Little Bits of History

Port Royal Destroyed

Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 7, 2015
Port Royal, Jamaica map with changing coastlines

Port Royal, Jamaica map with changing coastlines

June 7, 1692: Port Royal, Jamaica is nearly destroyed by an earthquake. Jamaica, located in the Caribbean Sea, is the third largest island in the Greater Antilles and covers about 4,240 square miles. It is south of Cuba and west of Hispaniola. At the time, it was a Spanish possession called Santiago. Port Royal was the unofficial capital and one of the busiest and wealthiest ports in the West Indies. The city was said to be both the “storehouse and treasure of the West Indies” and “one of the wickedest places on earth”. Privateers and pirates used the port as their home base as they robbed the seafaring ships in the Caribbean Sea. The location of the island is on a boundary between two tectonic plates, the Caribbean Plate and the Gonâve Microplate.

Port Royal was founded in 1518 as the center of shipping in the Caribbean. The Taino lived there prior to the Spanish arriving with Christopher Columbus in 1494. Permanent European settlement was begun in 1509 when Juan de Esquevil discovered enslaving Taino to harvest sugar cane was better than trying to find silver or gold. On this day, with the earthquake and plate shifting, two-thirds of the town or 33 acres sank into the sea when the third and main shockwave struck. A stopped watch found in the harbor in 1969 indicated the time was 11.43. There were about 6,500 people living in Port Royal at the time and about 2,000 buildings existed. Most were built of brick and many were more than one story high but they were built on a base of sand.

The shaking sand liquefied and the buildings and their occupants were swept into the sea. All the wharves sunk at once and more than 20 ships capsized in the harbor. Fissures in the sand opened and closed repeatedly which crushed those who were not swept away. Other towns were also affected. Liguanea (now Kingston) and St. Jago were also destroyed. There were landslides across the island. Like many major earthquakes, this one brought a tsunami and the water further damaged surviving buildings with uppermost rooms in the few remaining buildings being flooded. A frigate from the harbor, Swan, was carried over the housetops by the tsunami.

Accounts listed the deaths at about 2000 people from the immediate effects of the earthquake and tsunami. Many more were injured and in the following days, another 3000 died from injuries and disease. Even before the ground settled down, looting began with homes and businesses broken into and anything of value taken. Some of the corpses had their fingers cut off so that could be removed. The town was partially rebuilt but civic leaders relocated to Spanish Town. Most of the sea trade moved to Kingston. Fire devastated the city in 1703 and a hurricane struck in 1722. By the end of the 18th century, Port Royal was mostly abandoned. Another major earthquake hit in 1907 and there is some reason to believe tectonic motions will bring about another of these catastrophic events soon.

War prosperity is like the prosperity that an earthquake or a plague brings. – Ludwig von Mises

Which would you rather have, a bursting planet or an earthquake here and there? – John Joseph Lynch

Blizzards, floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes: They fascinate because they nakedly reveal that Mother Nature, afflicted with bipolar disorder, is as likely to snuff us as she is to succor us. – Dean Koontz

It is always interesting to see people in dead earnest, from whatever cause, and earthquakes make everybody earnest. – John Muir

Also on this day: A Man, A Plan, A Canal – Panama – In 1914, the Panama Canal was found to work.
It’s My Body – In 1965, Griswold v. Connecticut was decided.
Treaty of Tordesillas – In 1494, this treaty was signed, parceling out the New World.
Lee, but not Robert E. – In 1776, the Lee Resolution was presented to the Second Continental Congress.
Carrie Nation – In 1899, the temperance devotee entered a saloon.

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