The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica

The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders in Seventeenth-Century Jamaica

Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 6, Number 2, Fall 2008, pp. 391-421 (Article)

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The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders in Seventeenth-

Century Jamaica

M AT T H E W M U L C A H Y L o y o l a C o l l e g e i n M a r y l a n d

abstract This article examines the great Port Royal earthquake of 1692 in the context of other earthquakes that struck Jamaica in the seven- teenth and early eighteenth centuries. It argues that although most com- mentators viewed the tremendous devastation caused by the 1692 disaster as a divine judgment against Port Royal, a few observers suggested that the extent of damage also reflected geographic and architectural factors. It further argues that the frequent experience of earthquakes in Jamaica al- tered how colonists interpreted such events. Large-scale disasters like Port Royal retained providential meaning, but colonists dismissed numerous other earthquakes, even though similar minor tremors occasioned an out- pouring of sermons and moralizing in other parts of the British Atlantic world. As colonists in Jamaica gained more knowledge about the natural world in Jamaica, they learned that earthquakes were common occur- rences. As a result, most earthquakes gradually ceased to appear as extraor- dinary or providential events.

The Reverend Emmanuel Heath, the recently arrived rector of Port Royal, Jamaica, spent the morning of June 7, 1692, at church reading prayers, as he said, ‘‘to keep up some shew of Religion among a most Ungodly Debauched People.’’ After finishing prayers, he made his way to a tavern where merchants

I am very grateful to Philip Morgan, Douglas Winiarski, and Clint Conrad for their helpful comments and criticisms. I also received helpful comments from parti- cipants in sessions at the American Society for Environmental History annual meet- ing in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Association for Caribbean Historians annual meeting in Kingston, Jamaica. A Loyola College Summer Grant provided funding for some of the research.

Early American Studies (Fall 2008) Copyright � 2008 The McNeil Center for Early American Studies. All rights reserved.



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and local officials congregated. He was soon joined by John White, the presi- dent of Jamaica’s council and acting governor of the island, for some worm- wood wine and tobacco before lunch. Around 11:40, Heath ‘‘found the ground rowling and moving under my feet,’’ and he asked White, ‘‘Lord, Sir, what’s this?’’ White replied, ‘‘very composedly, being a very Grave Man, It is an Earthquake, be not afraid, it will soon be over.’’ But rather than subsiding, the tremors increased, and Heath and White heard the steeple of nearby St. Paul’s Church collapse to the ground. They fled outside just in time to see the ‘‘Earth open and swallow up a multitude of People, and the Sea mounting in upon us over the Fortifications.’’ Within minutes more than half of Port Royal, ‘‘the fairest Town of all the English Plantations, the best Emporium and Mart of this part of the world, exceeding in its Riches, plentiful of all good things,’’ sank into the sea and roughly two thousand colonists—one- third of the town’s population—died in one of the great disasters of the early modern world.1

Heath had no doubt about the cause of such destruction. The earthquake was a ‘‘terrible Judgment of God’’ sent to punish the many pirates, prosti- tutes, and profaners who called Port Royal home. Contemporaries in Jamaica and elsewhere in the British Atlantic world agreed. According to Richard Dunn, ‘‘The symbolic importance of the 1692 earthquake was very clear to people at the time. An angry God had punished the city of sin for its de- bauchery.’’ Larry Gragg argued that interpretations of the disaster in Boston and London, as well as in Jamaica, fit into a ‘‘long and continuing tradition of explaining earthquakes as supernatural intrusions into everyday life, as God’s chastisement for sin, or as a portent of a greater punishment to come.’’ Most recently, Susan Scott Parrish suggested that ‘‘the literature written in the aftermath of the Jamaica earthquake of 1692 is thorough in its associa- tion of natural disorder with the moral declension of the English inhabi- tants.’’2

1. Rev. E. Heath, A Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake at Port Royal in Jamaica; Written in two Letters from the Minister of that Place (London, 1692), n.p. (emphasis in original).

