Jamaica's Deadliest Earthquake - Port Royal 1692

In the history of natural disasters, few events are as dramatic and harrowing as the 1692 Jamaica earthquake that struck the infamous Port Royal, Jamaica, on June 7th. This seismic catastrophe not only left a trail of destruction but also contributed to the lore of this notorious city, earning it the dubious title of "one of the wickedest places on Earth."

The Time and Place:

At approximately 11:43 AM local time, the earth shook violently beneath Port Royal. The shockwaves emanated from an epicenter near the town of Port Royal, and the damage was immediate and devastating.

Port Royal: A Pirate's Haven:

Port Royal, often dubbed the "storehouse and treasury of the West Indies," was at the height of its power during this time. It served as an unofficial capital of Jamaica and was a bustling port in the Americas, boasting immense wealth and activity. Notoriously, it was also the preferred home port for pirates and privateers who prowled the Caribbean Sea.

Artwork by Ellen Harvey

The Catastrophic Impact:

The 1692 earthquake was a seismic event of significant magnitude, estimated to be between 6.5 and 6.8 on the Richter scale. The initial shock was followed by a devastating tsunami. This twin disaster resulted in the death of around 2,000 people. The aftermath was no less grim, as an additional 3,000 succumbed to injuries and disease in the following days.

Tectonic Background:

The island of Jamaica lies along the boundary between the Caribbean Plate and the Gonâve Microplate. This geological setting creates tension, leading to earthquakes. The 1692 event was thought to occur along one of the strike-slip faults in the region.

Destruction Unleashed:

The earthquake unleashed sheer devastation on Port Royal. Approximately two-thirds of the town, equivalent to about 33 acres, was swiftly swallowed by the sea. The description by Robert Renny in his "An History of Jamaica" paints a horrifying picture: "All the wharves sunk at once, and in the space of two minutes, nine-tenths of the city were covered with water, which was raised to such a height, that it entered the uppermost rooms of the few houses which were left standing."

The sandy ground liquefied during the quake, causing buildings, along with their inhabitants, to flow into the sea. Ships in the harbor were capsized, and some were carried over rooftops by the ensuing tsunami. The ground itself was reported to form waves during the main shock, with fissures repeatedly opening and closing, further compounding the tragedy.

Aftermath and End of an Era:

The earthquake led to looting, chaos, and despair, with survivors struggling to rebuild their lives. Many attributed the disaster to divine retribution for the perceived sinful ways of Port Royal. The town was partially rebuilt, but its decline had already begun. Subsequent fires and hurricanes, such as the 1703 fire and the 1722 hurricane, continued to plague the city. By the late 18th century, Port Royal had been largely abandoned, and most sea trade had shifted to Kingston.

Continued Risk:

The legacy of the 1692 Jamaica earthquake serves as a stark reminder of the region's vulnerability to seismic events. Estimates suggest that the accumulated strain could result in another significant earthquake in the future, underscoring the need for ongoing preparedness and vigilance.

In the shadow of this historic disaster, the story of Port Royal and its fateful encounter with the 1692 earthquake endures as a testament to the enduring power of nature and the indomitable spirit of those who lived through it.

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