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(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 complex lessons 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 tavern frequented 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 of wormwood Wine with him as a whet before Dinner.' White thoroughly enjoyed the clergyman's company and when he lit `a Pipe of Tobacco', Heath felt courtesy prevented him from departing `before it was out'. As the two Englishmen chatted amiably, the floor 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 will soon be over'. To the contrary, the shaking rapidly worsened. When they `heard the Church and Tower fall,' the two men fled the tavern. Both Heath and White survived what became a devastating quake, but over 2,000 others did not. The staggering death toll and the massive property losses in what had become the most prosperous town in English America prompted commentators on both sides of the Atlantic to proclaim that the cataclysm was evidence of God delivering a just punishment to a sinful people. Their analysis was part of a long and continuing tradition of explaining earthquakes as supernatural intrusions into everyday life, as God's chastisement for sin, or as a portent of a greater punishment to come. In 1580, for example, an earthquake that shook London and the surrounding counties caused many to argue that it was a divine warning. As Thomas Twynne in his Discourse of the Earthquake observed, through the quake God was summoning each man to `call himself to an accompt, and look narrowly into his own life'. Nearly five decades later, when an earthquake struck New England, Plymouth colony governor William Bradford saw the event as God displaying `the signes of his displeasure' for a wayward people. In 1706, the Boston Puritan Increase Mather, reflecting on an earthquake from the previous year, wrote, `There never happens an earthquake, but God speaks to men on Earth.' For observers in 1692, God had 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 the settlement on the south-east coast that became Port Royal. Located at the end of a sandspit that separated the Caribbean from the deep-water Kingston Harbour, Port Royal was 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. Equally important was its spacious harbour. According to Richard Blome in 1678, it was `2 or 3 Leagues 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 natural advantages, privateering and piracy played an important role in the port's prosperity. Early governors such as Thomas Modyford (1664-71) eagerly granted letters of marque to pirates like the legendary Henry Morgan as a way of `enriching and advancing the settlement of this island'. In less than a decade from its founding, more than a score of privateers and pirates used Port Royal as their base from which they conducted successful raids on a number of important Spanish ports. Yet, governors after Modyford increasingly saw pirates and privateers as a nuisance and a potential trigger to Spanish reprisals. Consequently, in 1678, the Jamaica Assembly passed an anti-piracy law, and authorities arrested some pirates and executed a few. Still, it is likely there were more than a thousand pirates active in the Caribbean fourteen years later, and many brazenly operated 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 the more than 200 ships entering the harbour in 1688, for example, proceeded to ports like Havana and Cartagena where they traded slaves, linens, provisions and liquor for bullion, indigo, cocoa and dyewoods. There was also money to be made in legitimate trade. A host of goods could be found on the docks: from the British Isles and the North American English colonies a wide variety of provisions including vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, flour, lumber, naval stores, and a cornucopia of alcoholic beverages. Many merchants maintained a significant trade with the mother country. In 1691 alone, fiftyfive ships sailed for England with the island's sugar. It is no surprise to discover local residents boasting that Port Royal had emerged as `the Store House or Treasury of the West Indies.' People throughout the empire likewise recognised its economic significance. 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, the privateers and the pirates, the town grew rapidly. Covering scarcely more than fifty acres, Port Royal was a densely-settled community criss-crossed by narrow alleys and a few 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'. Amid the houses, shops, and warehouses, settlers had also constructed several places of worship. In addition to the Anglicans who looked to Emmanuel Heath for spiritual guidance, there were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Jews. Organised religion, however, had little impact on the population. Material concerns occupied the attention of most, particularly the rich. One observer noted in the 1680s that merchants lived `to the height of splendour, in full ease and plenty, being sumptuously arrayed, and attended on and served by their Negro slaves'. Many craftsmen also lived well. John Taylor explained in 1688, `there are now setled here in this 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 to maintain their famalies much better than in England.' Visitors usually concluded that satisfying desires of the flesh consumed too much of the residents' income be they rich or poor. One claimed that at least 20 per cent of the town's structures were `brothels, gaming houses, taverns and grog shops.' To be sure there were numerous diversions in Port Royal for the merchants, seamen, pirates; and dock workers; drinking, billiards, bear-baiting, and cockfights were all popular. Yet, prostitutes, those `vile strumpets' who, according to one critic, seemed like a `walking plague', attracted the most attention. Even though in many of these respects, Port Royal differed little from other seaports in the English empire, contemporaries saw it as the worst. 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 the providential world of the late seventeenth century, it seemed a town ripe for the wrath of 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 late 1950s, divers discovered a watch which X-ray photography revealed to have stopped at 11.43. For many residents it seemed that the quake lasted at least fifteen minutes, but most 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's primary 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 places simultaneously and `Swallow'd up Multitudes of People together.' One resident claimed
