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(Port Royal, Jamaica earthquake in 1692)

History Today, Sept, 2000, by Larry Gragg

Larry Gragg describes the earthquake that shattered Jamaica in 1692, and reviews the complex
lessons that preachers drew from it.

ON JUNE 7TH, 1692, Dr Emmanuel Heath, the Anglican rector for Port Royal, Jamaica,
finished his morning prayer service at St Paul's Church and walked to a nearby tavern
frequented by many of the town's leading merchants. There he joined John White,
president of the island's Council. Although he had a luncheon date with another man,
Heath lingered because White was a `great Friend' who wished to share a `Glass of
wormwood Wine with him as a whet before Dinner.' White thoroughly enjoyed the
clergyman's company and when he lit `a Pipe of Tobacco', Heath felt courtesy prevented
him from departing `before it was out'. As the two Englishmen chatted amiably, the
floor suddenly began `rowling and moving'. A startled Heath asked White, `Lord, Sir,
what's this?' White, composed, calmly replied, `It is an Earthquake, be not afraid, it will
soon be over'. To the contrary, the shaking rapidly worsened. When they `heard the
Church and Tower fall,' the two men fled the tavern.
Both Heath and White survived what became a devastating quake, but over 2,000 others
did not. The staggering death toll and the massive property losses in what had become
the most prosperous town in English America prompted commentators on both sides of
the Atlantic to proclaim that the cataclysm was evidence of God delivering a just
punishment to a sinful people.
Their analysis was part of a long and continuing tradition of explaining earthquakes as
supernatural intrusions into everyday life, as God's chastisement for sin, or as a portent
of a greater punishment to come. In 1580, for example, an earthquake that shook
London and the surrounding counties caused many to argue that it was a divine
warning. As Thomas Twynne in his Discourse of the Earthquake observed, through the
quake God was summoning each man to `call himself to an accompt, and look narrowly
into his own life'. Nearly five decades later, when an earthquake struck New England,
Plymouth colony governor William Bradford saw the event as God displaying `the
signes of his displeasure' for a wayward people. In 1706, the Boston Puritan Increase
Mather, reflecting on an earthquake from the previous year, wrote, `There never
happens an earthquake, but God speaks to men on Earth.' For observers in 1692, God
had never spoken more clearly than in His destruction of the fabled Port Royal.
Following their seizure of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, the English established the
settlement on the south-east coast that became Port Royal. Located at the end of a sand-
spit that separated the Caribbean from the deep-water Kingston Harbour, Port Royal
was initially intended as a heavily fortified garrison to protect the harbour. Soon,
however, it developed into the most important commercial centre in English America.
Blind luck explained part of the town's success. Located at the centre of the Caribbean,
Port Royal was ideally situated to attract trade from across the region. Equally
important was its spacious harbour. According to Richard Blome in 1678, it was `2 or 3
Leagues cross in most places, and hath every where good Anchorage, which is so deep'
that it could accommodate ships with a 1,000-ton displacement. Besides these natural
advantages, privateering and piracy played an important role in the port's prosperity.
Early governors such as Thomas Modyford (1664-71) eagerly granted letters of marque
to pirates like the legendary Henry Morgan as a way of `enriching and advancing the
settlement of this island'. In less than a decade from its founding, more than a score of
privateers and pirates used Port Royal as their base from which they conducted
successful raids on a number of important Spanish ports. Yet, governors after Modyford
increasingly saw pirates and privateers as a nuisance and a potential trigger to Spanish
reprisals. Consequently, in 1678, the Jamaica Assembly passed an anti-piracy law, and
authorities arrested some pirates and executed a few. Still, it is likely there were more
than a thousand pirates active in the Caribbean fourteen years later, and many brazenly
operated from Port Royal.
According to one careful student of the port's economic activities, it also had developed
by the late 1680s `a thriving contraband trade with Spanish America'. Almost half of the
more than 200 ships entering the harbour in 1688, for example, proceeded to ports like
Havana and Cartagena where they traded slaves, linens, provisions and liquor for
bullion, indigo, cocoa and dyewoods. There was also money to be made in legitimate
trade. A host of goods could be found on the docks: from the British Isles and the North
American English colonies a wide variety of provisions including vegetables, fruits,
meat, fish, flour, lumber, naval stores, and a cornucopia of alcoholic beverages. Many
merchants maintained a significant trade with the mother country. In 1691 alone, fifty-
five ships sailed for England with the island's sugar. It is no surprise to discover local
residents boasting that Port Royal had emerged as `the Store House or Treasury of the
West Indies.' People throughout the empire likewise recognised its economic
significance. In 1692, the Boston Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather dubbed the town
`the Tyrus of the whole English America'.
