Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/April 1892/The Great Earthquake of Port Royal

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By Colonel A. B. ELLIS.

THE popular notion of the great catastrophe which overtook the city of Port Royal, Jamaica, in the year 1692, is that the earth yawned open, taking in the unfortunate city, as it were at one gulp, and that the next minute the sea flowed several fathoms deep over the spot where it had stood. Connected with this notion is the belief, which has been sedulously inculcated by several generations of religious writers, that the catastrophe was a signal instance of divine wrath; that, in fact, the city was swallowed up on account of the desperate wickedness of its inhabitants—the buccaneers and their associates. It is somewhat strange that in this age of investigation and research no one should have yet come forward to dispel some of the illusions with which ignorance and superstition have clothed this great disaster; for we may confidently affirm that the earth did not yawn open and swallow up the town of Port Royal, which was destroyed in a perfectly natural and comprehensible manner; and to those persons who profess to be exponents of divine motives we may point out that Port Royal was not overwhelmed when it was the resort of the buccaneers and the dissolute and profligate of both sexes, but at least fifteen years after these gentry had been expelled from Jamaica, and had removed their headquarters to the French portion of Hispaniola.

The former city of Port Royal stood where the present town now stands, at the western extremity of the long tongue of sand, called "The Palisades," which incloses the harbor of Kingston on the southern side. Its area in 1692 was much the same as it is now; for, except on the northern side, where the church buoy marks the site of the submerged cathedral, the action of the tides has in a great measure repaired the damage committed by the earthquake. The accompanying map will enable the reader to see its situation and surroundings at a glance.

The sand-spit, some nine miles in length, called "The Palisades," at the extremity of which Port Royal stands, owes its existence to a number of small cays of Æolian formation, which, originally detached, have now been joined together by ridges of sand. This formation is still going on to the southward, and an outer line, similar to the Palisades, is gradually being built up on the numerous small detached cays which lie between East and South-east Cays.

When the Spaniards discovered Jamaica the present Palisades were in much the same condition as the outer line is now-that is to say, there was a line of detached cays, connected by banks of loose, shifting sand, which were submerged at high water, with here and there channels of sufficient depth to admit of the passage PSM V40 D797 Kingston harbor jamaica.jpg of small vessels. In 1635, when Colonel Jackson, the English adventurer, attacked and plundered St. Jago de la Vega, the capital of Jamaica, the small cay of calcareous rock, which ultimately became the nucleus of Port Royal, was separated from the Palisades by a channel sufficiently deep for his ships to pass through. Twenty years later when Venables captured the island from the Spaniards, this channel was closed by a narrow bank of sand barely rising above the water, and those who had accompanied the former expedition remarked upon the change which had taken place From that date the sand seems to have accumulated rapidly, and before long the Palisades became one continuous tongue of sand, extending from the mainland of the island on the east to Port Royal Point on the west.

The Spaniards, during the century and a half that they held Jamaica, never erected any buildings upon Cagua, or Punto de Caguaya, as the cay at the western extremity of the Palisades was termed by them.[1] Indeed, in their day the site was not at all suitable, for during the prevalence of strong breezes the sand was swept hither and thither by the sea, and a great portion of the cay submerged. After, however, the cay had become joined to the Palisades, and the sand ridge had risen two or three feet above high water, Cagua, or Careening Point, as the English called it, became a good position from which to defend the entrance of the harbor. The first work, which mounted twenty-one small guns, but consisted merely of a stockade with a wall of loose stones, was erected in 1656, and in 1657 this was replaced by a round tower of stone. The requirements of the small garrison gradually led to houses being built, and Governor Brayne formed a naval and military depot. Thus by degrees a town sprang up, which at first was limited to the rock area of the original cay, but which gradualy overflowed those limits and spread along the sand which had drifted up against the rock. In 1660, at the accession of Charles II, the royal commission confirming in the office of Governor of Jamaica Colonel D'Oyley, who had been appointed under the Commonwealth, was proclaimed at Careening Point, and the town was named Port Royal, in commemoration of the event. In 1662 the stone tower, which had been enlarged and added to, was similarly renamed, and henceforward was known as Fort Charles.

