Pirates of the Caribbean

In Life on the Mississippi (1883) Mark Twain wrote, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.” It’s every boy’s dream.

The classic era of piracy in the Caribbean extends from around 1560 to 1750. The period in which pirates were most successful was from 1700 until the 1730s. Caribbean piracy arose out of the conflicts over trade and colonization among the rival European powers of the time, including the empires of Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and France. Some of the best-known pirate bases were Tortuga established in the 1640s and Port Royal after 1655. Among the most famous Caribbean pirates were Edward Teach or “Blackbeard”, Calico Jack Rackham, Henry Morgan, and Bartholomew Roberts. Most were hunted down by the Royal Navy and killed or captured.

Port Royal was a city located at the mouth of Kingston Harbour, Jamaica. Founded in 1518, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692 and subsequent fires, hurricanes, flooding, epidemics, and then a second earthquake in 1907.

Port Royal provided a safe harbour for privateers (a private person or ship authorized by a government to attack foreign shipping during wartime) and for pirates plying the shipping lanes to and from Spain and Panama. Buccaneers liked Port Royal for several reasons: it was close to the only safe passages or straits giving access to the Spanish Main from the Atlantic and its natural harbour was large enough to accommodate their ships and provided a place to shelter and repair them. It was also ideally situated for launching raids on Spanish settlements. From Port Royal, Welsh privateer Henry Morgan attacked Panama, Portobello, and Maracaibo. Since the English lacked sufficient troops to prevent either the Spanish or the French from seizing Port Royal, the governors of Jamaica eventually turned to the pirates to defend the city.

The taverns of Port Royal were well known for the excessive amounts of alcohol consumed and not just by pirates. During one visit, Dutch explorer Jan van Riebeeck saw, “The parrots of Port Royal gather to drink from the large stocks of ale with as much alacrity as the drunks that frequent the taverns.” At the height of its popularity, the city had one drinking house for every ten residents. But, on 7 June 1692, an earthquake struck, causing most of the northern section of Port Royal to fall into the sea. In addition, the island lost many of its forts. The timing of the Port Royal earthquake is precisely known. A pocket watch stopped at 11:43 a.m. and recording the hour of the devastation was recovered from the sea-bed in the 1960s.

Port Royal featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series, though much of the location work was actually done on the island of Saint Vincent, not in Jamaica. The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the first film in the series, includes a scene in which Port Royal is attacked by the ill-assorted and undoubtedly scurvy crew of Jack Sparrow’s infamous pirate vessel.


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