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The Port Royal Earthquake (History Today)

The Port Royal Earthquake (History Today)

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Port Royal was the centre of shipping commerce in Jamaica in the 17th century. A pirate haven, it gained a reputation as both the "richest and wickedest city in the world". On June 7, 1692, an earthquake largely destroyed the city, causing two-thirds of it to sink into the Caribbean Sea. Today it is covered by a minimum of 25 ft (8 m) of water. [This intro is from Wikipedia]
Port Royal was the centre of shipping commerce in Jamaica in the 17th century. A pirate haven, it gained a reputation as both the "richest and wickedest city in the world". On June 7, 1692, an earthquake largely destroyed the city, causing two-thirds of it to sink into the Caribbean Sea. Today it is covered by a minimum of 25 ft (8 m) of water. [This intro is from Wikipedia]

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Published by: KAW on Jul 10, 2007
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THE PORT ROYAL EARTHQUAKE.(Port Royal, Jamaica earthquake in 1692)
History Today
 , Sept, 2000, by Larry Gragg
Larry Gragg describes the earthquake that shattered Jamaica in 1692, and reviews the complexlessons that preachers drew from it.
ON JUNE 7TH, 1692, Dr Emmanuel Heath, the Anglican rector for Port Royal, Jamaica,finished his morning prayer service at St Paul's Church and walked to a nearby tavernfrequented by many of the town's leading merchants. There he joined John White,president of the island's Council. Although he had a luncheon date with another man,Heath lingered because White was a `great Friend' who wished to share a `Glass ofwormwood Wine with him as a whet before Dinner.' White thoroughly enjoyed theclergyman's company and when he lit `a Pipe of Tobacco', Heath felt courtesy preventedhim from departing `before it was out'. As the two Englishmen chatted amiably, thefloor suddenly began `rowling and moving'. A startled Heath asked White, `Lord, Sir,what's this?' White, composed, calmly replied, `It is an Earthquake, be not afraid, it willsoon be over'. To the contrary, the shaking rapidly worsened. When they `heard theChurch and Tower fall,' the two men fled the tavern.Both Heath and White survived what became a devastating quake, but over 2,000 othersdid not. The staggering death toll and the massive property losses in what had becomethe most prosperous town in English America prompted commentators on both sides ofthe Atlantic to proclaim that the cataclysm was evidence of God delivering a justpunishment to a sinful people.Their analysis was part of a long and continuing tradition of explaining earthquakes assupernatural intrusions into everyday life, as God's chastisement for sin, or as a portentof a greater punishment to come. In 1580, for example, an earthquake that shookLondon and the surrounding counties caused many to argue that it was a divinewarning. As Thomas Twynne in his Discourse of the Earthquake observed, through thequake God was summoning each man to `call himself to an accompt, and look narrowlyinto his own life'. Nearly five decades later, when an earthquake struck New England,Plymouth colony governor William Bradford saw the event as God displaying `thesignes of his displeasure' for a wayward people. In 1706, the Boston Puritan IncreaseMather, reflecting on an earthquake from the previous year, wrote, `There neverhappens an earthquake, but God speaks to men on Earth.' For observers in 1692, Godhad never spoken more clearly than in His destruction of the fabled Port Royal.
 
