The End of the Wickedest City on Earth

t's the early morning of Tuesday, June 7, 1692. Half the inhabitants of Port Royal, Jamaica, are beginning their day, while for the other half-- a population of drunkards, thieves and prostitutes, the dawn marks the end of a long and eventful night. It has been five years since piracy has been officially outlawed here, but it's done little to improve Port Royal's reputation as the "wickedest city on earth".

Lieutenant-Governor John White dons his wig and sets out for an emergency meeting of the Council of Jamaica. He has received word that there are spies in the colony and White fears an attack from enemy France is imminent.

Meanwhile, Dr Heath, rector of Port Royal is alone in the church reading prayers; a daily exercise "to keep some show of religion among a most ungodly, debauched people." He closes his prayer book and meets a merchant friend for a pipe and glass of wormwood wine.

By late morning, the air is syrupy and still. The sea is glassy, reflecting the images of the countless becalmed ships in the anchorage. The people of Port Royal are uneasy. This unnatural calm is familiar. Earth tremors have occurred almost annually since the town's foundation thirty-six years ago, each occurring during still, sultry weather. The larger the calm, so they say, the bigger the quake. Coupled with a recent seer's prediction of a "cataclysmic earthquake", the superstitious citizens of Port Royal find themselves gripped with apprehension.

Noon approaches. Dr Heath puts down his wine as the ground begins to roll beneath his feet. "Lord sir," he asks his companion. "What is this?"

"It is an earthquake, be not afraid. It will soon be over."

But the tremors increase and, with a great roar, the church crumbles. Heath races into the street. All around him, buildings are collapsing. Port Royal is a city built on foundations of sand: sand which liquifies with each intensifying shock. Heath watches in horror as "the earth open[s] and swallow[s] a multitude of people." The entire western third of the city slides into the water.

And then the sea comes for the rest of Port Royal.

As the last of three great shocks eases, an enormous wave sweeps through the city, sending ships into the streets and washing away forts.

Heath abandons all hope of escape and makes for his house so he might "meet death in as good a posture as [he can]." Against all odds, he makes it home. The quake has eased. The sea retreated. And the rector's home is unscathed. Around him, houses lie in ruins, others are submerged like wrecked ships. But as Heath climbs upstairs, he sees not a thing disturbed. Even the pictures have remained on the walls.

Desperate voices call to their rector from the street, begging him to join them in prayer. Heath goes out into the sweltering heat and sits with his repentant, desperate charges. But as night falls, old Port Royal returns. Resident William Reide watches in disbelief as men cram the remaining taverns and return to "their old trade or drinking, swearing and whoring. Indeed," says Reide, "this place has been one of the ludest in the Christian world- a sink of all filthiness..."

It's June 7, 2017, three hundred and twenty-five years since an earthquake and tsunami sent Port Royal to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. The sunken city is still intact, its streets and buildings just visible in 40 feet of cloudy water. And if you ask certain fishermen in tiny, present day Port Royal, they'll tell you that when the sea gets rough, you'll hear the eerie sound of church bells ringing beneath the waves.

Read more about Port Royal and its demise in my historical novel The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Available now from Endeavour Press.

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