Port Royal was once the largest city in the Caribbean, serving as the main shipping port and center of commerce for the Caribbean Sea. However, in 1692 it was largely wiped out by an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami. Another earthquake further damaged the city's structure in 1907, and rebuilding it has always been hard due to the port often being hit by severe hurricanes. The port has a rich heritage and history to discover if you can rummage through the years of destruction that have ravaged the town.
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The port was founded by the Spanish in 1518, although it had been used for years before this by the Taino Indians. While Spain did not have much use for the island, it maintained control mainly to prohibit access to others due to its strategic site within the trade routes of the Caribbean. Spain kept hold of Jamaica for 146 years until the English took control after their invasion in 1655.
The English clearly intended to maintain control, and by 1692 there were 200 houses, shops, and warehouses in addition to five forts that defended the port. It was the English who changed the name from the original Taino name of Caguay to Port Royal. Their plans did not come to fruition, however, due to the aforementioned earthquake, and Jamaica struggled on until 1872, when the government designated Kingston, then the largest city, as the capital.
The island's first real flirtation with piracy came in 1657, when as part of the defense plan, the English invited the Brethren of the Coast to Port Royal to make it their home port. The Brethren were a group of pirates, descendants of buccaneers who had turned to piracy after being robbed by the Spanish. They concentrated their attacks on Spanish shipping, whose interests were considered to be a major threat to the town. They were later made legal English privateers and given letters of marque by the Jamaican governor. This kept the Spanish on the run and allowed the English to focus on attack whilst the pirate privateers defended the port. From this point on, Port Royal remained an appealing home for not only privateers but pirates too. They couldn’t resist using the port as a home of sorts due to its close proximity to busy and profitable Spanish trade routes.
Many pirate legends and stories originate from the debauchery that followed. England did not have sufficient manpower to defend the island themselves and so they turned more and more to the pirates to do that job for them. By the 1660s, the city had become a veritable pirate utopia, known to some as the “Sodom of the New World.” A large majority of its residents were pirates, prostitutes, cutthroats, and seamen. The taverns were infamous for their excessive alcohol consumption and wild revelry. There is even speculation that Blackbeard himself can be traced to the port and it may have been in these very bawdy taverns where he met his howler monkey companion.
In more recent history, the island has been looking to revitalize its claim to fame and cash in on the rich history of the port by developing the town as a cruise ship destination.