Drawing upon the feverish activity of the legitimate merchants, the smugglers, the
privateers and the pirates, the town grew rapidly. Covering scarcely more than fifty
acres, Port Royal was a densely-settled community criss-crossed by narrow alleys and a
few wide streets. Besides the hundreds of `Strangers,' mainly seamen and traders licit
and illicit, about 6,500 resided in the town in 1692. They lived in nearly 2,000 buildings,
often brick, multi-storey structures all built upon little more than `hot loose Sand'. Amid
the houses, shops, and warehouses, settlers had also constructed several places of
worship. In addition to the Anglicans who looked to Emmanuel Heath for spiritual
guidance, there were Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers and Jews.
Organised religion, however, had little impact on the population. Material concerns
occupied the attention of most, particularly the rich. One observer noted in the 1680s
that merchants lived `to the height of splendour, in full ease and plenty, being
sumptuously arrayed, and attended on and served by their Negro slaves'. Many
craftsmen also lived well. John Taylor explained in 1688, `there are now setled here in
this port ... Smiths, Carpenters, Bricklayers, Joyners, Turners, Cabanittmakers, Tanners,
Curriors, Shoemakers, Taylors, Hatters, Upholsters, Ropemakers, Glasiers, Painters,
Carvers, Armourers, and Combmakers.' Taylor contended that they all prospered,
`earning thrice the wages given in England, by which means they are enabled to
maintain their famalies much better than in England.'
Visitors usually concluded that satisfying desires of the flesh consumed too much of the
residents' income be they rich or poor. One claimed that at least 20 per cent of the
town's structures were `brothels, gaming houses, taverns and grog shops.' To be sure
there were numerous diversions in Port Royal for the merchants, seamen, pirates; and
dock workers; drinking, billiards, bear-baiting, and cockfights were all popular. Yet,
prostitutes, those `vile strumpets' who, according to one critic, seemed like a `walking
plague', attracted the most attention. Even though in many of these respects, Port Royal
differed little from other seaports in the English empire, contemporaries saw it as the
worst. It seemed to be `the Sodom of the New World', a place where most were `pirates,
cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world'. In the
providential world of the late seventeenth century, it seemed a town ripe for the wrath
of God.
In their reports on the quake, contemporaries could not pinpoint precisely when it
began. Depending upon the source, the earth began shaking at about eleven fifteen, or
`about half an hour after Eleven', or `at noon'. In one archaeological foray in the late
1950s, divers discovered a watch which X-ray photography revealed to have stopped at
11.43. For many residents it seemed that the quake lasted at least fifteen minutes, but
most reports reveal that the duration was no more than two to three minutes.
Regardless of its length, the earthquake was devastating. It devoured the town's
primary wharf `with all those goodly Brick Houses upon it ... and two Intire Streets
beyond that'. Powerful waves tossed a number of ships from the harbour into destroyed
buildings and onto the streets. The ground opened up in different places
simultaneously and `Swallow'd up Multitudes of People together.' One resident claimed
that many `who were swallowed up alive in the ground were spewed up again'. The
Reverend Heath's account most clearly captures the terror of the moment. Once he
escaped the tavern, Heath ran for `a wide open place' called Morgan's Fort, but as he
neared it, Heath `saw the Earth open and swallow up a multitude of People, and Sea
mounting in upon us over the Fortifications.' Believing escape now hopeless, the
minister `resolv'd to make toward my own Lodging, and there to meet Death in as good
a Posture as I could'. To reach his home, Heath `was forced to cross and run through
two or three very narrow Streets, the Houses and Walls fell on each side of me', some
bricks even rolled over his shoes. Remarkably, Heath reached his house unhurt and to
his amazement found `all things in the same order I left them'.
Since 1959 there have been several archaeological excavations which have both
recovered artefacts from the port town, and offered clues as to why so much of it was
destroyed. The most sustained effort began in the 1980s under the direction of the Texas
A & M University Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Drawing upon these findings and
contemporary descriptions of the event, some archaeologists are concluding that the
buildings in the destroyed portion of the town `sank straight down'. According to this
view, energy generated by the earthquake vibrated the town's loosely packed sand and
permitted the upswelling water to create a liquefied mass quite similar to quicksand
into which much of the town sank. 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.