that many `who were swallowed up alive in the ground were spewed up again'. The Reverend Heath's account most clearly captures the terror of the moment. Once he escaped the tavern, Heath ran for `a wide open place' called Morgan's Fort, but as he neared it, Heath `saw the Earth open and swallow up a multitude of People, and Sea mounting in upon us over the Fortifications.' Believing escape now hopeless, the minister `resolv'd to make toward my own Lodging, and there to meet Death in as good a Posture as I could'. To reach his home, Heath `was forced to cross and run through two or three very narrow Streets, the Houses and Walls fell on each side of me', some bricks even rolled over his shoes. Remarkably, Heath reached his house unhurt and to his amazement found `all things in the same order I left them'. Since 1959 there have been several archaeological excavations which have both recovered artefacts from the port town, and offered clues as to why so much of it was destroyed. The most sustained effort began in the 1980s under the direction of the Texas A & M University Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Drawing upon these findings and contemporary descriptions of the event, some archaeologists are concluding that the buildings in the destroyed portion of the town `sank straight down'. According to this view, energy generated by the earthquake vibrated the town's loosely packed sand and permitted the upswelling water to create a liquefied mass quite similar to quicksand into which much of the town sank. The horror for anyone caught in this soupy mix was that it solidified rapidly. The Reverend Heath graphically described the consequences: ... some were swallowed up to the Neck, and then the Earth shut upon them; and squeezed them to death; and in that manner several are left buried with their Heads above ground. Few were as fortunate as the Reverend Heath, who had raced to safety. Almost twothirds of the town lay in ruins or under water. Early estimates of those killed ranged from about 1,500 to over 2,200. Another 2,000 died from injuries and disease. Survivors were shocked by the physical damage, but were stunned by the large number of corpses floating in the harbour. Many had died during the quake, but others had been washed from their graves in the town's cemetery, by the tidal waves created as the earth shook. Unsurprisingly, even before the quake ceased, looters began breaking into homes and warehouses taking every thing of value. With no authority to stop them, `a Company of lewd Rogues' demonstrated the behaviour that would not have surprised late nineteenth-century Social Darwinists. The `strongest, and most wicked' among the survivors `seized what they pleased, and whose they pleased, and where they pleased.' No debasement of the deceased seemed beyond the looters. `The Dead', one observer noted, `were robbed of what they had about them, some stript, others searched, their Pockets pick'd, their Fingers cut off for their Rings, their Gold Buttons taken out of their
Shirts.' Just as shocking, on the very night of the quake, many in the destroyed town `were at their Old Trade of Drinking, Swearing and Whoreing.' Amid the chaos and massive destruction, surviving residents sought to rebuild Port Royal to its former commercial glory. Their effort, however, was doomed to failure. The quake had reduced the town to fewer than twenty-five acres. One contemporary described it as little more than `a quarter of a Mile in Length, and about half so much the Breadth'. Although it continued to serve as a British naval base throughout the eighteenth century, Port Royal yielded its commercial role in Jamaica to Kingston, located across the harbour. Two more disasters, a fire in 1703 and a devastating hurricane nineteen years later, accelerated the town's decline. By 1774, there were scarcely a hundred houses in Port Royal. Official reports of the disaster from the Jamaica Council and letters from private citizens describing it were soon winging their way to port towns throughout the empire and to the imperial capital. On August 5th, Boston, Massachusetts, learned `the horrible tidings of the late earthquake at Jamaica'. Five days later, Londoners heard about the `Earthquake which has destroied almost the whole Iland & plantation of Jamaica, many Thousands perishing. Commentators dispensed interpretations of the disaster almost as rapidly as news of its extent became known. Cosmic justice had been done on June 7th. A God of limited patience had punished a wicked people. `To the inhabitants of that Isle', one commentator argued, `has the Lord spoke terrible things in righteousness.' The members of the Jamaica Council agreed. `We are become by this,' they declared, two weeks after the quake, `an instance of God Almighty's severe judgment.' For a Quaker resident of Port Royal the quake represented a specific kind of punishment. To this member of the Society of Friends, who had suffered from the arrogance of the powerful and wealthy planters of the town, God had delivered a just chastisement. `Ah brother!,' John Pike wrote on June 19th: If thou didst see those great persons that are now dead upon the water thou couldst never forget it. Great men who were so swallowed up with pride, that a man could not be admitted to speak with them, and women whose top-knots seemed to reach the clouds, now lie stinking upon the water, and are made meat for fish and fowls of the air. The Reverend Heath acknowledged the residents' worldly and haughty ways, but harboured a hope that the disaster might prompt them to change. He believed `by this terrible Judgment, God will make them reform their lives, for there was not a more ungodly People on the Face of the Earth' Others in Port Royal echoed the clergyman's view of matters. In His wrath, God was providing an opportunity for the surviving residents. `We shall be unworthy of God's mercies', Samuel Bernard explained, `if we be
