Jamaica Port Royal


In December 1654, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, sent an invasion force under the commands of Admiral Penn and General Venables to capture Hispaniola. The force landed on Hispaniola with plans for an overland attack to the city of Santo Domingo. However, the ships landed 50 kilometers from the city, without enough food and water. Polluted water caused sickness among the men, and the group became mutinous before reaching the Spanish forces.

Many men ran, a few fought, and only a landing party of sailors covering their retreat to the ships saved the rout from being a massacre. At the end of the battle, a third of the group was dead or missing. However, the British crew feared Cromwell's response to their failure at Santo Domingo, and they decided to attack another Spanish holding, this time one with much weaker defenses: Jamaica.

Jamaica had a Spanish population, not including a sizeable number of slaves, of about 2,500 in 1655 when the English arrived. Only 500 or so were able to bear arms. The population was concentrated on the southern side of the island, with farms and plantations for their own sustenance and to sell to ships that docked to resupply.

The English arrived off Kingston Harbor on May 10th 1655. They sailed a boat to Passage Fort, which gave covering fire to smaller vessels which landed soldiers ashore. No one was hurt during the invasion. The Spanish defenders had abandoned their positions on seeing the armada of ships and soldiers coming ashore. The English advanced on the Spanish capital of the island, St Jago de la Vega (now named Spanish Town), located 6 miles away. On their way, they encountered a Spaniard bearing a flag of truce and gifts. Commander Venables, still weary from their unsuccessful campaign in Hispaniola and wishing to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and destruction considered their offer of surrender. He is reported to have received the flag of truce with the words; "we have not come to plunder, but to plant".

The importance of naval supremacy was quickly identified as being the key to success for the Jamaican outpost. Kingston Harbor was expanded rapidly and within weeks, the construction of a Fort known as Fort Cromwell, later renamed to Fort Charles, began at the tip of the Palisadoes peninsula. It was a perfect place to control access and defend the harbor. A small community of merchants, mariners, craftsmen and prostitutes built up around the fort and the area became known as Point Cagway, later renamed to Port Royal.

Port Royal Fort circa 1690

Port Royal Fort in 1690
Painting courtesy of Peter Dunn, Archaeological Reconstruction Artist

Although Port Royal was designed to serve as a defensive fortification guarding the entrance to the harbor, it assumed much greater importance. Its well positioned location within a well-protected harbor and its flat topography surrounded by deep water close to shore, made it an ideal place for loading, unloading and servicing of large ships. Ships' captains, merchants, and craftsmen established themselves in Port Royal to take advantage of of the trading and outfitting opportunities. As Jamaica's economy grew and changed between 1655 and 1692, Port Royal grew faster than any town founded by the English in the New World, and it became the most economically important English port in the Americas.

Coinciding with the city's early development between 1660 and 1671, officially sanctioned privateering was a common practice, and nearly half of the 4000 inhabitants were involved in this trade in 1689. The buccaneer era greatly enriched the port, but it was a short-lived and colorful period that England was supposed to end by the conditions of the 1670 Treaty of Madrid. Privateering and/or piracy, however, continued in one form or another into the 18th century. Indeed, it was the Spanish money flowing into the coffers of Port Royal, through trade and plunder, that made the port so economically visible.

After 1670, the importance of Port Royal and Jamaica to England was increasingly due to trade in slaves, sugar, and raw materials. It became the mercantile center of the Caribbean, with vast amounts of goods flowing in and out of its harbor as part of an expansive trade network, which included trading and/or looting of coastal Spanish towns throughout Spanish America. It was a wealthy city of merchants, artisans, ships' captains, slaves, and, of course, notorious pirates, who gave it its "wickedest city in the world" reputation. It is said that one out of every four buildings was either a bar or a place of prostitution

Port Royal circa 1690

Port Royal Town in 1690
Painting courtesy of Peter Dunn, Archaeological Reconstruction Artist

Only Boston, Massachusetts, rivaled Port Royal in size and importance. In 1690, Boston had a population of approximately 6000, while population estimates for Port Royal in 1692 range from 6500 to 10,000. Many of the city's 2000 buildings, densely packed into 51 acres, were made of brick (a sign of wealth), and some were four stories tall. In 1688, 213 ships visited Port Royal, while 226 ships made port in all of New England. In addition, the probate inventories of many of Port Royal inhabitants reveal much prosperity and the observation that, unlike the other English colonies, Jamaica used coins for currency instead of commodity exchange.

In short, Port Royal was the most successful entrepot in the 17th-century English New World. Its social structure was quite different than either that of New England or of the tobacco-driven economy of Maryland and Virginia. Port Royal had a tolerant, laissez-faire attitude that allowed for a diversity of religious expression and lifestyles. There is early mention of merchants, who were Quakers, Papists, Puritans, Presbyterians, Jews, and Anglicans, practicing their religion openly alongside the free-willing sailors and pirates who frequented the port.
Source: Texas A&M Nautical Archaeology

Museums and Historical Places

Fort Charles is at the western tip of The Palisadoes and is very well preserved with its rows of semi-circular gun ports in the fading red brickwork. The young lieutenant Nelson was stationed here, and a plaque in his memory reads: "You who tread in his footprints, remember his glory."

Fort Charles Maritime Museum exhibits displays of man's relationship to the sea from the times of the Arawaks, and traces the development of Jamaican maritime history. There is a scaled model of the fort and models of ships of past eras. It is located in the old British naval headquarters and is open from 10 am to 4 pm daily.

The National Museum of Historical Archaeology is located in what used to be the naval hospital that spent a lot of its time fighting epidemics of yellow fever. The museum displays the history of the Jamaican people and techniques of excavation being used in the study of Port Royal's history based on marine and land deposits. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Monday to Saturday.

Giddy House close to the fort, is a former artillery store, and gets its name because of its strange tilt, resulting from the 1907 earthquake.

Port Royal Marine Laboratory of the University of the West Indies is based in Port Royal. Founded in 1955, the laboratory began as a small room in the Old Naval Dockyard but later moved to a one-acre site, "Crab Hall' beside the navy Hospital.

The Port Royal Laboratory has been important in undergraduate teaching of marine biology and marine ecology and in recent years has undertaken courses in aquaculture, fisheries and coastal management. As you head back along the promontory, you can spot the remains of other fortifications and be on the look out for wildlife. The whole area is protected and home to a large number of birds, animals and reptiles.