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Port Royal: a Seventeenth Century Haven for Pirates and Privateers

Why Port Royal, Jamaica became a haven for privateers and pirates in the seventeenth century and what caused its demise.

What happened when all of these circumstances’ combined in one place? The capturing of Jamaica by the English in 1655: a secluded deep water bay on a south facing peninsular, perfect for ships: an ambitious republican dictator in charge of England: sanctioned acts of piracy and crooked governors: the recruiting of colonists from London’s streets and the jails of England, Ireland and Scotland: Safe haven given to all buccaneers. Answer, Port Royal, Jamaica.

Yet Jamaica wasn’t originally the intended target of Oliver Cromwell, who had been poorly advised by Thomas Gage in 1642 that the Spanish islands in the Caribbean were easy targets. Cromwell sent a large force led by General Robert Venables and admiral Penn to attack and capture Santo Domingo. Venables orders were to conquer either Hispaniola or Cuba as these islands were strategically the most important in the West Indies.

Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker.

Twice the English general’s forces attacked Santa Domingo and twice they were beaten back. Spanish historical versions of the raid claim the English were defeated by slaves and mulatto defenders. The English version of the battles differs. Unable to achieve their aims at Santa Domingo Venables forces turned their attention to the less well defended Santiago de la Vega in Jamaica. The island was taken and the Spanish inhabitants were told to leave, but abandon their property. General Venables fell ill and returned to England, only to be imprisoned in the Tower of London along with admiral Penn. Cromwell was crushed by the news and saw Jamaica only as a consolation. The Spanish did send a guerrilla force to try and retake Jamaica led by Cristobal Arnoldo Ysassi. This and subsequent attacks were defeated by Colonel Venables.

A French ship is attacked by Barbary Pirates.

The Spanish were right to be concerned about the English occupation of Jamaica. Governor D’ Oyley encouraged buccaneers from the Tortugas and the Barbary coast to base themselves at the port. Not only did he offer them safe harbor, but he gave them commissions to raid the Spanish main; Port Royal, which is located across from present day Kingston, was fortified and soon became a bustling town. By 1658 its inhabitant which combined mostly Europeans with rest being African slaves, numbered approximately 6,000. Nineteen taverns were established, which became infamous rendezvous locations for privateers. He are some of the taverns that were registered;

The Three Tunns ( 1665)

The Sugar Loaf ( 1667)

The Sign of Bacchus ( 1673)

The Three Crowns ( 1673)

The King’s Arms ( 1677)

The Black Dog (1682)

The Cheshire Cheese( 1684)

The Blue Anchor(1679)

The Sign of the Mermaid(1685)

The Three Mariners(1677)

Its interesting to note that although the town had a disproportionate numbers of taverns it had only one church. Many raids were launched from Port Royal such as Sir Henry Morgan’s sack of Panama, sponsored by governor Modyford. Ten years before governor Edward D’Oyley had sponsored Christopher Myngs to raid the Venezuelan coast. Just by chance they raided Porto Cabello, then the town of Coro and struck it rich. There were two chests containing 400 pounds of silver coins as well as jewelry and cacao beans. The town of Coro was not on the Spanish treasure routes, but the presence of cacao beans suggested that Spanish cargo bound for Caracas had been diverted. In any case it was the biggest find of any single raid and as you can imagine the taverns of Port Royal swelled and the rum flowed that day.

Map shows the location of Port Royal at the tip of Kingston habour. 

After the death of Oliver Cromwell, England began a period of monarchal restoration and in 1660, Charles II became King. The Treaty of Madrid was signed in 1670 and a new governor, Lord Windsor began to reform Jamaica. Although he continued to commission attacks on the Spanish main, he demanded half the buccaneers booty and enforced the law with the forming of an admiralty court. In response the buccaneers turned from privateers’ to outright piracy. This hurt English interests in Jamaica and further strained relations with Spain. So in 1681 an anti-piracy law was passed. Many pirates were triad and executed and the remainder were driven away to other islands, such as the Bahamas or to the Carolinas. In 1692 a massive earthquake struck Port Royal, killing over 2000 people. Many saw it as judgment day for the towns wicked past.

Present day view near Port Royal, a far cry from the golden age of piracy.

All images from commons.wikimedia.com and flickr.com

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Comments (2)

Another riveting tale of sanctioned piracy in the Caribbean!

I've been to Port Royal many times. It doesn't look like that photo. It's a small town, quiet, doesn't even have a football pitch. That image looks like Ocho rios. During the Great Earthquake most of it slid into the sea as it had been, as you mentioned, quite populated. But Port Royal is a sand bar. As soon as there was an earthquake, it liquified and was mostly gone. Just a thin spit of land remain.

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