Port Royal and the Real Pirates of the Caribbean
It is fair to say that Pirates of the Caribbean is to pirates what Indiana Jones is to archaeologists. In other words, the romanticization of history for the purpose of entertainment usually comes at the expense of historical accuracy, and the Hollywood movie Pirates of the Caribbean is no exception. One of the settings of the film is Port Royal, Jamaica. Here we explore the real facts behind the pirates of ancient port of Jamaica.
Port Royal was first occupied by the Taino Indians. While it is unclear whether the Taino settled in that area or not, it is known that they used Port Royal during their fishing expeditions. During that time, Port Royal was called Caguay or Caguaya. The Spanish colonisation of Jamaica brought this area under Spanish control, although, like the Taino before them, they did not have much use for it. In addition, the Taino name for this place was also retained.
In 1654, an English expedition under Robert Venables and William Penn (the father of the William Penn who founded Pennsylvania) was sent by Oliver Cromwell to capture the island of Hispaniola (present day Haiti) from the Spanish. Defeated by the Spanish, and fearing to report their failure to Cromwell, Venables and Penn decided to head southwest to the poorly defended island of Jamaica. They succeeded in capturing the island, and a fort, named Fort Cromwell was built, around which the settlement of Point Cagway sprang up. When Charles II was restored to the English throne, the fort was renamed Fort Charles, and the settlement became Port Royal.
A map of Port Royal, Jamaica. Credit: Sharon Brown
As the area commanded a large and well-protected harbour, along with deep water close to shore, Port Royal soon became an important trading centre in the Caribbean. Due to its tremendous wealth, Port Royal required protection from the enemies of England, especially Spain, who may have had thoughts of recapturing Jamaica. Thus, a form of legalised piracy was allowed, in which pirates were given ‘letters of marque and reprisal’, a government license authorizing privateers to attack and capture enemy vessels and bring them before admiralty courts for condemnation and sale. This effectively authorised their raids on Spanish ships.
Due to its strategic position on the trading routes between the New World and Spain, Port Royal was a highly attractive place for pirates who sought to become legitimate privateers. One of the most famous and successful privateers at Port Royal was Henry Morgan, who eventually became the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
Captain Morgan entering Port Royal. Image source .
The presence of these privateers and their Spanish booty encouraged the growth of other forms of businesses as well. Soon, bars and brothels popped up all around Port Royal where the privateers spent their treasures and indulged themselves. It has been claimed, for instance, that one in four buildings in Port Royal was either a bar or a brothel. The presence of these elements of society soon earned Port Royal the title of the “wickedest city on Earth”.
Port Royal’s glory days would soon come to an end, when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck in 1692. As a result, much of Port Royal was swallowed up by the sea. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, it was common to ascribe the destruction to divine retribution on the people of Port Royal for their sinful ways. Members of the Jamaica Council declared: "We are become by this an instance of God Almighty's severe judgement."
Whilst there were some attempts to rebuild Port Royal in the following decades, it would never achieve the ‘splendour’ it once had. Soon, its importance was overshadowed by the city of Kingston, the present capital of Jamaica. Today, Port Royal is a sleepy fishing village, perhaps similar to how it was during the days of the Taino. Nevertheless, the submerged remains of Port Royal are in an excellent state of preservation, allowing archaeologists to study and learn more about Port Royal and its pirates/privateers who lived there during the 17 th century. With sufficient research, it is hoped that we can gain a much better understanding of the lives of the real pirates/privateers of the Caribbean.
Featured image: A painting depicting 17 th century pirates. Image source .
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My wife and I traveled from Belize to Dominican Republic to Nassau, Bahamas in 2017. I enjoyed seeing them all. Port Royal is on my to do list as well.. Safe Travels All.
Stories like this is why I'm heading off to study Archaeology at University! All I need is some SCUBA time, some rum, and lots of sun cream, and it's Port Royal here I come. And some studying and whatnot.
It would be cool to explore the sunken part of the Port Royal.
Peace and Love,