Unexplored Sunken Pirate City in the Caribbean Will Finally Be Revealed
Seventeenth century life in Port Royal, Jamaica, commonly referred to as "the wickedest city on earth", conjures up images of marauding pirates, treasure hunters, naval conquests, looting, and the overindulgence of food, alcohol, gambling, and women. But the extravagances of the wealthiest port in the West Indies came to a rapid end at precisely 11:43 on 7th June 1692, when Port Royal was consumed by an earthquake and two thirds of the city sank into the sea.
Today, Port Royal is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Caribbean and the only sunken city in the Western Hemisphere, but very little of it was recovered or even mapped out, until now. A new project by the University of Nottingham has scanned the pirate city in high-resolution using optical mapping and robotic technology. It is hoped the survey will support the Jamaican application to obtain UNESCO world heritage status for the site.
An illustration of pirates in the Caribbean. Credit: William Gilkerson.
The Port Royal site is located on the southern coast of Jamaica. 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, and it was not long before it was the busiest and wealthiest port in the West Indies. 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 Captain Henry Morgan, who eventually became the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
A map of Port Royal, Jamaica. Credit: Sharon Brown
Port Royal’s glory days soon came to an end when a massive earthquake and tsunami struck in 1692. In just a few minutes, two-thirds of the town (33 acres) sank into the sea, 1,600 people were killed and 3,000 were seriously injured. Another 3,000 people died in the days following the earthquake from injury and disease. 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."
Since Port Royal only existed for 37 years before destruction by the earthquake, it is one of the few catastrophic sites where cultural features and material are found more or less undisturbed, preserved by the oxygen-depleted underwater environment. While some areas of the city were shattered by the earthquake, leaving little more than a pile of rubble, other sections simply slid into the sea, remaining almost entirely intact. The UNESCO site describes one such street:
“Cast-iron skillets and pots were still in the hearth with charred wood from the fire concreted to their surfaces. Stacks of pewter plates were found as they fell from their storage space under the stairs in what is surmised to be the serving area of one building. The remains of children were found among the broken walls of their home. Also, uncovered were the remains of barrels containing the trash of the day, including the trimmings of a man's beard and hair in a yard area. Many ceramics were found intact or broken where they fell. Impeccably preserved.”
Even the precise time of the earthquake was able to be determined following the discovery of a pocket watch in the ruins in 1960 by Edward Link, its hands frozen at the instant of disaster. The pinpointing of the exact time of the catastrophe was a first for archaeology.
A map which shows the sections of the city now found underwater. Image source.
The significance of the Port Royal underwater archaeological site lies in the fact that the earthquake preserved many aspects of the inhabitants' daily existence at that moment in time. “It’s sometimes called the Pompeii of the New World,” said Dr Jon Henderson from the University of Nottingham. The earthquake captured Port Royal at its prime – everything people were using now lies sealed under the silt in Kingston Harbour.”
Dr Henderson and colleagues have now used latest technology to create a precise digital model of the Port Royal ruins in three dimensions, with photo-realistic detail, which can be viewed on the project page. The survey will be used to support the bid for UNESCO heritage status, recognizing Port Royal’s immense historical importance.
Top image: A collection of images of the ruins of Port Royal as it stands today.