The terrible earthquake that struck Jamaica just before noon on the 7th June 1692 changed the geography of the island for ever and set its progress back by many years. The timing of the earthquake was recorded by survivors but confirmed by the discovery of an early pocketwatch, made about 1686 by Frenchman Paul Blondel, during an underwater excavation. The watch had stopped at 11:43 am.
Looking at this 1670 map and comparing it with one drawn nearly a century later, you can see that a huge area around Port Royal, notorious it is true for its pirates and brothels but nonetheless the centre for a lively trade with the outside world, simply ceased to exist. Port Royal was described as the wickedest city on earth, but mostly after its destruction when people were looking for an explanation and seeing it as God delivering a just punishment on a sinful people.
About two thirds of the town of Port Royal disappeared in the quake, much of it because of liquefaction of the sandy soil on which the town was built. Brick buildings and wooden warehouses collapsed and slid into the sea. According to Robert Renny in his An History of Jamaica of 1807, “All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing. The tops of the highest houses, were visible in the water, and surrounded by the masts of vessels, which had been sunk along with them”.
In the triple shocks of the quake the liquefied soil flowed in waves, fissures opened up and then closed again trapping victims as the sand solidified, some horrifically left with just their heads visible. In the tsunami that followed most of the twenty or so ships in the harbour were sunk or carried right over the town, and many who had survived the initial quake were drowned.
The horror of the survivors at the huge number of corpses floating in the harbour was increased when they realised that many of these bodies had been washed out of the town’s graveyard. Looting began almost at once with the looters even hacking fingers off the dead in order to obtain their rings, and goods were stolen from the wharves and warehouses.
The earthquake, which modern estimates suggest was about 7.5 in magnitude, was not of course confined to Port Royal. A huge landslip occurred at Judgement Hill. At Liguanea, the site of modern Kingston, the sea was observed to retreat 300 yards before a six-foot high wave rushed inland. Most of the buildings in Spanish Town were destroyed and serious damage occurred all across Jamaica.
Worse was yet to come, for the survivors then had to endure a series of epidemics particularly of Yellow Fever. Perhaps 2000 of the 6500 inhabitants of Port Royal perished in the quake, many more died across Jamaica in the following few years. The island was over dependent on imported food and goods from England, and the disruption to its main harbour, loss of ships and warehousing brought about shortages of essential goods and reduced the ability to export.
The Jamaican Assembly removed from Port Royal to Spanish Town and rebuilding began almost at once, but it has been suggested that the progress of the colony was set back by 20 years as a result of the devastation. Port Royal itself was so much reduced in area and further devastated by fire in 1704 that it never recovered. Two years after the quake Dr Fulke Rose, one of the early colonists who had been in Jamaica since at least 1670, returned to London with his family in order better to plead the cause of the island. He died there in March 1694 and you can read a transcript of his Will here.
During the 1980s and 1990s underwater excavations took place at Port Royal which revealed much about life there before the quake struck. You can read about that project here.
Jamaica suffers up to 200 earthquakes every year, most of which are quite minor, but the Earthquake Unit of the University of the West Indies at Mona describes the quake of 1692 as ‘perhaps our largest and most damaging natural disaster’.