Port Royal, Not So Royal

Published January 11, 2018 by lorijss


Port Royal, Jamaica, Not so Royal


The mythical popularity of the earthquake that hit Port Royal,Jamaica in 1692 after the English took it over from the Spaniards is so because it would appear that a series of events led up to it –poetic justice. Oliver Cromwell sent an expedition to Santo Domingo to conquer it but when that failed, the leaders turned their heads to Jamaica which was not defended as well.  Henry Morgan, a buccaneer was a part of this expedition. In 1655, they gained control of the island through Port Royal. Henry Morgan’s garnered force went to Panama City in 1668, to attack Porticello. The raid was successful as his men earned large shares of loot. The British monarchy needed to get rid of these pirates because they were autonomous. King Charles II appointed Henry Morgan governor of Jamaica, as what better way was there to rid all pirates as they were an alleged embarrassment to the budding empire.

The English ended up in Jamaica because Oliver Cromwell was pursuing his “Western Design” which was to obtain the piece of the pie that was the Spanish Americas. The conquest of Jamaica moved the Caribbean to the center of the economy in the Americas and made it possible for production of crops based on enslavement. “The Design” had bold ambition but in the end only Jamaica was captured and the Island of Turtuga for a short time. The Spanish recognized the English presence in the Caribbean through the 1670 Treaty of Madrid. Scholar, Carla Pestana, mentions that James the Duke of York saw Jamaica as a hub for the trade of enslaved Africans and embarked on this from as early as the 1660’s(3).” The Design was far from a delusion of Cromwell’s leadership crew, but encompassed the views of English, Cromwellian supporters, opponents–royalist and republican(254).  The English reaction to the Port Royal earthquake is in line with the religious climate of Britain. However, the atmosphere of Port Royal, Jamaica was not in line with that of its mother nation’s providencial front. Port Royal could then be seen as a hub where privateers turned buccaneers were living out their deepest darkest fantasies of personal wealth attainment with little interest in the Western Design. The British would not actively prevent buccaneering because if it meant that they could keep Jamaica, they would sacrifice having a consistent theology of Providence.

Before that all occurred, the invaders of Hispaniola’s explanation of their failure to capture the colony from the Spaniards was a providential perspective more complicated than the victorious Spaniards. Triumphant in a military endeavor suggested to the British that Spaniards were favored by God why they won. Pestana stated that has the losing British limped away from Hispaniola they came up with a providential explanation of why they couldn’t defeat the Spaniards in obtaining Hispaniola. They adopted a framework of divine providence that said God shaped the outcome of events which was the widely held belief in Europe and not just England. Divine intervention symbolized a turn in human affairs. The religious debates over the meaning of the failure in taking Hispaniola resulted in divisions over the political climate of England and the “godliness of the Western designs. (93)” Numerous observers also focused on the lack of food, water and having an all round poorly armed force. Providentialism also was very politicalized, because the Lord Protector’s grand scheme failure opened the doors for “criticism of him and his regime.(94)” With arrival of news that his force had limped towards Jamaica, Cromwell “retired to his closet for a day of prayer.(95)”  He kept in line with the providential imperative that he “seek the divine cause of the late rebukes we have received.(95)”

The people of England who believed that the Lord kept his people in check by sending them correction through punishments would allegedly take this as an opportunity to better themselves spiritually. It was the belief that failure opened the doors for self-criticism and scrutiny. More and more people in England mulled over the idea of “disgraceful fiasco,” over not obtaining Hispaniola. The discussion adopted the language of “godly protestantism,”  since the revolution of England had centered around God’s plans and also the individual’s obligation to these plans.  English revolutionaries from the mid-seventeenth centuries, central role was divine providence. They had drawn from divine providence during acts of violence such as invasion.(95) For Cromwell, Hispaniola represented his first experience with defeat. He had a career that was built off of success after success. The latter questioned whether he was himself God’s favor as the implications of failing was a dagger to the soul for Cromwell, which he faced this under the watchful eyes of England and all of Europe.

