Port Royal – Pirate Paradise

port royal

Port Royal – “the wickedest city on earth”

Sailing into the clear blue waters of Jamaica’s Kingston Harbour, Port Royal comes immediately into view. It’s hard to imagine that this quiet Caribbean village was once regarded as one of the largest cities on earth. In the late seventeenth century its alleyways and taverns rang incessantly with the riotous behaviour of some of the most vicious pirates and notorious privateers of the era.


When English warships wrested Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, a fort was hastily built at Point Cagway. Renamed Port Royal in 1660 in honour of Charles II’s Restoration, the area was so short of troops it was almost impossible to defend against Spanish counterattacks. The solution was to invite hardened pirates and privateers to enjoy the freedom of the port in return for their protection. The large, natural harbour provided safe anchorage for dozens of galleons. Illicit gold and silver flooded into the port and in less than thirty years it had become a huge city.


By 1690, the port was an influential trading centre openly dealing with a vast assortment of smuggled commodities including unfortunate slaves, raw sugar cane and timber. Merchants with a taste for adventure acquired massive fortunes but they didn’t always live long enough to spend it. The local brew known as Kill Devil Rum was so potent it caused hundreds of deaths. There were no restraints on lawless behaviour. The Portuguese pirate, Roche Brasiliano was extremely cruel and violent, impaling his victims and roasting them alive on the streets.

Captain Morgan

By contrast, Captain Henry Morgan was quite a gentleman. He was one of many privateers or mercenaries authorised by England to harass the country’s enemies in the Caribbean. He was so successful at coordinating attacks on Spanish territories he won a knighthood and became the lieutenant governor of the port. When he died in his mid-fifties in 1668, he was incredibly rich and merited a lavish funeral. Some of his silverware can still be seen at St.Peter’s Church and the museum at Fort Charles. However, Morgan was not destined to rest in peace.


In 1692, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.5 devastated the city. Having been built on weak, sandy foundations, much of it simply slipped into the sea taking Captain Morgan’s grave with it. Many of the town’s streets, pillars and archways can still be seen beneath the harbour’s waves and it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Nearby Rackham’s Cay commemorates the site where the remains of John Rackham, alias Calico Jack, were left hanging in chains in 1720. He had angered local, wealthy merchants by capturing one of their ships at the port. Several different legends have evolved regarding the fate of his fierce female accomplices, the notorious pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Further earthquakes, fires and hurricanes hindered the rebuilding of the city and by 1770 its days of infamy were over.

port royal

Map of Port Royal by John Taylor, 1688

Image of the sunken city courtesy of GoUnesco

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