Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Songs Pirates Sang


Over and over I come back to the music that pirates in the Golden Age would have heard and sung. So much music has come and gone since 1715 that it’s hard for us to get a handle on what music was like back then.

We tend to concentrate on sea shanties, but most of the shanties we know are products of the 18th century. I believe that the influx of sailors of African origin into European shipping changed sea-songs permanently. Shanties, I think, were influenced strongly by the African tradition of call-and response song structure. (I also believe that this African structure strongly influenced the creation of the military “jody” or call-and-response marching cadence. But that’s a discussion for another time.”)

Music was everywhere in the early 1700’s. People did not wait until they were “professional quality” before singing or playing and instrument in public. Anyone who Often could scrape a song out on a fiddle or toot a horn would do so. People sang while they worked. People danced when they were happy.

Often songs educated their listeners. In the absence of history classes, the ballads about Robin Hood provided a glimpse of English history. We know they inspired Sam Bellamy and his crews.

So here are a few 17th century songs. (I don’t note 18th century songs, since so many of them date from long after the Age of Pirates.)

My favorite of the old songs remains “The Fair Maid of Amsterdam” also called “A-Rovin’.” This is a Really Old Song. The earlies records of it come from 1608, and it was not a new song then. This means that it was a song sung not only by Blackbeard, but by Avery, and even by Sir Frances Drake, king of the Elizabethan Sea Dogs. And yet we can listen to it easily, with no more than the click of a button.

The Fair Maid of Amsterdam

Next, I’m going to share a slightly more recent song. Many English ballads were collected by Francis James Child during the second half of the 19th century. Their lyrics and Child's studies of them were published as the 2,500-page book called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The tunes of most of the ballads were collected and published by Bertrand Harris Bronson in and around the 1960s.

Scholarly work like this has enabled us to enjoy these old songs. I am sharing a popular Robin Hood ballad from about 1640. If you enjoy it, other songs from the Child Ballads are available on YouTube.

Robin Hood Meets Little John

And our last song is younger yet. “Over the Hills and Far Away” goes back far enough that we aren’t sure of its origins, but this version was produced for a play in 1706, right in the middle of our time period. I also like the sentiment, one of running away from cares and seeking adventure. (OK, maybe I don’t believe in dumping spouses and children. But  

Our 'prentice Tom may now refuse
To wipe his scoundrel master's shoes

Sounds like the road to piracy, and all in a good cause.

Over the Hills and Far Away

There you go. A bit of research will lead you to yet more songs and ballads... The search gets easier every day.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Port Washington Family Pirate Daze


        
I’ve been going to the Port Washington Pirate Festival since its inception. It was my first ever Pirate event, and has done a lot to shape my ideas of what pirate events look like.  It has also shaped my performing career as a pirate storyteller. When the fest went on hiatus for several years, I was dejected. But now that it’s back, I continue to build my performance credentials.

This year in addition to being booked as an on-stage performer, I brought my tent for True Pyarte Tales, ready to story-tell all day, in between my scheduled performances. As usual, I had copies of my books to sell. However, setting up on Friday during 18mph wind gusts was quite the challenge!

I have an Easy-Up style tent, which I have modified by creating a linen canvas top and muslin sidewalls. (Yes, I know, an Easy-Up is hardly 18th century, but I’m doing the best I can.)  Setting this baby up in my backyard takes all of 15 minutes, even with the additional sidewalls, which attach with ties, and the linen top, which has to be layered on top of the nylon cover the tent came with. . But with high winds off Lake Michigan, this process suddenly turned into a 2-hour ordeal.  

Setup begins by carrying the collapsed tent to its proper location, setting it on its feet, pulling on the corners until it expands to full diameter, then locking the corners in place and raising the legs to their full height. It took nearly an hour to confirm our location in Rotary Park, a spit of land jutting into harbor, and winds were steadily rising.

My friend Jeff and I had dressed for the weather –chilly- but the rising winds were grabbing at our equipment, blowing hats and table covers all over. Before anything else happened, the tent had to go up. Our problem was that the top of an Easy-Up looks a lot like a parachute. Today it was acting like one.