At about this time the buccaneers began to frequent Port Royal, bringing there their prizes and plunder, and the prodigality and excess of these gentry drew a number of dissolute characters to the town. The buccaneers themselves formed no inconsiderable number. Morgan, the English (or, rather, Welsh) leader, had under his command, twenty-eight English vessels, carrying one hundred and eighty guns and thirteen hundred and twenty-six men, and eight French vessels with fifty-nine guns and five hundred and twenty men, and there were several other independent leaders. The wealth they brought into Port Royal was enormous. After the sack of Puerto Velo, the successful buccaneers returned to Jamaica and divided the spoil on Port Royal beach. "Two hundred and fifty thousand pieces of eight were divided among them, and plate, jewels, and rich effects were piled up beneath the eaves of the houses for want of warehouse room. This quickly changed hands, and after a few weeks of riotous debauchery the buccaneers were again poor, and clamoring to be led to sack another town. . . . Many of the inhabitants of Port Royal were literally rolling in wealth. Their tables and dinner services were of silver, and their horses were sometimes shod with plates of the same metal, loosely nailed, so as to drop off and show their contempt of riches. Vast wealth, intermingled with the sound of arms and the riot of intemperance, filled the streets."

Esquimeling, the historian of the buccaneers, who was bond-servant to the notorious Morgan, has left us a strange picture of Port Royal at that day. After narrating a successful exploit, he continues: "All these prizes they carried into Jamaica, where they safely arrived, and, according to their custom, wasted in a few days in taverns and stews all they had gotten by giving themselves to all manner of debauchery, with strumpets and wine. Such of these pirates are found who will spend two or three thousand pieces of eight in one night, not leaving themselves, peradventure, a good shirt to wear on their backs in the morning. . . . My own master would buy on like occasions a whole pipe of wine, and, placing it in the streets, would force every one that passed by to drink with him, threatening also to pistol them in case they would not do it. At other times he would do the same with barrels of ale or beer. And very often, with both his hands, he would throw these liquors about the streets and wet the cloaths of such as walked by, without regarding whether he spoiled their apparel or not, were they men or women."

To Port Royal, consequently, flocked thousands of people, all anxious to profit by the wild extravagance of the buccaneers, and new houses sprang up until all the available space was covered. Then rows of palisades were driven a few feet into the sand at the water's edge, sand was brought from a distance and banked up behind them, and houses built on the foundation thus made. As the demand for greater space increased, such encroachments became more common, until the greater portion of the town was built upon made ground, which was merely kept in position by a succession of rows of stakes or palisades, and which any severe shock of earthquake would inevitably shake down. And this was done, not on a flat beach shelving gradually through shallow into deep water, but on the brink of a harbor so deep that the largest ships of the day could lie close in shore, sometimes even with their yards projecting over the roofs of the houses. It was simply courting destruction.

However, we are anticipating, for the end was not yet. The buccaneers continued to frequent Port Royal, in spite of orders sent out by the British ministers to the Governor of Jamaica to restrain their excesses, and the plunder of Maracaibo, Panama, and scores of less important places was brought into the town. The buccaneers were in fact the masters of the situation, for the Jamaica government had no force with which it could compel respect for its orders—that is to say, if it gave any orders, for there are good reasons for supposing that everybody was disposed to connive at a system by which everybody profited. At last, however, the remonstrances of the court of Spain took effect: in 1672 all commissions and letters-of-marque that had been granted to buccaneers were revoked, and Port Royal ceased to be their chief resort, though for the next two or three years occasional prizes were brought in by stealth. With the departure of the buccaneers the town declined; and when Sir Hans Sloane visited it in 1687, although it contained some two thousand houses, the population was only between three and four thousand. The bulk of the inhabitants had no doubt followed the fortunes of the buccaneers, but the town was still the largest and most populous in Jamaica, all the others, with the exception of Spanish Town, being mere hamlets.

