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The History of Port Royal

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The History of Port Royal

The Sack of Panama by Henry Morgan

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The History of Port Royal:

Port Royal is a town on the southern coast of Jamaica. It was originally colonized by the Spanish, but attacked and captured by the English in 1655. Because of its good natural harbor and key position, Port Royal quickly became a major haven for pirates and buccaneers, who were made welcome because of the need for defenders. Port Royal was never the same after a 1692 earthquake, but there is still a town there today.

The 1655 Invasion of Jamaica:

In 1655, England sent a fleet to the Caribbean under the command of Admirals Penn and Venables for the purpose of capturing Hispaniola and the town of Santo Domingo. The Spanish defenses there proved too formidable, but the invaders did not want to return to England empty-handed, so they attacked and captured the lightly fortified and sparsely populated island of Jamaica instead. The English began construction of a fort on a natural harbor on the southern shores of Jamaica. A town sprang up near the fort: at first known as Point Cagway, it was renamed Port Royal in 1660.

Pirates in Defense of Port Royal:

The administrators of the town were concerned that the Spanish could re-take Jamaica. Fort Charles on the harbor was operational and formidable, and there were four other smaller forts spread around the town, but there was little manpower to truly defend the city in the event of an attack. They began inviting pirates and buccaneers to come and set up shop there, thus assuring that there would be a constant supply of ships and veteran fighting men on hand. They even contacted the infamous Brethren of the Coast, an organization of pirates and buccaneers. The arrangement was beneficial for both the pirates and the town, which no longer feared attacks from the Spanish or other naval powers.

A Perfect Place for Pirates:

It soon became apparent that Port Royal was the perfect place for privates and privateers. It had a great deepwater natural harbor for protecting ships at anchor and it was close to Spanish shipping lanes and ports. Once it started to gain fame as a pirate haven, the town quickly changed: it filled up brothels, taverns and drinking halls. Merchants who were willing to buy goods from pirates soon set up shop. Before long, Port Royal was the busiest port in the Americas, largely run and operated by pirates and buccaneers.

Port Royal Thrives:

The booming business done by pirates and privateers in the Caribbean soon led to other industries. Port Royal soon became a trading center for slaves, sugar and raw materials such as wood. Smuggling boomed, as Spanish ports in the New World were officially closed to foreigners but represented a huge market for African slaves and goods manufactured in Europe. Because it was a rough-and-tumble outpost, Port Royal had a loose attitude towards religions, and soon was home to Anglicans, Jews, Quakers, Puritans, Presbyterians and Catholics. By 1690, Port Royal was as large and important a town as Boston and many of the local merchants were quite wealthy.

The 1692 Earthquake and Other Disasters:

It all came crashing down on June 7, 1692. That day, a massive earthquake shook Port Royal, dumping most of it into the harbor. An estimated 5,000 died in the earthquake or shortly thereafter of injuries or disease. The city was ruined. Looting was rampant, and for a time all order broke down. Many thought that the city had been singled out for punishment by God for its wickedness. An effort was made to rebuild the city, but it was devastated once again in 1703 by a fire. It was repeatedly hit by hurricanes and even more earthquakes in following years, and by 1774 it was essentially a quiet village.

Port Royal Today:

Today, Port Royal is a small Jamaican coastal fishing village. It retains very little of its former glory. Some old buildings are still intact, and it’s worth a trip for history buffs. It is a valuable archaeological site, however, and digs in the old harbor continue to turn up interesting items. With increased interest in the Age of Piracy, Port Royal is poised to undergo a renaissance of sorts, with theme parks, museums and other attractions being built and planned.

Famous Pirates and Port Royal:

Port Royal's glory days as the greatest of the pirate ports were brief but noteworthy. Many famous pirates and privateers of the day passed through Port Royal. Here are some of the more memorable moments of Port Royal as a pirate haven.

  • In 1668, legendary privateer Captain Henry Morgan departed for his famous attack on the city of Portobello from Port Royal.
  • In 1669, Morgan followed up with an attack on Lake Maracaibo, also launched from Port Royal.
  • In 1671, Morgan made his greatest and final raid, the sacking of the city of Panama, launched from Port Royal.
  • On August 25, 1688, Captain Morgan died in Port Royal and was given a send-off worthy of the greatest of the privateers: warships in port fired their guns, he lay in state at the King's House, and his body was carried through town on a gun carriage to its final resting place.
  • In December of 1718, pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham captured the merchant ship Kingston within sight of Port Royal, infuriating local merchants, who sent bounty hunters after him.
  • On November 18, 1720, Rackham and four other pirates who had been captured were hanged at Gallows Point at Port Royal. Two of his crewmates - Anne Bonny and Mary Read - were spared because they were both pregnant.
  • On March 29, 1721, infamous pirate Charles Vane was hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal.

Sources:

Defoe, Daniel. A General History of the Pyrates. Edited by Manuel Schonhorn. Mineola: Dover Publications, 1972/1999.

Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Guilford: the Lyons Press, 2009

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