Following their seizure of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, the English established thesettlement on the south-east coast that became Port Royal. Located at the end of a sand-spit that separated the Caribbean from the deep-water Kingston Harbour, Port Royalwas initially intended as a heavily fortified garrison to protect the harbour. Soon,however, it developed into the most important commercial centre in English America.Blind luck explained part of the town's success. Located at the centre of the Caribbean,Port Royal was ideally situated to attract trade from across the region. Equallyimportant was its spacious harbour. According to Richard Blome in 1678, it was `2 or 3Leagues cross in most places, and hath every where good Anchorage, which is so deep'that it could accommodate ships with a 1,000-ton displacement. Besides these naturaladvantages, privateering and piracy played an important role in the port's prosperity.Early governors such as Thomas Modyford (1664-71) eagerly granted letters of marqueto pirates like the legendary Henry Morgan as a way of `enriching and advancing thesettlement of this island'. In less than a decade from its founding, more than a score ofprivateers and pirates used Port Royal as their base from which they conductedsuccessful raids on a number of important Spanish ports. Yet, governors after Modyfordincreasingly saw pirates and privateers as a nuisance and a potential trigger to Spanishreprisals. Consequently, in 1678, the Jamaica Assembly passed an anti-piracy law, andauthorities arrested some pirates and executed a few. Still, it is likely there were morethan a thousand pirates active in the Caribbean fourteen years later, and many brazenlyoperated from Port Royal.According to one careful student of the port's economic activities, it also had developed by the late 1680s `a thriving contraband trade with Spanish America'. Almost half of themore than 200 ships entering the harbour in 1688, for example, proceeded to ports likeHavana and Cartagena where they traded slaves, linens, provisions and liquor for bullion, indigo, cocoa and dyewoods. There was also money to be made in legitimatetrade. A host of goods could be found on the docks: from the British Isles and the NorthAmerican English colonies a wide variety of provisions including vegetables, fruits,meat, fish, flour, lumber, naval stores, and a cornucopia of alcoholic beverages. Manymerchants maintained a significant trade with the mother country. In 1691 alone, fifty-five ships sailed for England with the island's sugar. It is no surprise to discover localresidents boasting that Port Royal had emerged as `the Store House or Treasury of theWest Indies.' People throughout the empire likewise recognised its economicsignificance. In 1692, the Boston Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather dubbed the town`the Tyrus of the whole English America'.Drawing upon the feverish activity of the legitimate merchants, the smugglers, theprivateers and the pirates, the town grew rapidly. Covering scarcely more than fiftyacres, Port Royal was a densely-settled community criss-crossed by narrow alleys and afew wide streets. Besides the hundreds of `Strangers,' mainly seamen and traders licit
 
and illicit, about 6,500 resided in the town in 1692. They lived in nearly 2,000 buildings,often brick, multi-storey structures all built upon little more than `hot loose Sand'. Amidthe houses, shops, and warehouses, settlers had also constructed several places ofworship. In addition to the Anglicans who looked to Emmanuel Heath for spiritualguidance, there were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Jews.Organised religion, however, had little impact on the population. Material concernsoccupied the attention of most, particularly the rich. One observer noted in the 1680sthat merchants lived `to the height of splendour, in full ease and plenty, beingsumptuously arrayed, and attended on and served by their Negro slaves'. Manycraftsmen also lived well. John Taylor explained in 1688, `there are now setled here inthis port ... Smiths, Carpenters, Bricklayers, Joyners, Turners, Cabanittmakers, Tanners,Curriors, Shoemakers, Taylors, Hatters, Upholsters, Ropemakers, Glasiers, Painters,Carvers, Armourers, and Combmakers.' Taylor contended that they all prospered,`earning thrice the wages given in England, by which means they are enabled tomaintain their famalies much better than in England.'Visitors usually concluded that satisfying desires of the flesh consumed too much of theresidents' income be they rich or poor. One claimed that at least 20 per cent of thetown's structures were `brothels, gaming houses, taverns and grog shops.' To be surethere were numerous diversions in Port Royal for the merchants, seamen, pirates; anddock workers; drinking, billiards, bear-baiting, and cockfights were all popular. Yet,prostitutes, those `vile strumpets' who, according to one critic, seemed like a `walkingplague', attracted the most attention. Even though in many of these respects, Port Royaldiffered little from other seaports in the English empire, contemporaries saw it as theworst. It seemed to be `the Sodom of the New World', a place where most were `pirates,cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world'. In theprovidential world of the late seventeenth century, it seemed a town ripe for the wrathof God.In their reports on the quake, contemporaries could not pinpoint precisely when it began. Depending upon the source, the earth began shaking at about eleven fifteen, or`about half an hour after Eleven', or `at noon'. In one archaeological foray in the late1950s, divers discovered a watch which X-ray photography revealed to have stopped at11.43. For many residents it seemed that the quake lasted at least fifteen minutes, butmost reports reveal that the duration was no more than two to three minutes.Regardless of its length, the earthquake was devastating. It devoured the town'sprimary wharf `with all those goodly Brick Houses upon it ... and two Intire Streets beyond that'. Powerful waves tossed a number of ships from the harbour into destroyed buildings and onto the streets. The ground opened up in different placessimultaneously and `Swallow'd up Multitudes of People together.' One resident claimed

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