Jamaica's 'wickedest city' Port Royal banks on heritage

By Nick Davis
BBC News, Kingston

Image caption,
Important buildings, such as the Naval Hospital, are crumbling

Port Royal in Jamaica was once known as the "wickedest city on earth", but it is hard to imagine that now.

Today it is a small sleepy fishing village located at the mouth of Kingston Harbour that wants to use its rich heritage to bring in tourists and improve its fortunes.

In the 17th Century, Port Royal was home to the real pirates of the Caribbean - it was a buccaneers' paradise with one in every four building said to be a bar or a brothel.

This provided pirates will ample opportunities to indulge.

More than 100 years later, Charles Leslie wrote of Port Royal in the 1660s: "Wine and women drained [pirates of their] wealth to such a degree that... some of them became reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2 or 3,000 pieces of eight in one night."

"They used to buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink," he wrote in his 1793 A New and Exact History of Jamaica.

The town also served as the headquarters of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean; a young officer by the name of Horatio Nelson was stationed here.

The Jamaican government hopes that the UN's cultural body, Unesco, will recognise its rich history and designate it a world heritage site, putting it on a par with Egypt's pyramids, Spain's Alhambra or Cambodia's Angkor Wat.

The glory days of Port Royal ended on 7 June 1692, when a massive earthquake and tsunami, described by the local clergy as God's punishment, sank much of the city into the sea, killing 2,000 people.

Much of the city is preserved just a few metres under water, along with several hundred sunken ships in the harbour.

It is one of the most important underwater sites in the world, according to Robert Grenier, a Canadian marine archaeologist who has worked closely with Unesco.

"This is the richest repository of historic shipwrecks anywhere, and Port Royal itself is part of that heritage," he says.

'Fishing port'

Its heyday may have been more than 300 years ago, but Port Royal's history dates back to the island's earliest inhabitants, the Tainos.

"We know from the evidence that the Tainos used it as a fishing port," says Dorrick Gray from the Jamaica National Heritage Trust.

Much later, when Jamaica was claimed by the Spanish, Port Royal was used as a harbour, but "drastic change" came in the 1650s after the British captured it from the Spanish, Mr Gray says.

While the present Jamaican capital, Kingston, was little more than farmland, Port Royal became one of the richest places on Earth.

The buccaneers were invited to set up in the city to protect the new colony and use it as a base. They became state-sponsored privateers who plundered the Spanish colonies on behalf of the British king. Its location also made it a commercial centre as well; merchants traded slaves, sugar and logwood.

As it grew richer, so Port Royal's reputation for excess and debauchery grew, and it was called the Sodom of the New World.

'Lost city'

Work to rescue that rich history is ongoing.

At the Jamaica National Heritage Trust headquarters, a team of researchers from Texas A&M University in the US are poring over documents and old maps. Artefacts such as old clay pipes and onion-shape bottles are stacked in cardboard containers.

The rooms have musty smell that is made worse by the industrial fans that are on full blast because of the heat.

"It's just what you imagine for archaeologists, we're in the basement of an ancient dusty building looking for clues about a lost city," says John Albertson, one of the researchers.

Mr Albertson is looking for artefacts recovered from a wreck that he believes is that of The Ranger, a ship that belonged to Bartholomew Roberts, a pirate known as Black Bart.

Black Bart was one of the most successful pirates of his day, capturing hundreds of vessels before he was killed in Gabon. His boats were then sailed to Jamaica, where they were destroyed in a storm in the harbour in 1722.

The Ranger's location on the seabed is now being mapped with the help of the US Navy and the Jamaican Coastguard, using a remote-controlled mini-submarine that looks like a torpedo and which produces a 3D image of the sea bed.

Image caption,
Dozens of buildings lie preserved just below the surface

But even without the hi-tech equipment, parts of the city can clearly be seen from just below the surface.

'Showpiece and authentic'

Previous teams have excavated paved streets, archways and even buildings, and they have done only a fraction of the work that is needed.

The base for the current researchers is at the Old Naval Hospital in Port Royal. The roof of the Georgian building has been destroyed by countless hurricanes and neglect, leaving behind just a shell.

The government hopes it could be restored to become the centrepiece of a renovated Port Royal - and a major tourist attraction.

"It's going to cost about $150m (£96m) to develop," says Phillip Paulwell, minister for science, technology, energy and mining, "but it's going to be a showpiece and authentic."

Many locals hope that after many years of talk, World Heritage status can revitalise this ramshackle outpost and bring back its once-famed wealth.

"This is part of our history," says Lolita Hylton, "and it's just rotting away."

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