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The Wickedest City Under Water

6 Comments 25 January 2011

The Wickedest City Under Water

Port Royal Jamaica, once coined as “the world’s wickedest city”, lies undisturbed and partially excavated by nautical archaeologists. The site is the only submerged city in the Western Hemisphere, a status that has immense economic and cultural implications for the Caribbean island.

Excavations at the site of Port Royal ended in 1990. Questions about this hub of the 17th century British Empire linger as remains of the notorious city stay locked beneath of the ocean’s surface. Why is Port Royal an area of interest to the world of nautical archeologists? Why aren’t they digging for cultural treasure buried in the “wickedest city of the west”?

The streets of Port Royal, Jamaica were luxurious in the late 17th century. Jamaica was a Spanish colony until the British claimed the island in 1655. Port Royal was a city of cultural and commercial exchange. The city was a commercial center of trade in African slaves, sugar, and other goods.

Port Royal was also a hot spot for cut throat pirates. In fact, contracts for sanctioned privateering were issued by the British king to loot Spanish ships that were in close proximity to the Port. Even Captain Henry Morgan himself roamed the sketchy streets of Port Royal, leaving a legacy of pirate folklore and a unique element of notoriety that was uncommon in other colonies of the New World.

The economy was flooded by the wages of a common artisan’s honest day’s pay, and revenue from under the table deals of pirates, gamblers, and tavern keepers. Women of ill repute frequented the taverns, and sailors who made a semi-honest living at sea lavishly spent their earnings on these ladies of the evening.

The Puritan morality that shaped colonies in New England was not mirrored in Port Royal. Debauchery was not a dirty word to the citizens of Port Royal. Nonetheless, the heyday of mischief and ill-gotten gain came to a cataclysmic halt on the morning of June 7, 1692 when an earthquake and tidal wave submerged the infamous city.

The disaster took 2,000 lives on impact, and 3,000 more lives were lost due to injuries and disease following the earthquake. Moreover, the catastrophic event drove history down to the depths of the sea, leaving history buffs ever so curious about the city that changed the Caribbean and the New World during its 37 years of existence.

From 1981 through 1990, the Nautical Archaeology Program of Texas A & M ,in conjunction with the Jamaica National Heritage Trust,  excavated the site of Port Royal. Eight buildings were excavated. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that only 13 percent of the city was excavated, leaving 87 percent of the historical time capsule untouched.

According to UNESCO, “the Caribbean is under-represented on the World Heritage List. Jamaica currently has only one site on its tentative list and no sites with World Heritage Status.” Deeming Port Royal a World Heritage Site requires additional excavation efforts, which is much easier said than done.

Issues such as tourism development, unregulated fishing practices, and lack of infrastructure exacerbate efforts to excavate Port Royal. A multifaceted response from the local community, government officials, developers, and nautical archaeologists is necessary to continue excavation at the site of Port Royal.

History and timeless artifacts of the world’s wickedest city are off limits to experts eager to  thread together the tumultuous times of Port Royal. The world will just have to wonder about life in this city of chaos and hedonism. Not to mention, the Western Hemisphere will be one World Heritage Site short.

If nautical archaeologists are hungry for adventure and good old fashioned treasure hunting, Port Royal is just waiting to be discovered by the rest of this relatively tame world. Experts say it is unlikely that another place on Earth compares to Port Royal. For now, legends of the city are just a short chapter in the text of a history book.

If you enjoyed this article, you should also read:

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