Few were as fortunate as the Reverend Heath, who had raced to safety. Almost two-
thirds of the town lay in ruins or under water. Early estimates of those killed ranged
from about 1,500 to over 2,200. Another 2,000 died from injuries and disease. Survivors
were shocked by the physical damage, but were stunned by the large number of corpses
floating in the harbour. Many had died during the quake, but others had been washed
from their graves in the town's cemetery, by the tidal waves created as the earth shook.
Unsurprisingly, even before the quake ceased, looters began breaking into homes and
warehouses taking every thing of value. With no authority to stop them, `a Company of
lewd Rogues' demonstrated the behaviour that would not have surprised late
nineteenth-century Social Darwinists. The `strongest, and most wicked' among the
survivors `seized what they pleased, and whose they pleased, and where they pleased.'
No debasement of the deceased seemed beyond the looters. `The Dead', one observer
noted, `were robbed of what they had about them, some stript, others searched, their
Pockets pick'd, their Fingers cut off for their Rings, their Gold Buttons taken out of their
Shirts.' Just as shocking, on the very night of the quake, many in the destroyed town
`were at their Old Trade of Drinking, Swearing and Whoreing.'
Amid the chaos and massive destruction, surviving residents sought to rebuild Port
Royal to its former commercial glory. Their effort, however, was doomed to failure. The
quake had reduced the town to fewer than twenty-five acres. One contemporary
described it as little more than `a quarter of a Mile in Length, and about half so much
the Breadth'. Although it continued to serve as a British naval base throughout the
eighteenth century, Port Royal yielded its commercial role in Jamaica to Kingston,
located across the harbour. Two more disasters, a fire in 1703 and a devastating
hurricane nineteen years later, accelerated the town's decline. By 1774, there were
scarcely a hundred houses in Port Royal.
Official reports of the disaster from the Jamaica Council and letters from private citizens
describing it were soon winging their way to port towns throughout the empire and to
the imperial capital. On August 5th, Boston, Massachusetts, learned `the horrible tidings
of the late earthquake at Jamaica'. Five days later, Londoners heard about the
`Earthquake which has destroied almost the whole Iland & plantation of Jamaica, many
Thousands perishing.
Commentators dispensed interpretations of the disaster almost as rapidly as news of its
extent became known. Cosmic justice had been done on June 7th. A God of limited
patience had punished a wicked people. `To the inhabitants of that Isle', one
commentator argued, `has the Lord spoke terrible things in righteousness.' The
members of the Jamaica Council agreed. `We are become by this,' they declared, two
weeks after the quake, `an instance of God Almighty's severe judgment.' For a Quaker
resident of Port Royal the quake represented a specific kind of punishment. To this
member of the Society of Friends, who had suffered from the arrogance of the powerful
and wealthy planters of the town, God had delivered a just chastisement. `Ah brother!,'
John Pike wrote on June 19th:
If thou didst see those great persons that are now dead upon the water thou
couldst never forget it. Great men who were so swallowed up with pride,
that a man could not be admitted to speak with them, and women whose
top-knots seemed to reach the clouds, now lie stinking upon the water, and
are made meat for fish and fowls of the air.
The Reverend Heath acknowledged the residents' worldly and haughty ways, but
harboured a hope that the disaster might prompt them to change. He believed `by this
terrible Judgment, God will make them reform their lives, for there was not a more
ungodly People on the Face of the Earth' Others in Port Royal echoed the clergyman's
view of matters. In His wrath, God was providing an opportunity for the surviving
residents. `We shall be unworthy of God's mercies', Samuel Bernard explained, `if we be
not by His judgments taught to learn righteousness.' Indeed the Council declared that
every future `seventh of June ... be kept and observed by all the inhabitants of this
Island, as an anniversary day of fasting and humiliation.' Acknowledging the town's
`manifold sins and wickednesses committed against his Divine Majesty,' the Council
hoped that by annually `humbling ourselves' the residents might `appease God's
imminent Wrath and prevent heavier Judgements'. However, it appears that the hopes
of the Reverend Heath and the members of the Council were not realised. A visitor to
the island five years later found Port Royal remained a place where the residents
`regard nothing but Money, and value not how they get it'. Furthermore, observing `all
sorts of Vice Encourag'd by both Sexes' he concluded, as others had prior to 1692, that
the town was `the very Sodom of the Universe'.
