Our Pages

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The City that Sank

*Please note that due to copyright, the images for this post have been removed or replaced by links to the original site*

Once known as the 'Wickedest City on Earth,' Port Royal, Jamaica was one of the largest towns in the English colonies during the late 17th Century.

If you know anything about me or have read any of my blogs before, you’ll know how much I adore adventure and the sea. My dream is to one day retire on a sail boat and sail around the world to see all the places I’ve dreamed of for years.

My love of the sea started when I was young. I must confess it was probably handed down to me through my father as my mother cannot swim, despite our yearly trips to the coast. I can’t explain the pull of the ocean but it’s in my blood. And once you acquire the taste, nothing less will satisfy.

So for this blog I thought I would share my love of a bygone era: The Golden Age of Piracy, a beautiful era full of mystery, adventure, and romance.

I just wrote “the end” on my last project, a story set in 1692 Port Royal, Jamaica, the last year of its glory before it was swept into mother nature's grasp by an earthquake.

Liquefaction occurs when earthquakes strike ground that is loose, sandy, and water-saturated, increasing the water pressure and causing the particles to separate from one another to form a sludge resembling quicksand. Eyewitness accounts attested to buildings sliding into the water, but it is more likely that they simply sank straight down into the now unstable layer. The horror for anyone caught in this soupy mix was that it solidified rapidly. The Reverend Heath graphically described the consequences: Some were swallowed up to the Neck, and then the Earth shut upon them; and squeezed them to death; and in that manner several are left buried with their Heads above ground.

In 1981, the Nautical Archaeology Program of Texas A&M University, in cooperation with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) and the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT), began underwater archaeological investigations of the submerged portion of the 17th Century town of Port Royal, Jamaica. Present evidence indicates that while the areas of Port Royal that laid along the edge of the harbor slid and jumbled as they sank, destroying most of the archaeological context, the area investigated by TAMU / INA, located some distance from the harbor sank vertically, with minimal horizontal disturbance.

In contrast to many archaeological sites, the investigation of Port Royal yielded much more than simply trash and discarded items. An unusually large amount of perishable, organic artifacts were recovered, preserved in the oxygen-depleted underwater environment.

Together with the vast treasury of complimentary historical documents, the underwater excavations of Port Royal have allowed for a detailed reconstruction of everyday life in an English colonial port city of the late 17th Century.

The Port Royal Project concentrated for 10 years on the submerged 17th Century remains on Lime Street, near its intersection with Queen and High Streets in the commercial center of the town. At present, eight buildings have been investigated.

Most of the finds are both varied and completely fascinating--anything from pewter plates to tobacco pipes. But I ran across a story there that captured my heart and my imagination. Excavated building 4/5 has a haunting story to tell. It is a large and rambling complex consisting of at least six rooms and three back yards. The complex is approximately 65 ft. wide and over 40 ft. long and represents at least two, possibly three, houses or combination houses/shops.

The remains of a 70-ft. long ship was washed up from the harbor in the tidal wave that followed and plowed through building 4's front wall, heeled over onto its port side, and came to rest in the middle of the rooms. The remains of a young child were uncovered from under the bricks of the fallen front wall just outside of the two adjacent front doorways. The remains of two more children were found in Rooms 3 and 4.

As a mother of three boys, my heart ached when I read that; but as a writer, my imagination took flight. What were the children doing there? It’s my understanding this was the shadier part of town. A prostitute’s daughter perhaps? Maybe a set of young boys playing peeping toms? The possibilities are endless, and I couldn’t help but try to fit this information in my work in progress.

As one walks along the narrow streets of the poor fishing village of Port Royal today, it is hard to imagine that it once was the largest and most economically important English settlement in the Americas. Port Royal is the site of the only historical earthquake which can be dated closely by not only date, but time. This is documented by recovery from the sea floor in the 1960s of a pocket watch stopped at 11:43 a.m., recording the time of the devastating earthquake on June 7, 1692. Here, time literally stands still.

Shortly after the quake a man was quoted as saying: "It’s haunting to see the spires of masts within the harbour from the many sunken ships."

There are discussions of one day being able to dive down to the wreckage as a tourist attraction. And you can bet your shiny gold doubloon I will be right there when they do.

