Pirates and Port Royal

David Cordingly describes the seafaring daredevil who pirated the Caribbean 200 years after Columbus' arrival, and tells of a new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich, dedicated to their kind.

300 years ago this summer the town of Port Royal, Jamaica, was hit by a massive earthquake. The first tremor was felt at twenty minutes to twelve on the morning of June 7th, 1692, and it was followed by two more which caused the ground to move in a series of undulations like waves. Brick and stone buildings collapsed and a large section of the town along the northern waterfront slid beneath the sea.

Of the many eye-witness accounts few give a more poignant picture of personal tragedy than that of John Pike, who wrote to his brother twelve days after the event.

'The ground opened at Port Royal, where I dwell, with a shake and swallowed whole houses, nay, the street I dwell in was in less than three hours after, four fathoms under water, and nothing of my house to be seen nor any other, only one timber house which George Philips lived in. The shake opened the earth, the water flew up and carried the people in quick. I lost my wife, my son, a 'prentice, a white maid and six slaves and all that ever I had in the world'.

2,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tidal wave which followed in its wake. Nearly 2,000 more died later of disease and fever. The general opinion was that the catastrophe was a judgement of God on a town which had acquired a reputation for debauchery and wickedness.

Port Royal was probably no more wicked than Bristol, London, or any other seaport of the period, but it certainly had its seamy side. There were a large number of taverns and the more disreputable punch houses which according to John Taylor in 1687 'may fitly be called brothel-houses' and attracted 'a crew of vile strumpets and common prostitutes'. The most famous of the whores was Mary Carlton, an actress and thief who had been transported to Jamaica from London in 1671. She was pretty but 'as common as a barber's chair: no sooner was one out, but another was in. Cunning, crafty, subtle and hot in the pursuit of her intended designs'.

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