Fact & Fiction

There's a lot of urban myths about Port Royal and piracy in general. We're not going to go into all the myths about the latter, but we can shed some light on those that relate to Port Royal and piracy in the region both before and after the great earthquake.

  • TRADE – Even in the mid to late 1600s, trade was amazingly robust. Local archeology experts say that Port Royal prior to the earthquake was comparable to Boston in the 1700s. Ships from all over the world came to Port Royal to sell their wares, take on cargoes and crews and conduct commerce. We enjoyed a presentation by the acting director of the Jamaica Heritage National Trust that was very telling. As noted earlier, goods from all over the world made their way to Port Royal. As such, those who lived there enjoyed the finest goods available – silks from the Orient, porcelain from Denmark, England and China, pewter plates and drinkware (locally made and imported) and items from France, Germany, Africa and India. Ships arrived every day there with new loads of goods to be sold in the marketplaces that lined the wharves. It was surprising to see beautiful carvings from China, including jade statues, porcelain tea cups and rice bowls... the influences were far reaching. Point for re-enactors or historical enthusiasts: the director says there were definitely lots of Oriental influences in Port Royal society so one can assume that the raw materials for clothing (fine silks and brocades from China and Japan) were available as well. So you could defend colorful attire if your character is in port in Jamaica as the society there had access to Eastern influences and lots of wealth.

  • CONSTRUCTION – The city itself resembled most English cities of the time. Buildings were constructed of brick and timbers. The closest architectural style would be Tudor I believe. The floors were largely brick and excavations have shown finely laid herringbone brick floors that survive to this day, albeit in 7 to 25 feet of water offshore. There is not as much information about the town's construction during the so called Golden Age of Piracy, 1690 to 1730. The city had been totally destroyed in 1692, and obviously was in a rebuild stage during the Golden Age on a much, much smaller footprint (a third of the city was sunk within two minutes in 1692). It was also hit with major hurricanes in 1712, 1726, 1744 and 1751 as well as a great fire in 1704. Even then sailors and townfolk refused to leave the town, rebuilding each time.

  • MONEY – Pieces of eight are the legendary choice of trade of pirates during the Golden Age. But they were used for a much longer period of time. We were surprised to learn during a visit to the Money Museum in Jamaica that pieces of eight were used as the main currency until 1839. So if you're a re-enactor or historical enthusiast, pull those coins out and use them with pride, even if you're portraying someone during the age of buccaneers or post-Golden Age of Piracy. They were still in use, at least in Jamaica.

  • PORT ROYAL TODAY – As noted elsewhere, the only real remnants of Port Royal before the great earthquake are few and far between. Much of the town sank into the harbor, other buildings simply crumbled. Approximately 90% of the town was destroyed and 2,000 people died that day, 2 to 3,000 more from disease and injuries in the months following. Fort Charles (which was used as the model for the Pirates of the Caribbean fort in PotC 1) survived and is still open today. St. Peter's Church on Church Street dates to 1725 and is still in use now. And there are some miscellaneous brick structures near the fort that are still there. Most everything else that survived until modern times was destroyed by Hurricane David in 1951. Of the 260 homes in town only 10 were still standing and only one was undamaged. Residents took safety in the Naval Hospital.

  • DIVING THE SUNKEN CITY – On our first trip to Jamaica, we were told by our tour guide company (Beyond Boundaries Travel) that it was unsafe to get in the water in and around Port Royal, including the sunken city, because it was contaminated with pollution from vessels using the harbor. Not true at all! The locals will laugh at you when you suggest this - but, you can't dive or snorkel the sunken city. The Coast Guard or harbor patrol will pull you out of the water there. It is a national treasure. They are working on organized trips there but it has not yet come to pass. So while you can, you can't. Got it?

    SAFETY – Jamaica has received a bad rap here in the past. But things have changed greatly. While there are some portions of Kingston we wouldn't necessarily be caught alone in at night (there are places here in Orlando and any large city in America where you can say the same thing), Port Royal proper was a delight. People are friendly. If anyone comes towards you it's more than likely it's because they're interested in why you're there. This is not a tourist town. You may find that you're the only visitors in town that week. And the locals like to introduce themselves, say hi and learn about you. Just use the same precautions you'd use anytime you travel and you'll be fine, even in Kingston.

Even though there was extensive damage, it's still easy to picture much of the original town. While buildings have changed over time (just like they seem to do everywhere else there is civilization and natural disasters), the streets are still identifiable. Church Street, Cannon Street, Lime Street and Queen Street are still there and in use today. You can see some of the original brick foundations in the center of town, across from the Angler's Club and elsewhere. Where Lime Street and Queen Street intersect on land, Lime Street continues out into the harbor; houses destroyed by the earthquake still line it underwater. Not much has really changed, except the passing of time.

There was some talk of recreating Port Royal and allowing cruise ships in town. We hope this doesn't happen. While it would draw tourists as a destination, they would come for the entertainment value, not to appreciate the area's culture and history. We hope it stays like it has for 300+ years... it's fine and the town welcomes visitors rather than dreads their arrival. And that's really refreshing.