Let us now take a general view of the town as it was a year or two before the earthquake. In the center, approximately speaking, built on the solid rock of the original cay, was Fort Charles and about five streets of houses, while all around, but principally to the north, and to the east, where the ship-channel had been when Colonel Jackson visited the island, the greater part of the houses were built upon ground that had been won from the sea, and was retained in position by rows of palisades. These latter were most numerous to the east, and that part of the town was called the Palisadoes, whence we get the modern name "The Palisades." Several batteries and other works had been built on the brink of the water on land similarly won from the sea. Of these the principal were Fort Rupert, a hexagonal work, defending the approach along the sand-spit from the east; Fort James, which mounted thirteen guns, and was situated at the northwestern angle of the town; Walker's Lines, which commanded the entrance to the harbor; and Morgan's Lines, which defended the sea front. The ground-floors of the houses were, generally speaking, of brick; the upper portions of wood. Four fifths of the town was thus built upon sand, heaped up on the verge of deep water, and it is marvelous how the inhabitants could have been satisfied to live in so perilous a position, for earthquakes frequently took place, and they had ample warning of what might at any time occur. On October 20, 1687, a shock of earthquake was felt which caused the bells in the church to ring and a tidal wave to sweep along the streets nearest the harbor, while the sand in other streets, sucked out by the waters beneath, fell away into crater-like pits. Nobody, however, seems to have inquired what would have been the result had the shock been of longer duration.

The 7th of June, 1692, the day of the great earthquake, was exceedingly hot; not a cloud was in the sky, and not a breath of air stirred. At about 11.40 a. m. a slight trembling of the earth was felt, and this was shortly followed by a second shock, somewhat stronger than the first, and accompanied by a hollow rumbling noise like distant thunder. At this most of the people began to run out of their houses, but a third shock at once supervened, and in about a minute—for it is said to have lasted nearly a minute—four fifths of the town was in ruins and the sea rolling over it. The streets on the north side, on the brink of the harbor, where the sand had been most steeply banked up, were the first to fall, sinking at once into four or five fathoms of water; next fell the church and tower; and then Morgan's Lines, on the south side, on the verge of the sea, to which many had fled for safety. suddenly disappeared, the sea rolling completely over the. place where it had stood. Then the whole of that portion of the town where the ship-channel had been sank at once into deep water, while the houses nearer the central rock sank, some up to the eaves, others up to the first floor, and others again one or two feet only, according to the distance at which they were situated from the water's edge. The shock of the earthquake, in fact, shook down the artificially sustained bank of sand; as the sand shook down and spread out, the houses subsided, while the sea, rushing in underneath as well as above, gushed up in spouts in the streets and completed the ruin. Fort Charles and the houses that stood on the rock foundation alone remained, and of these the greater number were terribly shattered. About sixteen hundred persons are said to have perished. The following sketches, showing roughly a section of Port Royal, before and after the earthquake, will help to explain what occurred.

PSM V40 D801 Port royal before the earthquake.jpg


PSM V40 D801 Port royal after the earthquake.jpg


The amount of damage done by an earthquake to buildings depends very largely upon the nature of the foundations, for the shock-waves of earthquakes travel at different rates of speed through different substances. As a rule it may be said that the more compact the substance the quicker the rate. Thus they travel fastest through solid rock and slowest through loose sand. The duration of the shock has everything to do with the amount of damage; consequently, in Port Royal, the sand gave way, and the houses built on it collapsed, while those built on the rock, though evidently shaken and thrown out of the perpendicular, remained standing.

We are able to append the following curious map, which is said to be an exact plan of Port Royal before the earthquake, and which shows what remained afterward. It must be observed, however, that the cathedral-church, which stood near the building known as King's House, is unaccountably omitted. The original is to be found in the library of the Institute of Jamaica, at Kingston. The dotted line shows the area of rock.