As soon as one of us let go of a tent-side, it wanted to lift up into the air. Positioning the tent was crucial. Other educational presenters would be nearby and needed their space.  When the tent was finally in position, I let go and ran to our wagon to fetch the stakes and hammer.

A huge gust of wind roared by and suddenly the entire tent was in the air, headed toward the harbor. Only my first-mate Jeff, frantically holding on to one leg and a corner of the top, preventing it from leaving us all together! Good thing Jeff had a big lunch. If not, he might have been carried away like Dorothy, to the Land of Oz.

When the gust passed, I ran in with the equipment and showed him how to drive in the stakes. (Jeff’s a great guy, but definitely a city boy.) Four twelve-inch iron tent stakes eventually attached the structure to the ground, but with every gust, the aluminum tent poles bent until lit looked like they would snap. Fortunately, I was prepared.  We added 3 additional tie down ropes, with stakes, one in the middle of each side (except the front.)  Each side panel needed to be attached individually, a nightmare process, as knots untied themselves and the large pieces of fabric tried over and over to escape.

When we had finished, things still looked dicey. The sides billowed like sails in a storm. The linen top really wanted to head out on its own. Standing inside the tent felt almost as stressful as running around out in the gusts. We needed more rope to control all the whipping fabric.

We had an additional coil, but it had been intended as piratical decoration. We had no way to cut it. Then I remembered! A dear friend, a woodworker and member of my writing group, had sharpened my sword, turning it into a real weapon. I pulled out the blade and began cutting rope into usable pieces. We roped down the sides, tied them to the tent stakes, and passed a long section over the top of the tent to hold down the errant linen cover.

The time for my first storytelling presentation came, and I dashed off to do that. High winds prevented putting up my sign, but my new sound system worked well, and people seemed to enjoy my tales. Afterward we made one more trip to the tent, but it was useless to do anything further to prevent disaster.

The next morning, the linen top had disappeared. We found it hanging down the back of the tent, still secured by a single piece of rope. As we were trying to drag it back into position, Jeff told me, “I’m so often impressed by your commitment to realism. But now I want Velcro. Lots and lots of Velcro.”

Velcro would have been a very good thing.

That day, Saturday, was quiet. Apart from feeling odd whenever I left the tent – I was actually missing the moving walls- life was pretty good. I did my shows, and had a chance to check out some of the other performers and the Thieves’ Market.  Did a little shopping.

And then Jeff tells me that the next day will have thirty mile an hour winds.

We packed up that night, put the tent in the car, and with the organizer’s blessing, moved my table, signage and books into the vendor’s tent. The people who had put their tent next to us spent most of Sunday just keeping it from blowing away. As for us, we lived. I made my last show at 5:00 Sunday, and we went home. I can’t say it was really fun, but it was an adventure, and now I can write with authority about wind.





Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Pirate Empire Presents: Fun With Flags.

I was attending Port Washington Family Pirate Daze in Wisconsin over the weekend, and saw a flag I didn’t recognize, It was this one:




It’s the Royal Standard of the Sovereign  of the United Kingdom – the Official standard (officially a war-banner) used by Queen Elizabeth II and all British rulers since 1837. It flies over whatever home, castle, ship or limo they happen to be in. The date a little late (ok, a lot late) for our time period, but it got the thinking about how various flags have changed over the years.

This one features (twice) the three royal lions of England, the single royal lion of Scotland, and the harp of Ireland. (When in Scotland, the flag is changed to this one, with two Scottish lions. Apparently, the Scots are very persistent in getting what they want.  



This is the earliest flag of England – a red cross on a white field. It is the Cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, and has been in use since the Middle Ages, when England, like almost all or Europe, was a catholic country.




The so-called Union Jack, which became the national flag of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland and Wales) in 1707, had been used as a flag by the Royal Navy since 1606, and was therefore the flag that most pirates in the Caribbean would have been familiar with. The fact that it began as a sea-flag also explains why it is commonly called a “jack.” At seam the “ack” was a flag flown from the front of a ship on a short pole called a jackstaff. It is said that both jack and jackstaff relate to the name of James I, king of England in whose reign (1603–1625) the flag was designed.


Like the previous flag, Scotland had to be special, and had a versions of the flag where the white saltire went over the red cross.

 

France, a country with a long Catholic history, has long had the fleurs-de-lis



as its symbol, since the flower is a symbol of several Catholic saints. Since the days of Joan of Arc, French national heroine, the color white has been associated with the royal house of France. During the Golden Age, the French national flag was a white field strewn with many gold fleurs-de-lis. The naval flag of France, however, was a plain white flag, signifying purity of purpose.


‘The fact that a white flag also represents surrender or a pause for parlay was probably a source of amusement among the English.  



The Dutch flag has been a similar design since the Middle Ages, Originally the red stripe was orange, in honor of William of Orange. But orange was not a traditional heraldic color for flags, and was hard to decide on a shade. In 1630 the orange was officially changed to red.



The flag of Portugal, like the flag of France, was mostly white. The basic flag design was a crown over a shield that bore the country’s coat-of-arms. It was refurbished occasionally to reflect fashion trends in both. Peter II who became king in  in 1667, he adapted the crown by transforming it into a five-arched crown. It was refurbished again by Peter's son John V, in 1707.

A red beret was then added under the crown and the shield was given a new shape. This flag then survived into the mid-1800’s.



The Spanish, ever the conservatives, were late to come to the concept of a national flag. Ships flew the flag of the saint who was assigned the task of guarding the ship, and sometimes a regional flag. In the late Middle Ages, ships were encouraged to fly the cross of burgundy, but it could be embroidered on either a yellow or white background.

The flag below, which is mostly Spain’s coat of arms, was officially adopted in 1701 and flew until 1760 so most pirates would have recognized it.



So that’s it, the basic flags that Golden Age pirate would have seen and recognized. Sometime soon, we’ll have to take a closer look at the time period between 1701 and 1715. A lot was happening, and much of it affected pirates.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Where Have I Been? Looking for Treasure (Island)

Sorry for the long hiatus. Sometimes, in spite of a firm commitment to piracy, the World just gets in the way.

What have I been up to? Well, in addition to my house flooding with sewage (amazing how much creativity a thing like that takes out of you) I’ve been working on my latest book: Treasure Island Explained. And getting ready to Port Washington Pirate Daze (formerly the Port Washington Pirate Fest.)

Image result for port washington pirate Daze

The book:

I’ve read Treasure Island several times, and have been on a years’ long quest to see as many different movie versions as possible. Four or five years ago, I refreshed my direct knowledge of the novel by listening to on CD over several days during my morning commute.

A good reader can add a lot to the listener’s understanding of a book, and after a week or so of commuter-listening, I felt that I had a good, deep grasp of what Robert Lewis Stevenson was trying to say. But I was also aware of just how hard some of the vocabulary is.

I’ve been reading about pirates, and ships, for over ten years, and I’ve been reading history for thirty. In addition, I have the skill of picking up vocabulary in context. I’m not sure this is taught in schools anymore. But between old-fashioned words, pirate slang, and poor grammar, accurately recorded, there was ample opportunity for some people to struggle with this book.



For a long time, I had a desire to create an annotated version. All the words or concepts that folks might not “get” would be explained in sidebars. The book would be more readable to all the people who might enjoy it.

Image result for pirate vocabulary

One problem stood in my way – no digital copy of the book’s contents that could be converted to Word.. Sure, I could have typed it all out from one of my several hard copies. But if you folks haven’t noticed yet, I’m not an especially good typist.

Finally, a friend with better computer skills helped me out. (Hi, Katherine!)  At last, the annotated Treasure Island could become a reality.

Looking up words, reading up on the English Justice System, and generally keeping my nose to the grindstone to make this edition happen has taken an incredible amount of time. The job became consuming. How do you fire one of those old pistols? What are the parts of the ship? And what about the song, “Yo ho ho and a Bottle of Rum?” So many things needed to be included. I lost sleep, unable to go to bed with the project incomplete.