Besides agreeing that God had used the earthquake as a swift and just destruction of a
debauched people, virtually all commentators saw greater meaning in the Port Royal
quake. God intended it as a warning to Christians everywhere. In Boston,
Massachusetts, the Reverend Cotton Mather believed that the Puritan settlers of New
England had fallen short of God's expectations for far too long and all around him he
could see evidence of divine punishment for such a wayward people. `A variety of
calamity has long followed' Massachusetts, and, he asserted, `we have all the reason
imaginable to ascribe it unto the rebuke of heaven upon us for our manifold apostacies.'
Mather felt he had good reason to draw such a forlorn conclusion. In the same letter to
his uncle John Cotton, in which Mather noted the quake, he also reported `five witches
were lately executed' in Salem, Massachusetts. They were among the more than a
hundred suspects arrested in the largest witchhunt in American history. Mather, and
many others in New England, felt in the summer of 1692 that there was little time for
reform. News of the disaster in Jamaica, along with the assault of witches on the towns
of Massachusetts, seemed to be part of a swiftly developing divine plan or justice.
`Behold', Mather wrote of the quake, `an accident speaking to all our English America.'
In England, some, like John Evelyn, did little more than commit their reflections on the
quake to their diaries. Evelyn hoped this judgement of God would `incite us to
Repentance.' Several authors, however, eager to enlighten and profit from the disaster,
published pamphlets and broadsides about it. These works included letters written by
eyewitnesses, a crude drawing of the quake, and commentaries on its significance.
Authors were careful to point out why readers should see the quake as more than a
mere curiosity. The author of The Truest and Largest Account of the Late Earthquake in
Jamaica implored readers to understand that God had done this to people in the West
Indies `that we may hear the Voice of his Rod, and fear and forsake our Transgressions'.
Another writer echoed those sentiments. All in England should take the Jamaica
disaster as a warning `to forsake our ill Courses and mend our Lives' otherwise God
will `deal with us as he has done with those in Jamaica'.
Interest in the topic increased when a quake, though less severe than the one in Jamaica,
jolted England on September 8th. If the quake across the Atlantic seemed too remote a
message from God, now all should understand the need to shake off their spiritual
lethargy. The Reverend John Shower felt compelled to offer his `Practical Reflections'
not only on the quakes in Jamaica and England, but also on all the great earthquakes of
antiquity through the present in both a sermon and an extended discussion in an essay.
`When God ariseth to shake terribly the Earth, and punish the Inhabitants thereof for
their Iniquities,' Shower admonished, `we should tremble'. While he acknowledged that
all should be thankful that God had largely spared them the destruction of a Jamaica-
like quake, that He only `did but gently give us notice of what he might have done',
Shower reminded readers that God would not persist long in permitting them `to go
unpunished'. Yet Shower detected an air of indifference among his countrymen.
Although God had used the massive quake as a call to Englishmen to weep and mourn
their danger, he was astounded `how little of such a spirit is found amongst us'. Instead,
he saw more evidence of an `Atheistical and Profane Spirit' across the land. This was a
perilous attitude, he warned, because no one knew how long God would `bear with us'.
When His righteous punishment came, it would be as in Jamaica `without Warning'.
As Shower worried about his nation's indifference, he was also concerned about those
who failed to see God's hand in the matter. Too few acknowledged God's `agency in
these things'. Shower dismissed those who attributed the quake to `natural Causes'
because `the Hand of God is not to be overlooked in such things, under whose
Government and Influence all natural Agents act'. Clergymen like Shower worried that
a slowly developing intellectual revolution was attracting too many literate Englishmen.
Since the mid-sixteenth century, an increasing number of scientists, notably astronomers
and mathematicians, had begun to transform how Western Europeans understood the
universe. Nicholas Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Francis Bacon, Rene
Descartes, and Isaac Newton, among others, had demonstrated a diminishing
willingness to accept the proposition of divine intervention in the physical world. In
their observations of planetary movements, their mathematical models and
experiments, these men argued for a rational universe. To be sure, most of these
scientists were men of faith, yet they revealed a belief in a God who had created a
universe that operated through natural law rather than one subject to a Creator who
regularly intervened in the affairs of man.
