Port Royal, Tortuga ~ these are names that fire the imagination with visions of rowdy pirates and bawdy ladies, and swashbuckling sea-farers who ruled the blue waters of the Caribbean. Today both places are little more than memory and a hunting ground for archaeologists and the occasional tourist. Here is a brief telling of their history.


White settlement of Jamaica almost seems by accident. In 1654 Oliver Cromwell thought to claim the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) and sent Admiral Penn and General Venables with an invasion force. However, the Spanish were there first and in May 1655 they spanked the English fleet soundly and sent them skedaddling. Prefering not to go home in defeat, Penn and Venables turned southwest to the poorly-defended island of Jamaica, which they were able to seize and present to Cromwell as proof they really could conquer something. Soon after a fort was built at the end of a spit of land below modern-day Kingston, and named Fort Cromwell, around which the small settlement of Point Cagway sprang up. In 1660 Charles II was restored to the monarchy of England, whereupon the town was renamed ... Port Royal. The fort was rechristened Fort Charles.

Since the fort and the town commanded a large and well-protected harbor, with deep water close to shore, Port Royal swiftly assumed great prominence and importance as a trading center for the entire region. As the population grew it became a very wealthy town owing to its sea trade. Sources say there were over 2000 buildings crowded together, some made of brick and up to four storeys tall. Port Royal also soon owned a wicked reputation for the pirates and privateers who frequented its harbor.

For a number of years privateering was a legitimate business, captains of privately-owned warships holding letters of marque which permitted them to take ships flying enemy flags. Their cargos and the vessels themselves could be seized and sold for a considerable profit. However, in 1684 France, Spain and England signed the Treaty of Ratisbone, which agreed to a ceassation of hostilities in the West Indies. Legal privateering was no more. However, many captains and crews did not wish to so easily give up their ventures, and piracy continued on the blue waters of the Caribbean.

Port Royal meanwhile continued as a thriving harbor town, the most wealthy in the Caribbean and a proud example of colonialism at its most profitable. The governor of Jamaica made his residence there, hundreds of ships came and went, and large sugar plantations sprang up across the island. Fate, however, would not let this prosperity continue. On June 7, 1692 shortly before noon the earth ... moved. A massive earthquake rocked the island and Port Royal, out there on the end of its spit of land, was decimated in a matter of moments. Over half the town simply collapsed and disappeared, sinking into Kingston Harbor as the sandy ground liquified beneath it. Over 2000 people were killed instantly, with two or three thousand more to die of injuries, illness and aftershocks. The queen city of the Caribbean was shattered.

Nonetheless, Port Royal tried to rally and rebuild. However, in 1705 a fire swept the town, and in years to follow storms and more quakes finished what was left. By 1722 Port Royal as she once was stood no more. Today it is simply a tiny, isolated fishing village, with little to remind a visitor of its glory days as a haven for swashbuckling pirates and bucanneers.



Tortuga was initially founded by the French in 1625, who realized Hispaniola was awfully thick with Spaniards and so turned their attentions to the large island just northward. There the French and some English with them began setting up plantations and making themselves at home. However, the Spaniards and their new neighbors took periodic swats at each other and control of the island switched back and forth a few times. Most of the English on Tortuga decided to move elsewhere, but a few remained to form their own small colony. For a time the French and English on Tortuga both had their own colonies and governors, and managed an uneasy co-existance.

It was the French who first encouraged privateers to use Tortuga as their base, in large part as a deterent to Spanish incursions. By 1633 Tortuga is a haven for the wolves of the sea. Tortuga comes under attack by the Spanish several times over the years, the struggle for control bloody and fierce. By 1641 the English colonists on Tortuga were expelled by the French - but this did not curtail English pirates or privateers, who continued to ply their trade with their French and Dutch brethren, and Tortuga's uproarious career likewise continued. In 1653 the French governor was assassinated, whereupon the Spanish instantly pounced on his predecessor, and when the smoke cleared the English returned to hold the island from 1655-59. But once again the balance of power changed to French hands.

About 1665 the governor of Tortuga wished to somewhat civilize his piratical folk, and did his best to encourage proper colonization and trade of their hard-won goods. He met with dubious success, but the island continued to be the playground of the Brotherhood of the Coast. By 1670 a great many privateers sailed under commisions granted by the governor of Tortuga, not the least being the infamous Henry Morgan, who led his fleet to attack Santa Marta, Rio de la Hacha, Puerto Bello and Panama.

The death of the privateers came in the 1680's, when English laws made it a felony to sail under a foreign flag. Thereafter if any Englishman was found privateering under any flag other than his own - and after the 1684 Treaty of Ratisbone England no longer issued letters of marque - he would be hanged. In 1688 Henry Morgan died in Jamaica, and the glory days of the privateers was over.

Today Tortuga Island is home to some 30,000 Haitians, quiet, poor and holding only an echo of its lurid past. Along its coast one may see tour boats cruising the crystal blue waters, perhaps hoping for a farway glimpse of tall sails and the flutter of a grim black flag ....

Port Royal Project ~ Home page of the historical and archaological explorations of the real Port Royal, Jamaica. (New URL)


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~ My recommendations for good Pirates fan fiction on the net.
Ship's Articles
~ Three examples of pirate ship's articles.
Nautical Notes
~ A pirate's glossary of nautical terms, slang and a few bad words. :-)
Sailing Ships
~ Confused about the difference between a brig and a bark? Here are common sailing vessels of the 1700's.
The Points of the Compass
~ The Thirty-Two Points of the Compass, illustrated.
~ Understanding Navigation, for writers and readers. The Points of Sail and Ship's Headings.
Port Royal and Tortuga
~ Come read a brief history of these famous pirate havens.
Maps of the Caribbean
~ A glimpse of where the Black Pearl sailed.

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