Then there was the proof-reading, the beta reader, (Hi, Jeff!) the re-proof reading, the formatting issues and the search for cover artwork. Finally, though a book emerged that I could be proud of. It went out to the printer, and copies are now availableon Amazon.



Along the way, I read Robert Lewis Stevenson’s masterpiece more closely than ever before. Even on the surface, it’s a great read, exciting and engrossing. But reading closely, it’s possible to see some wonderful inside jokes that aren’t immediately apparent. In one instance, Long Joh Silver askes another pirate a question about the sails, and by the time all the words are defined and the purpose of the objects in question are known, Silver has just asked “Are you some kind of blockhead?”

Stevenson also follows the tradition of characters saying “the deuce” to avoid naming the devil. But Long John Silver freely says ‘to the devil with you. ” Instead, he avoids saying the name of God, in its place referring to “The Powers.”

It’s also interesting to compare the book to the movies. In the novel, Dr. Livesey is quite hard on Jim for having run off to spy on the pirates. Never mind that Jim is only about 13 years old, and he had the best intentions. In spite of saving them all, Jim has to face some hard words from his companions. Most movies leave that out, but it says a lot about what was expected of “Englishmen” back in the day.

One thing that the movies and the book have in common. At the end, Long John Silver is still at large. This, I think, is the thing that makes the book a classic. We can still dream of running off with the famous pirate.



Treasure Island has defined the image of pirates for generations. If you haven’t read the book, you should. Check out a copy from your local library, or maybe pick up a copy of Treasure Island Explained. You’ll be glad you did.  


Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Pirate Nests

The image of a pirate haunt – or pirate nest, as they were sometimes called by royal authorities and customs officials, calls up images of violence, debauchery and decay. After all, who would let pirates wander freely around their town, among their wives and children?

Well, as it turns out, a lot of people would. Pirate “nests” included Charleston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Newport, and Boston. These were towns where a pirate ship could go through the charade of stowing the Jolly Roger, breaking out a more acceptable flag, and sailing grandly into port.

Philadelphia, Pirate Nest. 

 Then, with a wink and a nod, the ne’r do wells would go about selling wares of dubious origin. If questions were asked, the answer might be that the goods “Had been retrieved from a ship that was taking on water, and needed to lighten her load.” This, they claimed, explained the lack of manifests, bills of sale, or known port of origin.

But questions were seldom asked. When good are being sold at half, perhaps a third, of their actual value, why ask? Everyone knew the sellers were pirates, after all. And those that played along made a handsome profit.

Boston Harbor

 In the late 1600’s goods were coming from all over the world. Pirates, who had been robbing the Spanish for over a century, were also taking silks, velvets, gold and ivory from the Moghul Empire in India. Many pirates of the time used the island of Madagascar as a base of operations, but they needed civilization to fence their goods. So when it was time to settle down, they went to English colonies in North America.

Most Englishmen were okay with robbing this guy

 Goods purloined from merchant ships helped to build the New World. Dealing with pirates helped the British colonies feel – and be – independent of the Crown. Here, far from “the law” fortunes could be made. All you had to do was to not look too closely at who you were dealing with.

When the better-prepared pirates wanted to leave the life, they might settle down in such a place. The Governor Eden of North Carolina issued the King’s pardon to Blackbeard, then helped him to set up a suitable house. Local rumors said that the newly pardoned pirate married a local girl – though there is no proof.

The man who signed Blackbeard's pardon/ 

 But many respectable merchants were fathers-in-law to retired pirates. Money mattered more than family in the new world, and when a dashing, rakish young man showed up with plenty of money and a history of dealing with the locals, it was natural that young women would be interested, and their fathers accepting.

When pirates bought property, and married into prominent local families, it was natural that communities would rally around a pirate who was under attack or suspicion from the authorities.

Jailbreaks and riots organized in support of alleged pirates happened throughout the British Empire during the late seventeenth century. Local political leaders openly protected men who committed acts of piracy against powers that were nominally allied or at peace with England. In large part, these leaders were protecting their own hides: Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of the instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

Riot in progress!

 One example of a pirate protected by his community was a former pirate named Moses Butterworth, who in 1701, was languishing in a Middletown, New Jersey jail, accused of piracy. Butterworth had already confessed to sailing with the notorious Captain Kid.

