27 November 2011

The Life and Death of Port Royal, the Wickedest City on Earth

by Anna C. Bowling

Some might say that Port Royal, Jamaica had it coming. Founded in 1518, as a Spanish holding, the city, near Kingston, proved a valuable asset for Spain, less for what its natural resources than for its strategic location. If the Spanish could keep control of Port Royal, they had control of important trade routes in the Carribbean.

At least until the English arrived in 1655, overtaking Spanish forces and seizing control of the valuable port, which functioned as Jamaica’s capitol. Taking such a prime location and holding it, the English forces soon realized, could be two different matters altogether and in 1657, Governor Edward D'Oley recruited what some might see as an unlikely but very useful ally – the Bretheren of the Coast. These pirates, many of them having turned to piracy after themselves being attacked by the Spanish, provided protection and a boost to the economy. Letters of marquee from the governor gave them the legal right to attack Spanish vessels and coastal settlements, while the harbor itself gave them a prime location to careen and tend to their vessels.

Thus licensed, the newly minted privateers took on their duties with gusto, keeping the Spanish far too busy dealing with them to make any decent effort at taking back the port. The Spanish weren’t happy with this new arrangement, but the pirates certainly were. Piracy and prostitution became booming businesses, along with such widespread drunkenness that contemporary accounts include descriptions of local animals partaking of strong spirits and men and women reduced to poverty, all due to drink. Infamous pirates such as Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Henry Morgan (later to be named lieutenant governor) and the treacherous trio of Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Mary Read called Port Royal home at some point. How long, some of the more conservative might have wondered, would such wickedness be allowed to go unchecked?

If we count from Governor D’Oley’s invitation, about thirty-five years. Shortly before noon on June 7th, 1692, a vicious earthquake shook the island of Jamaica, taking out the worst of its fury on Port Royal. As if that weren’t enough, the tsunami that followed destroyed even more of the city, including three forts. Historical accounts cite that local authorities were unable to dispose of all the dead bodies in and around the city, due to the sheer number and in many cases, inaccessibility, as two thirds of the city was now under water.

An attempt to rebuild in the early part of the next century proved moot, as a fire tore through the rebuilt city in 1703. A series of severe storms preceded a pair of earthquakes that ultimately sank the once-great city in 1722, never to regain her former glory. Modern Port Royal is a small fishing village, her scandalous past frozen in time beneath the Carribbean waters.

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.