Attempts to offer rational explanations for earthquakes were a part of this effort. Robert
Hooke, professor of geometry at Gresham College in London and Curator of
Experiments for the Royal Society, had been delivering lectures on earthquakes before
that body for the quarter century preceding the Port Royal quake. Variously arguing
that earthquakes resulted from `Eruptions Of fiery Conflagrations inkindled in the
Subterraneous Regions' or perhaps from shifts in the planet's centre of gravity, Hooke
aroused considerable debate in scientific circles. Indeed, by 1692, a host of authors had
proposed explanations of earthquakes. Besides those advanced by Hooke, according to
one survey of the field:
... some will have Earthquakes to be cause'd only by certain Conjunctions
of the Planets, some by the Motion of Comets near the Earth ... others will
have them produc'd by the Motion of subterraneous Waters, others again by
certain Moulderings or Founderings in certain Caverns of the Earth.
There was even a notion, often associated with the work of John Flamsteed, director of
the Royal Observatory, that the damage people associated with earthquakes was
actually the consequence of an `explosion of nitrous and sulphureous particles in the
air'. These views obviously attracted the attention of many clergymen. Some Anglican
and Puritan divines even grudgingly acknowledged that God might occasionally
employ natural forces, or as they identified them, secondary causes, in quakes. Yet, as
with John Shower, they felt it imperative to emphasise that God more often directly
triggered earthquakes to punish sinful people. Indeed, those authors who discussed the
Jamaica earthquake, were always careful to emphasise that it was best understood as an
affirmation of God's continuing power and direction in men's lives. They clearly
understood the danger in failing to respond to the emerging theory of a mechanistic
universe. The notion of an ordered and regular creation denied the possibility of
supernatural forces. More important, it dramatically limited man's relationship with
God. No wonder Thomas Doolittle, a nonconformist London minister, saw the
trembling earth, the impressive fire balls, and the thunderous noise on Jamaica on June
7th as a potent reminder. Given that powerful display, even `the most hardened atheist'
had to acknowledge `that there was a God, who governed the World.'
To John Shower and the other authors, the quake on Jamaica served primarily as a
portent for Englishmen, a sign of a potentially greater destruction on their horizon.
After all, England resembled Port Royal in so many ways. `It is dreadful to think',
Shower wrote about his homeland, `how Atheism, and Infidelity prevails, and barefac'd
Deism, with the Rejection of Christianity, and all Revealed Religion'. The ultimate lesson
to be learned from the destruction of Port Royal was clear:
If you are not Renewed and Sanctified; if you do not truly Repent, so as to
hate Sin, and leave it, and turn to the Lord; if you do not unfeignedly
give up Yourselves to God in Christ, as your Saviour, and Sovereign, your
Judgment is near, your Destruction is at hand, you must Perish; and that
more dreadfully, than most others in the World.
Although not the most destructive of the seventeenth century, the earthquake that
struck Port Royal in 1692 carried profound meaning for most observers. In an age just
beginning to accept a mechanistic view of the world and a more detached role for the
Creator, the sudden destruction of an imperial port deemed `one of the Ludest in the
Christian World, a sink of all Filthiness' permitted writers on both sides of the Atlantic
to remind their readers of the power of God to intervene in their lives and punish their


Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh, No Peace Beyond the Line: The English in the
Caribbean, 1624-1690 (New York, 1972); Ellen Tan Drake, Restless Genius: Robert Hooke
and His Earthly Thoughts (New York, 1996); Richard S. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The
Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713 (New York, 1972); David
Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New
England (New York, 1989); Alan Haynes, `The English Earthquake of 1580,' History
Today, 29 (1979). Marion Clayton Link, `Exploring the Drowned City of Port Royal',
National Geographic Magazine, 117 (1960); Robert F. Marx, Port Royal Rediscovered
(Garden City, NY, 1973); Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica
(Oxford, 1975); Rhoda Rappaport, When Geologists Were Historians, 1665-1750 (Ithaca,
NY, 1997); Simon Smith, `Piracy in Early British America,' History Today, 46 (1996).
Websites: http://nautarch. tamu.edu/projects/portroy/bhist.htm,

Larry Gragg is Professor of Early American History at the University of Missouri-Rolla,

and author of The Salem Witch Crisis (Praeger, 1992).

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