June 7, 2007

Port Royal Destroyed by Earthquake & Tsunami

On this day in 1692, Port Royal was hit by earthquakes.

It was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere. Some 6500 to 7000 inhabitants lived in Port Royal's 200 buildings, tightly packed into a 51-acre area. The town was so rich that the preferred medium of exchange was actually coin -- not barter, as was true nearly everywhere else. And it was the pirate capital of the world.

Port Royal had been built on the spit of land that protects the Kingstown Harbor, and had become the most economically important English port in the New World. Its proximity to the trade routes and the large harbor had proved attractive to pirates, and it was in an ideal location for launching raids on the Spanish settlements. The English did not have sufficient troops to prevent the French or the Spanish from seizing Port Royal, and so it had been under pirate protection for some time.

Port Royal was known as a center of debauchery and general wickedness. The town was filled with goldsmiths, prostitutes, and had, at the height of its popularity, one tavern for every ten residents. The buildings were of brick, and some were four stories high.

Port Royal had experienced minor earthquakes from time to time, but nothing like what hit it shortly before noon on June 7, 1692. (It is believed the first quake struck sometime between 11:15 and noon -- a watch has been found that stopped at 11:43.) Three major quakes struck rapidly, immediately swallowing over thirty acres of the town (over 66%). The quakes were followed by a tsunami. An estimated 3,000 people were killed immediately. To make matters worse, it was discovered that foundation of the town was not bedrock, but loose-packed soil which dissolved during the flooding. After the initial disaster, almost every building in Port Royal was completely uninhabitable, including two forts. Nearly all of the remaining residents were killed by disease and injury in the next few months. Looting from the mainland began almost immediately.

Following the disaster, the government and the major commerce moved to Kingston. Today Port Royal is a quiet fishing village with a population of about 1800 people.

Illustration: Artist's rendition of Old Port Royal, from Project Gutenberg text of On the Spanish Main, by John Masefield. Public Domain.

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