Governor Andrew Hamilton and his entourage rushed to Monmouth County Court to try Butterworth for his crimes.

But Samuel Willet, a community leader, sent a drummer to sound the alarm. Thomas Johnson gathered a company of men who, armed with guns and clubs, attacked the courthouse. A contemporary estimated the crowd at over a hundred East Jersey residents. The noise of shouting men, along with the “Drum beating,” made it impossible to speak to Butterworth. No one was able to ask him about his financial and social relationships with the local gentry.

After a scuffle in which two townsfolk were injured, the so-called pirate was freed and the Governor, a sheriff and judge were locked up in his place. When the judge and his people were finally released they confessed that they had feared for their lives.

Governor Andrew Hamilton

 The townspeople believed that they were protecting their own freedom to deal with whomever they pleased. But these people were protecting their own hides as well.  Colonists wanted to prevent depositions proving that they had harbored pirates or purchased their goods. Some of these instigators were fathers-in-law of pirates.

But these otherwise upstanding members of the community rebelled in support of sea marauders. Many colonists were afraid that crack-downs on piracy hid darker intentions to strengthen royal authority, or perhaps set up admiralty courts (which operated without juries,) or even force free-thinking colonials to join the Anglican Church.

So protecting pirates was a social, economic and political statement.



Tuesday, January 23, 2018

William Hogarth – a Picture of Pirate Times

Much as we would like to know what pirates really, really looked like, there is little pictorial evidence available. No cameras existed at the time, and people with the talent to make accurate pictures did not hang out with pirates – or if they did (many sailors, after all, have proved talented artists) their work has been lost to time.

Most artwork was paid for by the rich and powerful – people who wanted beautiful paintings of their friends or themselves, or of lovely landscapes. Pirates, or the poor, the downtrodden, or the often homeless or hungry people who became pirates, were not things people necessary wanted pictures of.



A woodcut of Jack Rackham
Not as detailed as an engraving
 
But one man – William Hogarth, an engraver with an eye for the humor and a love of the street life of London – has given us a wonderful group of works that portray what the early lives of pirates might have been.

Self-portrait of Hogarth
Using engraving 

Hogarth came from the lowest rank of the middle class. He was apprenticed in his early teens to an engraver. This was an up-and-coming art form, which catered to the less affluent of London’s citizens.

Engraving was one of the early forms of reproducing artwork. It involved etching an image into a metal plate. When ink was rubbed across the plate, it remained in the etched lines and came off the smooth metal surface. Such a plate could be used to make hundreds of images. The technique was also made an image that was much more subtle and detailed than the method of carving a picture into wood, which had come before it.

The Idle Prentice in a gaming den

Hogarth worked in a shop that created what were called Trade Cards. These earliest versions of business cards were commissioned by shop owners to promote their businesses. The cards showed pictures – the business, or some image representing it – a sheep for a wool merchant, cupids for someone who sold perfume, and so on.



The cards quickly became popular as an end to themselves (they would later be called Trading Cards) and the business of engraving pictures for them created a new art form.
Hogarth was so good at his craft that he was a self-employed engraver by the age of 23, and at 27 was  to create a painting. The client initially rejected the painting, saying Hogarth was “an engraver, and no painter” but he successfully sued and won the money promised in the contract.

The South Sea bubble - colorized.

After this, Hogarth began creating large-sized engravings suitable for framing. He favored satire – in other words, humor with a message. His first work was a comedy about the so-called “South Sea Bubble.” This was a stock-issuing company that was supposed to explore the Pacific Ocean. Instead, it did little beside sell stock, in a Bernie Madoff-style pyramid scheme. Thousands of Londoners lost fortunes, even as others clamored to get in on the action.

The Enraged Musician

After that, he created more works. Some were paintings of the well-to-do. But he increasingly leaned toward images of London itself, with its drunks, prostitutes, madmen and street children. One work, “The Enraged Musician,” is visual image of the sounds of the city. While a well-to-do violinist tries to practice his craft, he is enveloped by street noises. A milkmaid calls her wares, a coachman blows his horn, a knife sharpener works his grindstone, a homeless woman with a baby sings in hopes of earning a few coins. These were probably the sounds Sam Bellamy heard as a boy.