News of “the Design” which was only known through Cromwell’s entourage, spread through the country after a large portion of the fleet that was sent returned. Henry Cromwell, Oliver’s son reported that the troops behaved, “scarce like men.(98)” Pestana also discussed an anonymous commentator who stated that the English were “beaten by a few, despicable Mongrel-Spaniards, Shepherds and Blacks.(98)” Numerous people concluded that the Design still represented God’s plan. Cromwell who was healing from the blow relied upon a belief that while the original plan failed it remained what God approved. Cromwell also wrote that he was confident that God wanted him to pursue The Design no matter the consequences and must not abandon it. He also assured Goodsonn, the naval commander of Jamaica at the time that, “The Lord himself hath a controversy with your enemies…in this respect you fight the lord battles…and in this the scriptures are the most plain.(98)”

Design proponents which included English seaman sitting idly in the Caribbean, saw God setting up the conditions necessary for the English to “unseat the Spain in the Americas.(99)” Advocates of The Design were already convinced that the Lord hated the Spanish Catholicism and approved of its destruction and concluded that making the undertaking possible [through Jamaica] was not a coincidence (99). On May 1655, the English fleet that was carrying an army that was repulsed from Hispaniola sailed though limping into what is now known as Kingston Harbor. They were met with no resistance and since the invading forces vastly outnumbered the force of the defence, within no time the spaniards captured Jamaica at Passage Fort. Although the English force fought hard against the forces that were under the leadership of Don Cristoval Ysassi, the capture of the island was eventually seen as part of the fulfillment of the Cromwell’s Western Design.

Meanwhile the English were getting to know Jamaica. Participants in the invasion force quickly began writing about Jamaica. They imagined the island producing a lot of crops and rejected the sugar-based economy that was in Barbadoes. The present state of Jamaica pamphlet as published in 1683, described Jamaica as producing sugar, cotton, tobacco and pimento. It states, “in this Countrey is Hens, Turkeys, and Ducks, bred better, and are better flesh than in England.” It also states that, “in the South side likewise is Port Royal and all the best Ports and Roads, and most considerable Plantations, this side being dry, plain, more agreeable, and much quicker and safer Coast than the North, for that in the Spring is apt to violent Gusts of Winds, and much more subject to Rains than the South, as the East.” The latter tells us just how Port Royal was perceived which that it was, “dry, plain and more agreeable.” He also talks about the rains, thunder, lightning and the mosquitoes that accompanies the weather. The English were determined to remake Jamaica in a profitable one and expected to replace the “indolent” Spaniards who ignored the island’s potential, with diligent and “energetic” people(156).

Early invaders of Jamaica had no interest in providence but in turf war with the Spanish. In describing the future that the British envisioned for their newly acquired territory, according to Pestana, they ignored the presence and labor of inhabitants, including the natives as much as the Spaniards did prior. Early accounts penned by participants in the invasion force wrote how Jamaica was an ideal position for, “harassing Spanish territories and for shipping. One said, “wee hope by God’s gracious assistance that to keep our station, maugre the enemie who is round about us from the maine and the islands.” he declared exicitedly that “jamaica lyes in the very heart off the Spniard to gall him.(140)” Yes Jamaica’s geographic location was in the very heart of the Spanish Caribbean. While it was viewed ideally as a good place for warfare against the Spaniards, it was also in a vulnerable location if the English were to lose their command of the seas. That seemed as if it were happening in around 1657. The invasion fleet that comprised of thirty warships were worn out and were not suitable for sea so had to be sent back to England. Privateerings was becoming popular during this time because the colonists were “suffering” from a shortage of labor for their merchant ships and their plantations. According to Pawson et al privateers were never compelled to counter any attempts by the Spaniards to reclaim Jamaica, but did deter them when they joined operations which rid Jamaica of the Spaniards by 1660. Essentially providence took a backseat to privateering as that was a more active way to maintain the English’s stake to the Caribbean.

Privateering would eventually turn into buccaneering which completely cut off Port Royal from providence though it furthered the Western Design. Edward D’Oyley then governor of Jamaica received a commission and news that an armistice with Spain was underway. All hell broke loose when the proclamation commanded all acts against the King of Spain be ceased and that all captains of ships of war return to Port Royal…for further orders(22). Scholars Michael Pawson et al writes that the reaction of Port Royal was outrage. D’Oyley wrote that he “already by the order of cessation, sufficiently enraged the populacy, who live only upon spoils and depredations.(23)” In other words the British climate of of seeing Spaniards as the enemy in the Caribbean sea was already ingrained in the psyche of the privateers. When Sir Thomas Modyford became governor, “he knew as well as any privateer in the Caribbean that the “richest pickings” were not to be found from Dutch but from the spaniards, their earliest adversaries (26).  Modyford attempted to induce anti-Spanish sentiments by reporting to England case after case of Spanish attacks of English shipping and seamen. Modyford continued granting commissions against the Spaniards while the English crown remained silent. Perhaps because she wanted a presence in the Caribbean through any means necessary. On one occasion, Modyford was ordered by the British to restore a Spanish vessel that was captured and brought to Port Royal. Privateering continued until through 1667 and disregarded the negotiations between Spain and England which resulted in the Treaty of Madrid signing on May 17 1667. The treaty, according to the scholars, made the privateers forcing of trade with the Spanish Indies not legally recognized (27)” Still privateering commenced with full force. Modyford by 1668 had established a large privateering force based in Port Royal and appointed his brother as Chief Judge of Court Admiralty in Jamaica (27). The last member of this three Musketeer would be Henry Morgan and the threesome would “wreck such havoc on the Spaniards in the West Indies, [that the chanceries of Europe would be defined by] the audacity of these attacks.(34)”

It would turn out that providence needed buccaneering,  a transformation from privateering as an increasingly active way to keep a colony. Henry Morgan was commissioned by Modyford in his own words to, “draw together the English…and take prisoners of the Spanish nation, whereby he might inform of the intentions of that enemy to invade Jamaica.(28)” Peter Briggs writes that reportedly the commission stated repeatedly that Morgan is restricted from attacking Spanish ships at sea but the original document disappeared and Morgan must have been glad of that(60). Pawson et al states that on the pretence of capturing Spanish prisoners which did not need 10 ships and 500 men, Morgan first went to Porto Principe, Cuba and learned that the Spanish forces were planning to move from Porto Bello to Havana to other locations to allegedly attack Jamaica (28). Porto Bello, near today’s Panama Canal was probably the most materialistically enticing target in the Caribbean. The town was having its annual fair, where merchant ships from Spain would arrive with goods to sell to the colonists. When the ship unloads, she would then pick up “gold, silver, emeralds and pearls that had been produced [on the colony] during the year.”

On May 1660 Morgan sailed to Porto Bello, which along with two other significant forts were captured and the town soon fell into the hands of Morgan and his men. Panama’s president according to Morgan tried to retake the city but was thwarted by the buccaneers. Eventually 100,000 pieces of eight was exchanged for the return of the town and Morgan’s exhibition sailed back to Port Royal, Jamaica(28). Morgan and his men were accused of scandals and Briggs states accounts that describe Morgan as using “nuns and priests as hostages during the fighting…his men murdered, tortured, raped and then laughed at their victims.(64)” Upon his return, he was met with a big welcome as he and four hundred privateers, although by now it’s safe to call them pirates, had stormed in a city once thought of as “impregnable” and stormed off with 300,000 pieces of eight. Briggs writes that it is unknown if Morgan’s wife had known about “the ladies of great quality he had charmed in Port Bello.(64)” Therefore, the monarchy did not do much to fight piracy in as far as it gave them attainment of Jamaica.

Business was booming for Port Royal’s inhabitants. It’s increase in wealth gave England the incentive they needed to maintain grip on the colony. Brigg affirms that Modyford no doubt shared in the profits that were gained from the raid on Puerto Bello. Next to Havanna, Puerto Principe was perceived as the wealthiest town in Cuba. There were a lot of small islands along the coast of Cuba and Morgan was able to conceal his ship among them. However, Morgan and his men failed to surprise the town and they were met with seven hundred men. The Cubans were courageous but poorly trained. They fought the privateers from their rooftops and more than 100 Spaniards were killed and some taken prisoners before the English–Morgan’s men drove the inhabitant out of town. The Spaniards bargained with the English before the invaders were to burn down the town. Eventually an agreement was made– a huge number of cattle. Briggs states in the official report, Morgan describes his attack on “Puerto Principe as a preventative measure taken for the safety of Jamaica (61)” which sounds like a cover-up of his ulterior motives.

Morgan began planning another attack on one of Spain’s possession which wasn’t acted on until December 1670. On Dec 18, 1670 all was in place for the great Design, and coincidentally Morgan had assembled a fleet of 1800 men to attack Panama. The attack sealed Morgan’s fate as legendary. Modyford wrote to Henry Bennet, 1st Earl of Arlington claiming that he tried to send a letter of the articles of peace with Spain on a fleet to Morgan but they were returned to him.  He then said he sent a vessel to find Morgan. Pawson and Buiserret asserts that Modyford might have personally told the captain to not look for Morgan.  In Panama, the buccaneers slashed at the Spaniards who weren’t trained for wild fighting. They bolted, most were killed but some escaped into the jungle. A fire destroyed Panama but only after Morgan and his men went off with booty that needed 175 pack of horses to carry. Spanish loss was 6 millions crowns, Briggs writes (72).   Thus when Morgan returned to Port Royal he didn’t know about the second Treaty of Madrid which was signed in July 1670 and ratified August of that year. Pawson et al point out that the Crown didn’t reap much of the looting of Panama or Port Bello and it’s not easy to say where exactly all the loot went.  Also, Henry Morgan apparently had enough to set himself up as a planter(31). If it weren’t for the protection of the buccaneers between 1657-1671, the grand design would not have made fruit with Jamaica. The scholars also quote Edward Long when he says if it weren’t for the buccaneers, the English would not have held onto possession of Jamaica (36).

Let us now move attention to how Port Royal was built. There was a concentration of buildings and vessels all huddled together at the peninsula.  Officers at first owned properties and they passed on to merchants. The latter would form the most prominent group in Port Royal. Brigg asserts that the towns were laid out incoherently much like how English towns of the period looked. The individual houses were similar to those in Europe and gave away the Northern European descent of the settlers. Briggs states rather frankly that it was the clone of a, “English Shire Town” perched like a bird “on the end of a tropical split.(131)”

Let us now turn to the lifestyle of Port Royal, it was nowhere near the providential one purported by England at the time. One could even argue that the atmosphere was a rebellion or a stark contrast to England’s front. Port Royal at the time had about two thousand whites and eight hundred and fifty blacks. Using the houses and how many figures must have occupied them, Briggs declares that the population of Port Royal was about 6500 inhabitants and 2500 of them were slaves. The latter population being comprised of “Negro and Indian slaves. (99)” Many of the free populations were white indentured servants who must work for ten years. They were shipped to Jamaica from England as punishment for their misdemeanors. Large quantity of ivory were shipped to Port Royal from the Ivory coast. Briggs states that John Pope seemed to have been the man behind the local industry of making pipes from “red claie”  found around Ligueana plain around Spanish Town. However, John Taylor stated that, “the negroes make tobacco pipes from clay so essentially it was the “negroes” that were behind the pipe making industry and John Pope must have learnt it from them.