A few descriptions of the earthquake by eye-witnesses are still extant. We take the two following, which may be of interest, from the Philosophical Transactions, vols, xvii, xviii, 1694:

1. "This part of Port Royal which is now standing, is said to stand upon a rock.... It seems strange that the force of the earthquake did not dissipate and dissolve the very foundation of it, and that it did not fall to pieces and scatter under the water, as the rest of the place did; for the shock was so violent that it threw people down on their knees, and sometimes on their face, as they run along the street to provide for their safety; and it was a very difficult matter to keep one's legs. The ground heaved and swelled like a rolling, swelling sea ('tis a strange comparison, but everybody here using it, I venture to do so likewise), by which means several houses now standing were shuffled and moved some

PSM V40 D802 Port royal before the 1692 earthquake and the dotted area after.jpg

An Exact Plan of the Town of Port Royal before the Earthquake in 1692; the past within the dotted line being all that was left after the shock.

A, Fort James; B, Fort Carlisle; C, Fort Rupert; D, Fort Charles: E, Walker's Lines; F, Morgan's Lines; G, White's Lines; H, Church Lines; I, King's House; K, School; L, New Dockyard; M. Storehouse. 1, Thames Street; 2, Queen's Street; 3, High Street; 4, Broad Street; 5, New Street; 6, Cannon Street; 7, York Street; 8, Tower Street; 9, Church Street; 10, Parade; 11, Lime Street; 12, Fisher's Street.

yards from their places. One whole street (a great many houses whereof are now standing) is said to be twice as broad now as before the earthquake; and in many places the ground would crackle and open, and shut quick and fast: of which small openings I have heard Major Kelly and. others say they have seen two or three hundred at one time, in some whereof many people were swallowed up; some the earth caught by the middle and squeezed to death; the heads of others only appeared above ground; some were swallowed quite down, and cast up again by great quantities of water; others went down and were never more seen. These were the smallest openings; others that were more large, swallowed up great houses; and out of some gapings would issue whole rivers of water, spouted up a great height into the air, which seemed to threaten a deluge to that part of Port Royal which the earthquake seemed to favor, accompanied with ill stenches and offensive smells. . . . The sky, which was before clear and blue, was in a minute's time become dull and reddish, looking (as I have heard it compared often) like a red-hot oven: all these dreadful circumstances occurring at once, accompanied all the while with prodigious loud noises from the mountains, occasioned by their falling, etc.; and also a hollow noise underground, and people running from one place to another distracted with fear, looking like so many ghosts, and more resembling the dead than the living, made the whole so terrible, that people thought the desolation of the whole frame of the world was at hand. Indeed, 'tis enough to raise melancholy thoughts in a man now, to see the chimneys and tops of some houses, and the masts of ships and sloops, which partak'd of the same fate, appear above water; and when one first comes ashore, to see so many heaps of ruins, many whereof by their largeness shew that once there had stood a brave house; to see so many houses shatter'd, some half fallen down, the rest desolate and without inhabitants; to see where houses have been swallowed up, some appearing half above ground, and of others the chimneys only; but above all to stand on the sea-shore, and to look over that part of the neck of land which for above a quarter of a mile was quite swallowed up; there where once brave streets of stately houses stood, appearing now nothing but water, except here and there a chimney."

