The Rise and Fall—and Rise and Fall Again—of Port Royal, Jamaica

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 11:00 AM
Elizabeth Ballroom H (Hyatt)
Matthew B. Mulcahy , Loyola College of Maryland, Baltimore, MD
On June 7, 1692, a major earthquake struck Port Royal, Jamaica, the second most populous – and arguably most important – port city in English America. Within minutes over half of the town sank into the surrounding harbor. In the wake of the earthquake, local officials planned for the development of a new city across the harbor, but the outbreak of disease in the future site of Kingston claimed the lives of thousands more colonists and pushed many survivors back to Port Royal. Port Royal again served as the major port for Jamaica until January 1703 when a fire engulfed the town. Local officials again took action, this time barring colonists from resettling at Port Royal and forcing merchants to set up operations at Kingston. After a great deal of lobbying, the law prohibiting settlement was disallowed by the Queen in 1704. Port Royal was again resettled and rebuilt. Port Royal’s ultimate demise as a mercantile center followed two hurricanes in 1712 and 1722. By the mid-1720s, Port Royal served only as a naval station.

The story of the Port Royal earthquake is well-known to historians, but the dramatic demise of the town in the 1692 earthquake often overshadows its subsequent history. This paper will examine Port Royal’s repeated destruction and the debates about rebuilding, particularly those that followed the 1703 fire. It will consider why many colonists remained committed to what one official referred to as "that fatall spott," the various factors that shaped such decisions – including the relative threat from different disasters, economic interests, and military concerns – and why Port Royal was eventually given up as a center for trade.

Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>