Anyhow, in 1692 Dr. Emmanuel Heath of Christchurch went to drink a glass of, “wormwood wine,” with John White, president of the council, after church service. Dr. Heath attended “divine service” every morning hoping to be an example to “a most ungodly, debauched people.(111)” As they sat together in a wine shop about 11:40 am Health felt the ground moving. White told Heath that “it was just an earthquake. Be not afraid. It will soon be over.(112)”  Heath ran out into the streets and another stronger shock came after and then another. Eventually, whole buildings came crashing down to the trembling earth. The church itself that was at the east end of where they drank, slid into the seas. Then at the northern edge of town, two rows of houses slid into the deep sea harbour. In the rest of the island the shock was felt as a “wave” states Pawson et al. But in Port Royal the ground cracked open in numerous areas all at the same time. Lewis Glady was swallowed up by the sea’s seismic wave and spit out on land by the second. Sir Morgan Henry’s grave was demolished. Briggs writes that the earthquake destroyed all the Spanish Town houses except the ones built before the English’s conquest (113). Thousands acres of land were submerged, a mountain fell and covered a plantation, other mountains moved quite some distances. He also writes that a young Mrs. Akers was buried in a cracked-land opening, ejected in the sea was rescued by a ship. Others who were taken by the land were crushed to death. Colonal Beckford was saved by his “Negro slave” who shoveled him out of the debris of a building. Thomas Norris, whose “Negro man”  saved a sea-captain but perished while subsequently trying to save his master. Many people lay in the street killed by fallen rocks and buildings(112). Sir Hans Sloane wrote, “I found all houses even with ground; not a place to put one’s head in but in Negro’s houses.(113)”  Pawsen et al detailed the corpses of those who were just killed floating with corpses of the cemetery(122). Captain Crocket said, “whole streets seeking underwater with, Men, Women and children in them…destroying many plantations, tumbling down moft of the houfes, churches, bridges, sugarmills.”

The earthquake was seen as providential punishment. Heath in his account expresses his horror and fear. He, like most people in Britain at the time, also believed that it was the wickedness of the people in Port Royal that caused the earthquake to come.  Heath states, “the People being so desperately wicked it makes me afraid to stay in the Place; for that very day this terrible Earthquaqe was, as soon as night came on, a Company of lewd Rogues whom they call Privateers, fell to breaking open Warehouses, and Houses deserted, to Rob and Rifle their Neighbours whilst the Earth trem|bled under them, and some of the Houses fell on them in the Act…” The fear of what happened is very surreal to the point that Heath makes it very clear that he will not return to Port Royal. Heath wrote,”I hope by this terrible judgment, God will make them reform for there was not a more ungodly People on the face of the earth.”

In A Country dialogue between William and James…With Reflections upon the earthquake (1692) James seems to be expressing to Williams overall that pride and greed are the only factors that can drive religious, political and economical attainment. James says, “O blessed Earthquake! thus to shake and change the hearts of Sinners from a hardened Adamantine Persecution of Christ’s Apostles and Disciples to the tenderness of a divine Repentance and an invincible Charity!” It is apparent that they both believed in a providential nature of the natural disaster. Briggs tells readers that Port Royal was a town of drunkenness, street brawls, low-standard women and their male counterparts –sailors, public spectacle of pirates being hanged, slave revolts, fevers, and violent deaths occurring on the seas.(92)

It is clear by now that the Design that “God wanted” was not how the English would stake its claim to the Caribbean. It was through privateering and piracy. The Crown was also not able to put the words of providence into action. Could it be because they were not aware of the immorality of slavery why it was easy for them to allow buccaneering to run amock? Even in the 21st century with scientific knowledge to explain tectonic plates, the earthquake could still be seen as poetic justice to the immoral materialistic climate of Port Royal and the Crown’s ineptness at carrying out the providence they preached. Could it be that there was so many wrongdoings saturated in one area including the seas that it created a disequilibrium in nature that caused the earthquake? Perhaps humans and their behavior not just towards the environment but each other have more effect on Mother Nature—natural disasters than we can imagine. I think the truth lies somewhere between a combination of religion, spirituality, humanity and science.

Works Cited

Anon. A country dialogue between William and James. London, 1692. Wing C6528.

Anon. The Present State of Jamaica. London, 1683. Wing P3268.


Briggs, Peter. Buccaneer Harbor: the Fabulous History of Port Royal, Jamaica. Simon and

Schuster, 1970.


Crocket, Captain. A true and perfect relation of that sad and terrible earthquake. London, 1692.

Wing T2549.


Pawson, Michael, and David Buisseret. Port Royal, Jamaica. University of the West Indies

Press, 2000.


Pestana, Carla Gardina. The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire.

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017.


Health E. Rev. A Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake. London, 1692. Wing F2267.

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