Port Royal waiting to be embraced

Published: Sunday | September 25, 2011 Comments 0

Paul H. Williams, Gleaner Writer

Port Royal is well known for the earthquake that devastated it in June 1692; as the former haunt of Sir Henry Morgan, the most notorious of pirates who was to become governor; and as once the 'wickedest city on Earth'. For quite a while now, it has been carrying a reputation for its delectable sea-food and, as such, people flock to its fishing village mainly at night.

Though the rustic community, which sits on the tip of the long Palisadoes spit that frames Kingston Harbour, might not dazzle in the day as it does at night, it has a tremendously rich history. The town is replete with sights which are the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. It is a museum in itself. There is much to see and talk about with spots such as Fort Rocky, Louis (Lewis) Galdy's Grave, St Peter's Church, Giddy House, the Old Naval Hospital Old, the Old Naval Cemetery and Fort Charles.

Fort Charles is the oldest and best preserved of the forts in the area. Originally named Fort Cromwell after Oliver Cromwell, it was renamed in honour of King Charles II. Damaged by the 1692 earthquake, it was reconstructed in 1699 by Colonel Christian Lilly, then chief engineer of Jamaica. Not far from Fort Charles, tilting at a dizzying angle is Giddy House, which used to be the royal artillery store. Its foundation was rocked by the 1907 earthquake, thus leaving it slanting to one side.

Apart from the man made structures, the biodiversity of Port Royal is just as rich. Recently, when I visited, a flock of gulls stood on parade facing the sun in a sort of silent Sunday-morning salute in an open lot near Fort Charles. In the crystal-clear waters near the Old Naval Hospital, fish of various colours, shades and sizes are in abundance. The hospital, which once housed the Archeological Museum and Conservation and Research Centre, was made of pre-fabricated iron sections imported from England in 1819. From this two-storey structure, the Hellshire hills seem to rise directly from the sea.

The main mangrove region is as magical as they come with the small cays teeming with exotic birds and the lagoons being the breeding grounds of lobsters, oysters and other marine life. The Port Royal Marine Laboratory and Biodiversity Centre of The University of The West Indies, which is located beside the old hospital, offers guided tours through the maze of mangroves whose torpedo-like seeds dangle above the brackish water.

Earthquake memorabilia

The mystique of Port Royal though is the sunken section, which contains relics and artifacts from the 1692 earthquake. The strong tremor, aftershocks and tidal wave put much of the island, known then as Cagway, and hundreds of residents under the sea. It is a haven, I heard, for scuba divers, and is considered the most important underwater archaeological site in the Western Hemisphere.

In St Peter's Church yard is the tomb of Galdy, who, it is said, was buried alive during the quake, but was thrown into the sea by an aftershock. He escaped a watery grave when he was rescued by a boat. And speaking of graves, on the outskirt of the town, juxtaposed between lush vegetation is the Old Naval Cemetery, the resting place for many British sailors who died of yellow fever. It was built on a spot near the original cemetery where Henry Morgan was buried.

On the southern side of the strip is a long black-sand beach that glitters on sunny days. It is strewn with driftwood and assorted pebbles. Across the sky blue waters the white sands of three cays sparkle, giving them a sort of enchanting aura. Humungous cacti grow along most of the spit, and at certain section sea grapes dangle along the road. But how do you get to immerse yourself into this treasure trove of nature and heritage?

There used to be a ferry service from Victoria Pier on the Kingston waterfront. It's now a thing of the past. Access is gained mainly by private vehicles and the number 98 Jamaica Urban Transit Company bus from Parade, downtown Kingston. The bus terminates in the square near St Peter's Church. And there you are, right in the midst of historical royalty. Port Royal is where the modern mingles with the ancient. It's waiting to be rediscovered, and embraced.

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