its population, but it certainly did give many individuals cause for concern. One minister who arrived at Port Royal with the intention of staying quickly left, but not before famously calling the port the “Sodom of the New World” and stating, “Since the majority of its population consists of pirates, cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world, I felt my permanence there was of no use.”
The Day the Earth Shook
British buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan is intrinsically linked to Port Royal, as he became a privateer for Jamaica in 1668 and later served as lieutenant governor of Port Royal (see Chapter 8). The town continued to prosper, but by 1687 the tide was changing and anti-piracy laws were enacted. As a result, one of the town's newest and busiest establishments became Gallows Point, where dozens of pirates were hanged, including infamous rogues such as Calico Jack and Charles Vane. As piracy was being suppressed, slavery became Port Royal's next vice, but by 1692 the town's wicked ways would finally catch up with it.
On the seventh of June, 1692, Port Royal fell victim to a series of disasters beginning with a devastating earthquake. Given the unstable nature of the sandy Palisadoes spit on which the town was built, this resulted in the ground shifting to such an extent that all of its western side simply disappeared into the ocean, taking all structures and humanity with it. As the earthquake subsided, the area was then struck by an enormous tidal wave that further decimated the town and its residents. In the end over 2,000 individuals died, with some historians speculating that the number was as high as 5,000. In the aftermath, chaos and devastation reigned over the world's wickedest city, which was now nothing more than a wrecked patch of sand separated from mainland Jamaica.
Port Royal would never recover from the revenge brought upon it by Mother Nature. Most survivors migrated to Jamaica's capital city of Kingston after the catastrophe, choosing to relegate their sins to a watery grave. At the time, it was a commonly held belief that the earthquake and subsequent destruction of Port Royal was an act of God — retribution for the inordinate sins committed by all its residents. The town has since been resurrected and enjoys a small population of around 1,400 residents. Though it's no longer the den of iniquity it once was, Port Royal continues to attract treasure hunters, and efforts are being made to rehabilitate the area as a tourist attraction (see Chapter 19).