When you watch the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, one of the main settings is a town called “Port Royal.” While the town in the films it completely fictionalized, it is in fact based off a very real place: Port Royal, Jamaica.
Port Royal was known as the pirate capital of the Caribbean and as the story is told, it was a town so evil, decadent and filled with sin it was literally smote by God.
Port Royal was founded in 1518 by the Spanish. After 1655 Jamaica, and thus Port Royal became an English Colony. Yet, while it became English, the English did not have enough forces to protect the town. The town turned pirates for the city defence, in exchange for a general amnesty for pirates. At its height it was the biggest city in the Caribbean. It was a thriving hub of international commerce as it was both an established city and centrally located in the Caribbean. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rise of Port Royal as a power center coincided with the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730). It is unsurprising that that city became a hub for pirates to meet, get crew and rest between voyages to sea.
There is a misconception in modern times about pirates and pirate treasure, which stems from a romantic belief in pirates burying their treasure and maps with X marks the spot. This is a result of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, Treasure Island, whose plot revolves around just such a situation. This created the pirate trope of buried treasure, one that could not be farther from the truth.
In becoming a pirate, those individuales accepted that they would be hunted down by all the nations of the world. It was inevitable that at some point they would be captured and executed because they became pirates. To be a pirate was to live in the now, and squeeze as much pleasure one could out of life before that life ended. Thus, a pirate would not waste time in burying treasure for later. Any booty acquired was to be spent and enjoyed immediately, and the place they did this more often than not was Port Royal, Jamaica.
Once in the city with their pillaged spoils, these men would go on hedonism binges. They would would purchase all the alcohol (usually rum of course) baubles and women they could find. These benders could go on for weeks, until they ran out of money, and had to go back to sea, so they could do more pillaging in order to come back and repeat the cycle all over again.
One Primary source describes Port Royal in this way:
Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that […] some of them became reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2 or 3,000 pieces of eight in one night; and one gave a strumpet 500 to see her naked.They used to buy a pipe of wine, place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.[citation]
The author of the above source is a bit coy here, as “see her naked” is actually meant to infer “and had sex with.” Another primary source, Jan van Riebeeck, noted that:
“The parrots of Port Royal gather to drink from the large stocks of ale with just as much alacrity as the drunks that frequent the taverns that serve it.”
The city was dubbed “The Sodom of the New World,” the “most wicked and sinful city in the world” and “one of the lewdest in the Christian world.” If at all interested it is well worth reading up on who spent time in Port Royal and what they did; you will come across names like Blackbeard, Captain Henry Morgan, and even the future Admiral Horatio Nelson, to name just a few.
On June 7th 1692, Port Royal was hit by a massive earthquake, destroying the majority of the city, with a large portion of it literally sliding into the sea. As a result of this earthquake more than 5000 people died. The destruction of the city was hailed by many as God’s justice, smiting down the most wicked and depraved place on earth. As this was the height of the Golden Age of Piracy, Port Royal was held up as an example for those who wanted evidence show God’s wrath upon the evils of pirates.
Interestingly, this proved to be a boon for another Jamaica city, Kingston. All the trade originally going to Port Royal was diverted to Kingston, and it quickly grew into the new central city of Jamaica, which it remains to this day.
Port Royal today is composed of two parts, a small fishing village and the underwater ruins of the city. Port Royal slid into the sea, and it is still there to visit. You can snorkel and scuba dive around the old pirate city. The underwater city is now both a tourist attraction and a boon to archaeologists trying to understand that time period, almost like an underwater Pompeii.
Below are a couple of short clips on the excavation and exploration of the sunken city of Port Royal: