Tour Of The Caribbean – Port Royal As it Was

BEAUTIFUL indeed in its setting is the little sea town of Port Royal. It stands far away from the land, a speck on the deep, at the very mouth of Kingston Harbour. This may not seem to be a long way off, but then Kingston Harbour is so wide from shore to shore as to be almost an inland sea. Or rather may it be compared to the haze-environed Venetian lagoon, which it resembles in its stillness and in the curious lantern-lit posts which mark the shoal-water channel. Rowing out along that channel recalls the lazy passage from Venice to Torcello. The names of the points that the boat idles by are not so sweet-sounding perhaps, since such titles as Devil’s Cay, Hulk Hole and Gallows Point lack the graciousness of those waterways which lead to the Bridge of Sighs. The gorilla-faced negro, moreover, who grins at the oars is a sorry substitute for the gondolier.

The town in question is attached to Jamaica by a curved line of low land, some eight miles long, a mere thread of the solid earth lying in the blue sea as the sickle of a new moon swims in the sky. It is a thin crescent of malachite green edged with a rim of old gold. The green is a medley of bushes and palms, the margin of gold is a sandy beach. The palms half-way out in the lagoon are marshalled in an orderly row, like stakes in a flooded meadow, and thus it is that the far-venturing breakwater is called the Palisades.

At the very end of the curve is the little round town of Port Royal, like the eye of a peacock’s feather on the tip of a plume. So flimsy is the line of the Palisades that Port Royal, when viewed from Kingston, may be an island whose connection with the mainland has been well-nigh dissolved into the deep. Indeed, when the sun is at high noon and there is a glamour on the sea the grey walls and pointed trees that mark the spot become so unsubstantial in the blinding light that they seem to belong to the air-borne city of a mirage.

On the day of my visit there was just such a brilliant calm as Michael Scott has described, when ” the anchorage was one unbroken mirror, and the reflection of the vessel was so clear and steady that at the distance of a cable’s length you could not distinguish the water-line, nor tell where the substance ended and the shadow began, until the casual dashing of a bucket overboard for a few moments broke up the phantom ship ; but the wavering fragments soon reunited, and she again floated double.”

On the land side of the harbour is the generous green plain upon which Kingston stands, a plain rich in trees, as gentle to look at as an English water-meadow, yet undermined with treachery and despair as befits the plain of the City of Destruction. Beyond the flat are the hills, and yet farther away the imperious sweep of the Blue Mountains—gentian-blue where they meet the clouds, fustian-brown where they spurn the earth. They form the walls of that heartless amphitheatre, the stepped slopes of that Coliseum which looked down upon the arena where 40,000 human beings have just battled with Death.

Port Royal in Stuart times, when the pirates came there, was—in electrical parlance—a ” live” town. It had the credit of being the wickedest spot on earth within the knowledge of civilised men. Its reputation in this particular was unassailable. Whatever was pre-eminent in iniquity—especially in the department of riotous living—that Port Royal was the master of. The fervent missionary could have found no richer “field of work” than was presented by this unholy place. Any advocate of temperance who was eager to snatch brands from the burning would have found here luxuriant material. Cities famous for depravity are commonly described either as ” sinks of iniquity ” or as ” hot-beds of crime.” Port Royal was neither the one nor the other. Its wickedness was flamboyant, defiant and unabashed, with, it must be owned, a touch of picturesqueness about it. It covered the once dull fisher town with a blaze of scarlet, just as the tropical Bougainvillea will rollick over a homely tree, until it has hidden the prudish boughs to the very summit beneath the mantle of its crimson leaves.

This reckless settlement might have been present in the minds of the devout men who wrote the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer, since they have so precisely enumerated its particular faults and failings. It must needs have owned, for example, to a general knowledge of ” all evil and mischief,” as well as to an acquaintance with the ” crafts and assaults of the devil.” It could claim to be familiar not only with ” battle, murder and sudden death,” but also with ” plague, pestilence and famine.” It had experienced the ills of ” lightning and tempest,” and had suffered not a little from ” sedition, privy conspiracy and rebellion.” Two charges, on the other hand, it would certainly have repudiated, those, namely, of ” hypocrisy ” and ” all uncharitableness.”

Port Royal must have been a stirring spot for a number of years, and especially during the latter half of the seventeenth century. It was girt about by a wall with many a sally-port in it, while upon its point rose a grey lighthouse. It had wide quays, hereon were often to be seen piled-up bales and kegs, sacks crammed with spices and boxes full of pieces of eight, the same being guarded by mahogany-coloured men with cutlasses and with such truculent looks as would alone have daunted the very emissaries of Satan.

There were ample creeks too for careening ships and a “hard ” for the boats as handy as that at Portsmouth. Here would be drawn up craft of all kinds, whale-boats and jolly-boats, boats stolen from Spanish merchantmen, native canoas and weather-worn Plymouth wherries. Around them would be loitering listless men, lean and in rags, prisoners from the Main, who muttered together in the hated speech of Spain. They would be watched by a contented coxswain who, lying half asleep in the sun, with his back against a wall, would heave a stone at them occasionally when their jabber jarred on his reverie. Conspicuous on the outskirts of the port, and standing high upon a spit of green, was a gallows with a few festering bodies dangling from it.

Houses of all shapes and heights crowded together along the narrow streets of the town. Some were mere huts thatched with palm leaves ; others were of wood with seaward-looking balconies ; many were built of stone with turrets or bright-tiled roofs. There were churches too in the place and warehouses, a fort and the lines of a military barrack, ship-chandlers’ shops in great abundance smelling of tarred rope, and shops full of tawdry jewelry, mostly ear-rings and finger-rings, with silks and mantillas destined for lasses in Devon, together with strange birds in cages and a stuffed alligator or two.

Slaves trundling casks along the cobbled road would be brought to a stop by a hatless mariner lying full length in the path, with no sign of life in him beyond an occasional bubble of unintelligible speech that issued from his baggy lips. Now and then a string of purple-faced revellers would lurch by, arm in arm, rolling to and fro like linked beacons in a choppy sea, bellowing as they went the refrain of a ballad learnt ten years ago in England. In a by-lane might be seen a Jew haggling with a sailor over the price of a crucifix, and in a dark corner, near by, the lank corpse of a man who had died of yellow fever.

From the taverns would issue a cloud of brandy-tainted smoke and the roar of hurricane voices, blended with the clatter of tankards, the chink of money and the occasional crash of a fist falling on a table. From other houses may come the sound of a fiddle and of men dancing in heavy boots. In the shadows of the gambling shanties sailors would be throwing dice or playing at Red and White in an ominous silence. It was a silence that was apt to be broken by shouts and snarling, or even by a pistol shot, or by the noise of a man stumbling out into the daylight coughing up blood.

It was probably in the cabins of ships in the anchorage, rather than in the town, that the serious business of Port Royal was transacted. Imagine such a cabin at night about the time of the middle watch, a low, stifling cuddy with smoke-blackened beams. A sail has been drawn over the skylight as a guard against prying eyes. The room is lit by a guttering tallow candle stuck in an altar candlestick. It throws its light upon a chart on the table, over which some half-dozen men are leaning. It casts awful shadows of their mighty shoulders and of their battered hats upon the panelled walls, upon the shelves where gleam “silver-mounted pistols, upon the half-opened locker stuffed with loot and odd gear, together with the portrait of a wife at home and the withered bunch of holly she hung up in the cabin when the ship left Plymouth one Christmas Day. A cage with a parrot hangs somewhere in the gloom, for out of the dark there comes, now and then, a cheery and inconsequent shriek of profanity.

The captain, a man in a brocaded coat, is tracing a course on the chart with the point of a dagger. His neighbour follows it with a pipe-stem, but a third man, who keeps his mutilated and thumbless hand on the paper, insists on an alternative route which he indicates with the stump of his one remaining finger.

The yellow light falls on their faces, so that their features show up as luminous points in the mirk, like prominent parts of a grotesque carving, the bridge of a nose, a scarred cheek, a lined forehead with a lock of hair hanging over it, a bared throat. The eyes of the chart readers, their heavy moustaches and shaggy beards, are all lost in the mysterious shadow.

They are deep over a scheme for a raid on the Main ; they argue and wrangle in hot whispers, until the captain’s clenched fist comes down on the paper with a concluding thud. The last troubled point they decide by a throw of the dice, and then, standing up, they stretch their shoulders, shake hands solemnly, and yell up the stair for a cannikin of hot rum.

Such was Port Royal when it was shaken into ruins by the fearful earthquake of 1692, when the indignant sea rose and swept down upon it with revengeful waves, when white-crested combers bellowed along the polluted streets, broke through the tavern doors, overturned the tables of the money-changers, and swept the whole fabric of iniquity into the eddying and relentless deep.