The Distressed Poet

Many of Hogarth’s engravings illustrate the homes of the very poor. “The Distressed Poet” shows a would-be writer living in a garret with a foodless pantry and a bill collector at the door. In “The Harlot’s Progress,” a series of six prints, we see a young woman’s seduction into prostitution, and her slow downfall to abject poverty and death. Of special note is the third image, which shows her at home in a common small apartment. The picture is so detailed that we can make out the kinds of cheap artworks the harlot has pasted to her wall – a picture of a famous outlaw, and some trading cards, it looks like.

From "The Harlot's Progress"


The series, “Industry and Idleness” shows the progress of two young men, one who obeys the status quo and rises through London society, the other who is put off by the dull work required of him as an apprentice and falls into bad company while looking for fun.

Tom Idle goes to sea

As “Tom Idle” falls through the ranks of society, he chooses to go to sea. This indicates the low social status of sailors, and also shows us exactly what seamen were wearing in 1747. Later we see him in the room of a prostitute (which probably hadn’t changed much in the last 30 years) and in a rowdy, lower-class drinking house. Both settings suggest that “Tom” might have been engaging in a little piracy during his travels. (Watches in the hands of the lower classes – see the prostitute looking at the dangling watch –  was usually a visual shorthand indicting theft. A poor person couldn’t afford and wouldn’t need a watch.)

In a garret room with his whore

The industries apprentice also offers some interesting details. One image shows the morning after his marriage to his boss’s daughter. While the industrious apprentice – now an apprentice no more – hands out coins to people who have come to beg outside his window, a servant scrapes leftovers into the apron of a poor woman, who seems mighty pleased to have them.

Notice the woman by the door receiving table scraps. 


A certain level of poverty there folks. When the leavings off someone’s plate is a treat.
Lastly we will look at the twin pictures “Beer Street and Gin Lane.” These imaginary streets show the difference between the best side of the English lower classes – the idealized beer drinkers, and the kind of poverty caused by people trying to drown their sorrows in gin.

Gin Lane

Gin was a new drink in England, and because it was strong and cheap it was causing social problems. On “Gin Lane” people pawn their tools and household goods to buy liquor (the three balls over the door signal a pawnshop.) We see people starving, fighting with dogs for bones, abandoning their children, and dying young, as buildings collapse form neglect.

Beer Street


On the more idealized Beer Street, everyone seems happy and healthy. (It is interesting to note that British beer is so nutritious that even today, British alcoholics do not suffer the same malnutrition as American ones.) It may be interesting to note the couple “making out” in the street, as well as the ragged condition of the artist painting an advertisement for gin.

A single blog can't even begin to scratch the surface of these engravings. I strongly urge you to look at some of them yourself. In a world with Google Images it's easy to see his work. Look, and look deep - there's a three hundred year old world in there. 
 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Port Royal Earthquake

So many things about Pirates are uncertain. Even the dates of the Golden Age of Piracy are open to debate. Some people say that the era ended with the hanging of Jack Rackham in 1720. Others note the hanging of William Fly in 1725. And yet others claim that the Golden Age went on into the 1740’s – or beyond.



But the Age of the Buccaneers – now that has a definite end point. A very specific end point. The era of piracy ended at 11:43, on June 7, 1692.

This time and date mark the Great Jamaica Earthquake of 1692.
Jamaica had been captured buy the English in 1655. Though initially laid low by unfriendly natives and tropical diseases, the English (Among whom was a very young Henry Morgan) held the territory. 

The Spanish had not considered the island valuable, since it had no reserves of gold or silver. But for the piratical English, it was a toehold in the New World.

In short order, the city of Port Royal was the busiest – and the wickedest – place in the New World. 
Pirates and whores rubbed shoulders with prosperous merchants and King’s officers, rum flowed like water, and the party never stopped.