To read more about this fascinating excavation please visit the site 

The sea truly is one of the last unexplored frontiers. I realize not everyone loves the ocean as I do, so tell me what are you passionate about? Have you run across something in your own research that completely drew you in to another world?


  1. Melissa,
    Great post. Very fascinating stuff. I too love the sea, but I have never really done much research for stories involving the ocean. Maybe I will after reading your post. I love the Napoleonic Wars, and I am continued to be fascinated with the way the war was won just as equally on the battlefield as by the spies who gathered and delivered informaiton. My next story I will be working to finish, after I finish my current wip, was started entirely because I read an article about the Treaty of Tilsit and how the English came to ve aware of it, and I knew there was a story there just waiting to be told.

  2. Oh, Melissa! This is soooo fascinating. I'm also glad to hear you wrote 'the end'. From what I read of the story (very beginning) that was one great story! Can't wait for a big publisher to pick it up.


  3. I didn't know anything at all about Port Royal until I started reading what you've been writing. Sounds like a fascinating history that I should look into more for myself. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  4. It is fascinating down in the islands. My husband comes from Trinidad. On a couple of my trips down there, we visited both Trinidad and Tobago and the remains of the forts still standing there. To walk along the crumbling walls, see and touch the cannons, gaze out to sea and realize just how hard these folks fought to defend their homes is amazing.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. I love your topic, Melissa! But then I'm always fascinated by digging up old stuff. Thanks for sharing this with us.

  6. Very cool post, Melissa! I know you would love that particular tourist attraction! LOL! I, however, would happily stay on land and wait for your return. While I love to swim, I will only do so in pools....unless I can see the bottom of the ocean through crystal clear water. I love to be ON the water, though. Eric and I have a dream of owning a mega yacht one day :) But mostly my passion draws me to big cities. Which would explain why I live in NYC and have a major obsession with London :)

    Thanks for sharing Port Royal with us!

  7. What a facinating blog, Melissa. I love all the research you've done.

    I wouldn't exactly call this my passion, but I found it very interesting researching New Orleans for a book I recently completed. I'd never guessed the risk involved with entering the Mississippi river or the arduous journey. Depending upon the current, it could take anywhere up to 45 days to travel the river to New Orleans. And there was the risk of a ship being stranded on a sandbar. Maybe I found it so interesting because I live on the upper Mississippi and feel a certain tie to the mighty river.

  8. Oh Julie, I've just started to recently read on the Napoleanic wars. You should do a post about it one day. I'd love to read more.

    Thanks Phyllis, one of these days I'm going to catch up to you lol. I swear you are still the most prolific writer I know. =)

    The Carribean in general is a fascinating history, Catherine. I love to read about it and hope one day to visit to see for myself. At least that's the goal.

    Sandra I am soo jealous! I hope you took lots of pictures and if you ever decide to blog about please shoot me an email melissadawnharte@hotmail.com I'd love to read about it!!

    Clarrissa you and both girl. Archeology would've been my second choice as a career I think if life had gone as planned lol! But then again it never does that!

    Oh Jerrica scuba diving is the most fun. You should try it once just to be able to say you did it. Now don't get me wrong I love to live in the city but I love to get dirty and explore. It's probably why its adventure I crave!

    Thanks for stopping by ladies!

  9. Samatha New Orleans will probably be another fascination of mine too. There is so much history in that city and hopefully one day I can dig in there too. Maybe you can hold onto your notes for me lol.

  10. This was fascinating! Thanks for sharing your research. I can't wait to check out the website about the excavation. I have a privateer hero, and Jamaica is involved, with one of my WIPs (or maybe it should be called a WOH -- work on hold -- LOL). So this naturally caught my eye.


    P.S. I apologize for my website being in my "profile", but I can't seem to get it to do my name! LOL

  11. Absolutely fascinating, Melissa! Thanks for the little bit of history, and congrats on typing "The End" on your story!!

  12. You and my hubby have a lot in common, Melissa. He's been trying to convince me to sell up and live on a boat for years! Fascinating post.

  13. Love the post, Melissa. Absolutely fascinating. And the pictures were awesome.