In 1692 an earthquake struck the city of Port Royal Jamaica, a city that had been deemed the Wickedest City in the World. Port Royal was a British outpost, a thriving shipping and merchant community. If you have seen the first pirate movie, you may remember Port Royal was the city Captain Jack Sparrow first sailed (or rather sunk) his ship into. With a population close to 6500, the city was larger than New York City at the time. Cramped, unhealthy, and wanton, the port town was settled for reasons purely of lust and greed and was filled with pirates, privateers, sailors, and other greedy sorts. There were a few honorable souls among the inhabitants, but they were in the minority. Two such honorable men were the Reverend Dr. Emmanuel Heath of Christchurch and Sir Hans Sloane.
On the morning of June 7th, Dr. Sloane and his son set out for the mainland by canoe to visit patients in Spanish Town. Dr. Heath attended his church as he did every morning trying to set an example for "a most ungodly, debauched people". Dr. Heath was on his way for lunch at the home of Captain Ruden, but he stopped at an Inn to have a glass of wormwood wine with a merchant friend
At approximately 11:40 am he felt the ground “rowling and moving” under his feet. His friend told him it was only an earthquake and would be over soon, but when Dr. Heath ran into the street, he felt two more larger jolts, and by the time he arrived at Captain Ruden's house, it had vanished into the sea. Dr, Heath’s church fared no better. It rapidly descended into the sea, its tower collapsing in the process.
An eyewitness describes:
The sand in the street rose like the waves of the sea, lifting up all persons that stood upon it, and immediately dropping down into its; and at the same instant a flood of water rushed in, throwing down all who were in its way; some were seen 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.
Dr. Heath attempted to make his escape by running towards Morgan’s Fort, but he saw the sea “mounting in’. Those who had survived the initial earthquake now faced a tidal wave from the south. Not good news for those still trapped in the wreckage of buildings. Dr. Heath headed for his house, which he found still standing, as most were in the eastern section of the city due to being built on an underlying corraline mass.
Meanwhile out in the harbor Dr. Sloane and his sons reported:
We were near being overwhelmed by a swift rolling sea, six feet above the surface, without any wind, but it pleased God to save us, being forced back to Linguanea, where I found all houses even with the ground, not a place to put one's head in, but in Negro houses. The terrible earthquake shook down and drowned nine-tenths of the town of Port Royal in two minutes time, and by the wharfside in less than one. Very few escaped there. I lost all my people and goods, my wife and two men, Mrs. B and her daughter. One white maid escaped who gave me an account that her mistress was in her closet, two pair of stairs high, and she was sent into the garret, where Mrs. B and her daughter were, when she felt the earth quake and bid her take up her child and run down, but, turning about, met the water at the top of the garret stairs, for the house sunk right down and is now under thirty feet of water
Two-thirds of the town, sank into the sea immediately after the main shock. According to Robert Renny in his 'An History of Jamaica' (1807): "All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the
uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them."
It is believed that nearly 2000 people lost their lives in the actual quake and several thousand more in the disease and looting and starvation afterward. Among the persons of note who perished were: Attorney-General Simon Musgrave, Provost-Marshal Reeves, Colonel Reade, Captain Ruden and Naval Officer Reginald Wilson. There were many narrow escapes and miraculous deliverances. One such miracle happened to Lewis Galdy who was first swallowed up and sucked out to sea by the first seismic wave then miraculously returned to land by the second. A young Mrs. Akers was swallowed up in a gap in the land then ejected into the sea and within three minutes was rescued by a ship.
The earthquake sank the narrow sandbar that connected Port Royal to the mainland and made it an island again. In the aftermath several hundred people found safety on the HMS Swam a royal navy ship that and been washed ashore. Dr. Heath survived and was instrumental in helping rescue survivors and get them proper care.
Though many tried to rebuild Port Royal, it never returned to its former glory and most of the merchant business transferred to Kingston. History lovers and treasure hunters diving at Port Royal over the years have found many fascinating artifacts. One item of interest was a watch that had stopped at seventeen minutes before twelve: the time of the third and greatest shock.
I found this history so fascinating, I wrote a romance novel based on it called The Ransom!
In 1692 Jamaica, women were not allowed to run businesses. But Juliana has no choice. To save her family and keep her secret, she allies herself with the town buffoon. Alex, the most feared pirate in Port Royal, leads a dual life to stave off his boredom, but when his infatuation with Juliana puts them in grave danger, only a divine hand can lead them to safety as Port Royal sinks into the sea.
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