2. "What you desire concerning our earthquake in Jamaica, I will answer as near as I can to what I saw and heard; Port Royal being the place where I lived. I shall begin with what I met with there. On Tuesday, the 7th of June, 1693, betwixt eleven and twelve at noon, I being at a tavern, we felt the house shake, and saw the bricks begin to rise in the floor, and at the same instant heard one in the street cry, 'An earthquake! ' Immediately we run out of the house, where we saw all people with lifted-up hands begging God's assistance. We continued running up the street, whilst on either side of us, we saw the houses, some swallowed up, others thrown on heaps; the sand in the street rose like waves of the sea, lifting up all persons that stood upon it, and immediately dropping down into pits; and at the same instant a flood of water breaking in and rowling those poor souls over and over; some catching hold of beams and rafters of houses, others were found in the sand that appeared when the water was drained away, with their legs and arms out; we beholding this dismal sight. The small piece of ground whereon sixteen or eighteen of us stood (praised be God) did not sink. As soon as the violent shake was over, every man was desirous to know if any part of his family were left alive. I endeavoured to go towards my house upon the ruins of the houses that were floating upon the water, but could not; at length I got a canoa, and row'd up the great sea-side towards my house, where I saw several men and women floating upon the wreck out to sea; and as many of them as I could I took into the boat, and still row'd on till I came to where I thought my house had stood, but could not hear of neither my wife nor family. But seeing all people endeavouring to get to the Island, I went among them, in hopes I might hear of my wife, or some part of my family, but could not. Next morning I went from one ship to another, till at length it pleased God that I met with my wife and two of my negroes. I then asked her how she escaped. She told me, when she felt the house shake, she ran out and call'd all within to do the same. She was no sooner out but the sand lifted her up; and her negro woman grasping about her, they both dropped into the earth together; and at the same instant the water coming in, rowl'd them over and over, till at length they catch'd hold of a beam, where they hung, till a boat came from a Spanish vessel and took them up. The houses from the Jews' street end to the breastwork were all shak'd down save only eight or ten that remained from the balcony upwards above water. And as soon as the violent earthquake was over, the watermen and sailors did not stick to plunder those houses; and in the time of their plunder one or two of them fell upon their heads by a second earthquake, where they were lost. . . . Several ships and sloops were over-set and lost in the harbour. Amongst the rest the Swan-Frigat that lay by the wharf to careen, by the violent motion of the sea and sinking of the wharf, was forced over the tops of many houses: and passing by that house where my Lord Puke lived, part of it fell upon her, and beat in her round-house: she did not over-set, but helpt some hundreds in saving their lives.

The shocks of earthquake continued, but with decreasing violence, for a period of nearly three weeks, and the survivors of the catastrophe at Port Royal fled to the plain of the Liguanea and encamped where the city of Kingston now stands. Here they were attacked by a pestilence, occasioned by exposure, scarcity of food, and the effluvium from the corpses which were floating up and down all over the harbor. Jamaica historians tell us that this epidemic "slew thousands of the survivors," but as they have limited the population of Port Royal to thirty-five hundred, and sixteen hundred of these perished in the earthquake, there were no thousands left to be slain. From a letter, dated Jamaica, September 20, 1692, it appears that about five hundred died.

Other portions of the island were more sensibly affected by the shock than was even Port Royal, and it is said that the elevation of the entire surface was considerably diminished. More houses were left standing in Port Royal than in all the rest of the island put together, for scarcely a planter's house or sugar works withstood the shock anywhere. Not one house remained standing in the village of Passage Fort, one only in the Liguanea, and none in Spanish Town but a few low and substantial structures that had been built by the Spaniards. From the Saltpond Hill, opposite Port Royal, water rushed out from some twenty or thirty openings, twenty feet above the sea-level, and continued running abundantly for two days. Vast land-slips stripped the mountain-sides of their forest, and left bald and bare scarps several miles in extent. Rivers were choked up and driven into new channels, and the entire appearance of the Blue Mountain Range was changed.

As far as Port Royal was concerned, the earthquake had reduced it to a cay of about the same dimensions as it presented in 1635 when Colonel Jackson visited Jamaica, and the work of fifty-seven years had been undone in one or two minutes. Although Port Royal is now again connected with the Palisades, the process of silting up does not appear to have proceeded so rapidly after the earthquake as it did before. In 1698 there was still a navigable channel over the ruins, for on the 8th of November of that year a committee of the House of Assembly reported: "That it is necessary to have a close fort of about sixteen guns erected upon the easternmost part of Port Royal, where the old church and King's House stood, which will not only secure the passage which the late dreadful earthquake made on that part of the town, but very much annoy any ship that may break into the harbour." As late as 1783—that is, ninety-one years after the earthquake—Port Royal is referred to in official documents as a "cay."

