Port Royal, Jamaica — Overview


Jacques Nicolas Bellin, 1703-1772.
Carte de l’isle de la Jamaïque.
Paris, 1758.
21 x 32 cm.
Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 2006-220-1.

Port Royal is located on the peninsula in the southeast of the island.

From the ‘wickedest city on earth’ to a thriving commercial centre of the New World, Port Royal, Jamaica, has been the subject of much popular interest. While the image of a decadent and lavish city bears some truth, it obscures a more complex history of English colonization and the African slave trade, of skilled craftsmen as well as crafty men, of formidable forts and awesome gunships, of urban devastation and preservation—all of which is part of the story of a town whose sleepy present belies its past of excitement and intrigue.

Following England’s conquest of Jamaica from Spain in 1655, Port Royal developed into a major city of the English Americas, comparable in size to Boston. Fuelled by pirate raids on Spanish galleons and ports and a growing plantation economy based on the enslavement of Africans, the city flourished with a wealth of fashionable imported goods and a plenitude of local pewterers, silversmiths, blacksmiths, shipwrights and other tradesmen. This prosperity and glitter suddenly ended on June 7, 1692, when a massive earthquake swept two thirds of the city under the ocean. Port Royal, however, soon re-emerged as a naval base that lasted for two centuries under the command of such celebrated British officers as Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson.

comb case

Tortoiseshell comb case. 1689.
18.3 x 11.2 cm.
Institute of Jamaica, 2006.1.76 (R).

The engraving on this case is an early version of the Jamaican coat of arms: a Native American couple supporting a shield with a cross of pineapples, below a regal helmet and a crocodile.

Today, Port Royal lives on as a small maritime community and a heritage site of worldwide significance. Artefacts recovered through underwater and terrestrial archaeology form the basis of this exhibition, with additional perspectives provided by rare maps and prints and documentary photographs. Together, this material reveals Port Royal’s prominence in the history of the Atlantic world.


Francis Cary, 1756-1836.
View of Port Royal and Kingston Harbour in the island of Jamaica. European Magazine, 1782.
21 x 26 cm.
Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 2004-332-1.

Port Royal is in the foreground, while Kingston is on the far side of the harbour.

bust of NelsonBust of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. 1937.
28.3 x 13.7 cm.
Institute of Jamaica, 2006.1.72 (R).

This bust, commissioned by the British Sailors’ Society of Kingston, is made with copper and oak from HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).

pewter flacon

Pewter flagon. 17th century.
33.0 x 27.5 cm.
Institute of Jamaica, 1998/0502.

Pewter, a lightweight alloy of tin and lead, was the material of choice for tableware during the 17th century.

Next: Maritime Trade and Piracy

© 2007 Historical Museum of Southern Florida and the Institute of Jamaica. All rights reserved.