not by His judgments taught to learn righteousness.' Indeed the Council declared that every future `seventh of June ... be kept and observed by all the inhabitants of this Island, as an anniversary day of fasting and humiliation.' Acknowledging the town's `manifold sins and wickednesses committed against his Divine Majesty,' the Council hoped that by annually `humbling ourselves' the residents might `appease God's imminent Wrath and prevent heavier Judgements'. However, it appears that the hopes of the Reverend Heath and the members of the Council were not realised. A visitor to the island five years later found Port Royal remained a place where the residents `regard nothing but Money, and value not how they get it'. Furthermore, observing `all sorts of Vice Encourag'd by both Sexes' he concluded, as others had prior to 1692, that the town was `the very Sodom of the Universe'. Besides agreeing that God had used the earthquake as a swift and just destruction of a debauched people, virtually all commentators saw greater meaning in the Port Royal quake. God intended it as a warning to Christians everywhere. In Boston, Massachusetts, the Reverend Cotton Mather believed that the Puritan settlers of New England had fallen short of God's expectations for far too long and all around him he could see evidence of divine punishment for such a wayward people. `A variety of calamity has long followed' Massachusetts, and, he asserted, `we have all the reason imaginable to ascribe it unto the rebuke of heaven upon us for our manifold apostacies.' Mather felt he had good reason to draw such a forlorn conclusion. In the same letter to his uncle John Cotton, in which Mather noted the quake, he also reported `five witches were lately executed' in Salem, Massachusetts. They were among the more than a hundred suspects arrested in the largest witchhunt in American history. Mather, and many others in New England, felt in the summer of 1692 that there was little time for reform. News of the disaster in Jamaica, along with the assault of witches on the towns of Massachusetts, seemed to be part of a swiftly developing divine plan or justice. `Behold', Mather wrote of the quake, `an accident speaking to all our English America.' In England, some, like John Evelyn, did little more than commit their reflections on the quake to their diaries. Evelyn hoped this judgement of God would `incite us to Repentance.' Several authors, however, eager to enlighten and profit from the disaster, published pamphlets and broadsides about it. These works included letters written by eyewitnesses, a crude drawing of the quake, and commentaries on its significance. Authors were careful to point out why readers should see the quake as more than a mere curiosity. The author of The Truest and Largest Account of the Late Earthquake in Jamaica implored readers to understand that God had done this to people in the West Indies `that we may hear the Voice of his Rod, and fear and forsake our Transgressions'. Another writer echoed those sentiments. All in England should take the Jamaica disaster as a warning `to forsake our ill Courses and mend our Lives' otherwise God will `deal with us as he has done with those in Jamaica'.
Interest in the topic increased when a quake, though less severe than the one in Jamaica, jolted England on September 8th. If the quake across the Atlantic seemed too remote a message from God, now all should understand the need to shake off their spiritual lethargy. The Reverend John Shower felt compelled to offer his `Practical Reflections' not only on the quakes in Jamaica and England, but also on all the great earthquakes of antiquity through the present in both a sermon and an extended discussion in an essay. `When God ariseth to shake terribly the Earth, and punish the Inhabitants thereof for their Iniquities,' Shower admonished, `we should tremble'. While he acknowledged that all should be thankful that God had largely spared them the destruction of a Jamaicalike quake, that He only `did but gently give us notice of what he might have done', Shower reminded readers that God would not persist long in permitting them `to go unpunished'. Yet Shower detected an air of indifference among his countrymen. Although God had used the massive quake as a call to Englishmen to weep and mourn their danger, he was astounded `how little of such a spirit is found amongst us'. Instead, he saw more evidence of an `Atheistical and Profane Spirit' across the land. This was a perilous attitude, he warned, because no one knew how long God would `bear with us'. When His righteous punishment came, it would be as in Jamaica `without Warning'. As Shower worried about his nation's indifference, he was also concerned about those who failed to see God's hand in the matter. Too few acknowledged God's `agency in these things'. Shower dismissed those who attributed the quake to `natural Causes' because `the Hand of God is not to be overlooked in such things, under whose Government and Influence all natural Agents act'. Clergymen like Shower worried that a slowly developing intellectual revolution was attracting too many literate Englishmen. Since the mid-sixteenth century, an increasing number of scientists, notably astronomers and mathematicians, had begun to transform how Western Europeans understood the universe. Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and Isaac Newton, among others, had demonstrated a diminishing willingness to accept the proposition of divine intervention in the physical world. In their observations of planetary movements, their mathematical models and experiments, these men argued for a rational universe. To be sure, most of these scientists were men of faith, yet they revealed a belief in a God who had created a universe that operated through natural law rather than one subject to a Creator who regularly intervened in the affairs of man. Attempts to offer rational explanations for earthquakes were a part of this effort. Robert Hooke, professor of geometry at Gresham College in London and Curator of Experiments for the Royal Society, had been delivering lectures on earthquakes before that body for the quarter century preceding the Port Royal quake. Variously arguing that earthquakes resulted from `Eruptions Of fiery Conflagrations inkindled in the Subterraneous Regions' or perhaps from shifts in the planet's centre of gravity, Hooke
aroused considerable debate in scientific circles. Indeed, by 1692, a host of authors had proposed explanations of earthquakes. Besides those advanced by Hooke, according to one survey of the field: ... some will have Earthquakes to be cause'd only by certain Conjunctions of the Planets, some by the Motion of Comets near the Earth ... others will have them produc'd by the Motion of subterraneous Waters, others again by certain Moulderings or Founderings in certain Caverns of the Earth. There was even a notion, often associated with the work of John Flamsteed, director of the Royal Observatory, that the damage people associated with earthquakes was actually the consequence of an `explosion of nitrous and sulphureous particles in the air'. These views obviously attracted the attention of many clergymen. Some Anglican and Puritan divines even grudgingly acknowledged that God might occasionally employ natural forces, or as they identified them, secondary causes, in quakes. Yet, as with John Shower, they felt it imperative to emphasise that God more often directly triggered earthquakes to punish sinful people. Indeed, those authors who discussed the Jamaica earthquake, were always careful to emphasise that it was best understood as an affirmation of God's continuing power and direction in men's lives. They clearly understood the danger in failing to respond to the emerging theory of a mechanistic universe. The notion of an ordered and regular creation denied the possibility of supernatural forces. More important, it dramatically limited man's relationship with God. No wonder Thomas Doolittle, a nonconformist London minister, saw the trembling earth, the impressive fire balls, and the thunderous noise on Jamaica on June 7th as a potent reminder. Given that powerful display, even `the most hardened atheist' had to acknowledge `that there was a God, who governed the World.' To John Shower and the other authors, the quake on Jamaica served primarily as a portent for Englishmen, a sign of a potentially greater destruction on their horizon. After all, England resembled Port Royal in so many ways. `It is dreadful to think', Shower wrote about his homeland, `how Atheism, and Infidelity prevails, and barefac'd Deism, with the Rejection of Christianity, and all Revealed Religion'. The ultimate lesson to be learned from the destruction of Port Royal was clear: If you are not Renewed and Sanctified; if you do not truly Repent, so as to hate Sin, and leave it, and turn to the Lord; if you do not unfeignedly give up Yourselves to God in Christ, as your Saviour, and Sovereign, your Judgment is near, your Destruction is at hand, you must Perish; and that more dreadfully, than most others in the World. Although not the most destructive of the seventeenth century, the earthquake that struck Port Royal in 1692 carried profound meaning for most observers. In an age just beginning to accept a mechanistic view of the world and a more detached role for the
Creator, the sudden destruction of an imperial port deemed `one of the Ludest in the Christian World, a sink of all Filthiness' permitted writers on both sides of the Atlantic to remind their readers of the power of God to intervene in their lives and punish their failings.
FOR FURTHER READING Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, No Peace Beyond the Line: The English in the Caribbean, 1624-1690 (New York, 1972); Ellen Tan Drake, Restless Genius: Robert Hooke and His Earthly Thoughts (New York, 1996); Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (New York, 1972); David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England (New York, 1989); Alan Haynes, `The English Earthquake of 1580,' History Today, 29 (1979). Marion Clayton Link, `Exploring the Drowned City of Port Royal', National Geographic Magazine, 117 (1960); Robert F. Marx, Port Royal Rediscovered (Garden City, NY, 1973); Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (Oxford, 1975); Rhoda Rappaport, When Geologists Were Historians, 1665-1750 (Ithaca, NY, 1997); Simon Smith, `Piracy in Early British America,' History Today, 46 (1996). Websites: http://nautarch. tamu.edu/projects/portroy/bhist.htm, www.eerc.berkeley.edu/kozak Larry Gragg is Professor of Early American History at the University of Missouri-Rolla, and author of The Salem Witch Crisis (Praeger, 1992). COPYRIGHT 2000 History Today Ltd. in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.
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