Sixty years ago the ruins of the submerged town were said to have been plainly visible in calm weather, and at the present day irregular masses of masonry can be discerned near the conical red buoy which marks the spot where the church stood. The popular belief, derived from the works of old authors, such as Martin's British Colonies, was that incalculable wealth was to be found among the ruins; for, according to these writers, "the wharves were laden with the richest merchandise, and the markets and stores displayed the glittering spoils of Mexico and Peru," at the time that the earthquake occurred. This, no doubt, was only meant for fine writing, as we know very well that the wealth and glory of Port Royal had departed some fifteen years before the catastrophe; but it served to inflame the public imagination, and in 1861 an American diver requested aid from the Government to explore the remains of the old city, offering to divide the treasure he might find. One trial was allowed him. He stated, on coming to the surface, that he had entered what was apparently a blacksmith's shop, and that he had found the remains of a fort. presumably Fort Carlisle, but that he had been unable to enter it, it being entirely overgrown with coral, which had imbedded the guns in the embrasures as firmly as if they had been fixed in solid masonry. It was probably at this time that one of the bells of the old church, which is now in the Museum of the Jamaica Institute, was recovered.

At Green Bay, opposite Port Royal, concealed in dense bush, is the tomb of Lewis Galdy, a member of the Assembly of Port Royal, who fell into one of the crater-like pits caused by the subsidence of the sand, and was washed out again by the water gushing up from beneath. The inscription, which is rapidly becoming illegible, is as follows: "Here lies the body of Lewis Galdy, Esquire, who departed this life at Port Royal, the 22d of December, 1736, aged eighty years. He was born at Montpellier, in France, but left that country for his religion, and came to settle in this island; where he was swallowed up in the great earthquake in the year 1693; and, by the Providence of God, was, by another shock, thrown into the sea, and miraculously saved by swimming, until a boat took him up. He lived many years after in great reputation, beloved by all who knew him, and much lamented at his death."

As we have said, owing to the action of the tides and currents, the sand has again accumulated round the nucleus of rock at Port Royal, which presents, physically, much the same appearance as it did before the earthquake; and, notwithstanding the lesson of the past, the surface is again crowded with buildings. But what has happened once may at any time happen again; shocks of earthquake frequently occur in Jamaica, and it only requires one of sufficient violence to bring upon the new town the fate which overtook the old. Let us hope, however, that it will not occur.

Among the marked characteristics of the Melanesians, as described in Dr. R. H. Codrington's book about them, is the universal prevalence of secret societies, like the Duk-dnk of New Britain, the Matarabala of Florida Island, the Quatu of the New Hebrides, and the Tamate of the Banks Islands, which celebrated certain mysteries and peculiar dances, kept secret from the uninitiated and from women and girls, but having nothing religious, obscene, or idolatrous about them. The Banks Islands are considered by Dr. Codrington the chief seat of these societies, which are there called "The Ghosts." All these Tamate associations have as their particular badge a leaf or flower. The lodge or secret resort of the Tamate is the salagoro, established in some secluded place, generally amid lofty trees, in the neighborhood of every considerable village or group of villages. The whole place is set apart, not sacred, by sufficient authority, and no woman or uninitiated person would think of approaching it; yet foreigners are admitted without difficulty. These Tamate have survived the introduction of Christianity. All belief in the supernatural character of the associations has long since disappeared, but the societies occupied so important a place in the social arrangements of the people that they have held their ground as clubs.
  1. This name is supposed to be a corruption of caragua, the Indian name for the aloe.