The Port Royal Earthquake
Larry Gragg describes the earthquake that shattered Jamaica in 1692, and reviews the complex lessons that preachers drew from it.
On June 7th, 1692, Dr Emmanuel Heath, the Anglican rector for Port Royal, Jamaica, finished his morning prayer service at St Paul’s Church and walked to a nearby tavern frequented by many of the town’s leading merchants. There he joined John White, president of the island’s Council. Although he had a luncheon date with another man, Heath lingered because White was a ‘great Friend’ who wished to share a ‘Glass of wormwood Wine with him as a whet before Dinner.’ White thoroughly enjoyed the clergyman’s company and when he lit ‘a Pipe of Tobacco’, Heath felt courtesy prevented him from departing ‘before it was out’. As the two Englishmen chatted amiably, the floor suddenly began ‘rowling and moving’. A startled Heath asked White, ‘Lord, Sir, what’s this?’ White, composed, calmly replied, ‘It is an Earthquake, be not afraid, it will soon be over’. To the contrary, the shaking rapidly worsened. When they ‘heard the Church and Tower fall,’ the two men fled the tavern.
Both Heath and White survived what became a devastating quake, but over 2,000 others did not. The staggering death toll and the massive property losses in what had become the most prosperous town in English America prompted commentators on both sides of the Atlantic to proclaim that the cataclysm was evidence of God delivering a just punishment to a sinful people.