Almost at once, ministers told their parishioners that God did not like what went on in the wicked city, and that his wrath was sure to strike down the pirates. But nobody listened. They were too busy making money and spending it.

What they should have been paying attention to was the mysterious shaking that troubled the island. No one knew what caused it. Theories ranged from underground wind storms that battered the land to tempests in an underground ocean. Today we know that Jamaica lies at the boundary of the Caribbean tectonic plate with the Gonave microplate. The area is not geologically stable, and earth tremors happened monthly.

The Spanish, when they had held the island, had built low-slung houses, supported by wooden pillars sunk deep into the earth. The English however – celebrating piratical loot that was making the town wealthy, chose to replicate the brick-and-stone architectural style of their homeland. Some stone structures were three stories high, built on volcanic sand.

The day of Saturday, June 7th was hot and still – what is now called “earthquake weather.” The ships in the harbor had been becalmed for weeks, and lack of wind had brought trade to a standstill. The rich men of the town may have gone to church – the local minister read prayers every day, in attempt to save the souls of his extremely wayward flock – and the merchant’s wives were mostly in bed, suffering from nervous stress and headaches – further signs that something was not right, if anyone had realized.



When the quake came (an estimated 10 on the Mercer scale) the first sign was a wave that towered over the 3-story fort at the mouth of the harbor. The ground shook, then shook again so strongly that the town’s stone buildings collapsed. Survivors spoke of the ground moving exactly like waves on the sea.

At the same time, sea water rose up under the sand, causing both buildings and people to sink into what had become quicksand. Movement of the tectonic plates and shifting of the waves caused people to be swept away as if they were adrift in a storm. One gentleman was sure he was going to perish, but saw the upper part of a house surging past. He caught onto the roof and was saved.



Other weren’t so lucky. The mixture of sand and water dragged them down, and they were never seen again. Geysers also shot up unexpectedly, catching other people and throwing them a hundred feet in the air. At least one man was dragged down into the sand, and into an underground river of salt water that had not been there five minutes before. Then a geyser lifted him into the light again. He later named this as the moment he “found God.”

Some people were only partially engulfed, and screamed as they lay trapped, knee deep, hip deep or waist deep in sand. Some were sucked down until only their heads were clear, and remained there until they suffocated, or were eaten by wild dogs.



The scene was absolute chaos. There were no police, no firefighters. Most of the militia had been one of the three forts, which had either collapsed or been engulfed in water.

The next tremor caused turmoil in the harbor. Ships tore from their moorings and smashed to pieces, which surged into the town further damaging buildings and beating people to mush. One three-master was lifted up, carried over the ruins, and deposited on top of a house, several hundred yards inland.



And the tomb Sir Henry Morgan, pirate, privateer, Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica and Knight of the Realm was ripped open, the lead-lined coffin carried out to sea.

Almost at once, looters began to do their work. The stone buildings – almost universally homes to the rich merchants and government officials, had been utterly destroyed, but the humble huts used by escaped salves, natives, prostitutes, and pirates had scarcely been touched. The pirates stripped gold, silver and jewels from the hands of the dead, raided the collapsed warehouses to steal trade goods like tobacco and luxury item like silk, and waded into the ruins of taverns to see if any rum casks remained intact.



That night a wild party broke out, a reminder of Port Royal’s halcyon days, when Morgen’s fleet was in town, and the man himself was buying rounds and matching his followers drink for drink.

In the morning there would be cholera, profiteering on water supplies, and a continuation of the screams of the wounded. One third of Port Royal had sunk into the sea. One half of her population was dead, or would die in the next few days.

Preachers used the disaster as a warning against the supposed sins of the city. Drunkenness, theft, and lust, they said, had angered God and caused the disaster. But no one ever mentioned the rich merchants (whose measuring scales, excavated from the ruins, were proven to be tampered with, giving a greater profit to these merchants) and the slave-holding aristocrats who  beat, tortured, raped of killed their “property.” 

These men were well on their way to creating a slave culture that would go on in the Caribbean for over two hundred years. But it was easier to blame the pirates, who did not live by the tenants of "polite society" A clean coat and weekly attendance at church covered a multitude of sins.

As it still does.