2. Ibid.; Richard Dunn, Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624–1713 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972), 187; Larry Gragg, ‘‘The Port Royal Earthquake,’’ History Today 50 (Septem- ber 2000): 29; Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 99. See also Carl Bridenbaugh and Roberta Bridenbaugh, No Peace beyond the Line: The English in the West Indies, 1624–1690 (New York: Oxford Uni- versity Press, 1972), 190, 184.



393Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

Historians have rightly emphasized this providential discourse in their discussions of the earthquake—it was the dominant interpretation of the disaster among English colonists in Jamaica and elsewhere. Nevertheless, at least some contemporary commentators who lived in Jamaica or had spent time on the island offered a somewhat different explanation for the great destruction caused by the earthquake. Although these writers did not doubt that the earthquake was an act of God, they suggested geography and archi- tecture—not just sin, debauchery, and moral declension—influenced the extent of damage in the town. Specifically, they argued that Port Royal’s location and its physical development in the decades following the English conquest in 1655 left the town vulnerable to earthquakes—a threat well known in Jamaica before 1692. This interpretation of the disaster, in turn, was reprinted in several eighteenth-century histories of the island.

The importance of these accounts is not that they challenged providential interpretations of the Port Royal disaster, although they do suggest that reactions were somewhat more complex than is often portrayed. Rather, they and other contemporary writings about earthquakes raise a series of larger questions about the physical environment of Jamaica, how English colonists responded to the new environmental realities they encountered in the West Indies, and the role that lived experience played in shaping their understanding of the natural world and natural phenomena in America.3

For most people in the seventeenth-century British Atlantic world, earth- quakes were ‘‘wonders,’’ unusual events ‘‘betokening the presence of the su- pernatural,’’ to quote David Hall.4 Such events were by definition rare, often

3. On the importance of experience and knowledge of the natural world, see Parrish, American Curiosity. For specific studies of English reactions to the Ameri- can environment that emphasize both the importance of experience in altering ideas and the persistence of older ways of understanding climate, see Karen Kupperman’s trilogy of essays, ‘‘The Puzzle of the American Climate in the Early Colonial Pe- riod,’’ American Historical Review 87 (December 1982): 1262–89; ‘‘Fear of Hot Cli- mates in the Anglo-American Colonial Experience,’’ William and Mary Quarterly 41 (April 1984): 213–41; ‘‘Climate and Mastery of the Wilderness in Seventeenth- Century New England,’’ in David Allen and David Hall, eds., Seventeenth-Century New England (Boston: Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1985), 3–37. This article examines only the intellectual response among English colonists in Jamaica. Of course, by the end of the seventeenth century, African slaves constituted a majority of the population on the island, but I have thus far found little evidence of their response to earthquakes.

4. David Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Beliefs in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), 71–72. Hall notes (76–77) that wonder culture drew from a variety of intellectual traditions, including ‘‘apocalypticism, astrology, natural history, and the meteorology of the



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disastrous, and usually charged with moral significance. Although during the second half of the seventeenth century some learned elites began to distance themselves from traditional ideas about what constituted a wonder, earthquakes often retained their providential significance. Even as writers increasingly speculated on the natural causes of earthquakes, the shaking of the earth continued to represent some form of divine warning or judgment for many people in the British Atlantic world well into the eighteenth cen- tury.5

Greeks. . . . But the most crucial framework was the doctrine of God’s providence.’’ For his discussion of challenges to the wonder tradition, and its persistence, see 94–116.

5. A large literature exists that explores wonders in the early modern British Atlantic world—including numerous specific studies of earthquakes. These studies focus almost exclusively on England and New England, where earthquakes were infrequent events. For a discussion of wonders in England, see Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Wil- liam Burns, An Age of Wonders: Prodigies, Politics, and Providence in England, 1657– 1727 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (New York: Zone Books, 1998); Vladimir Jankovic, Reading the Skies: A Cultural History of English Weather, 1650–1820 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 55–77; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971; repr., New York: Penguin, 1991), 90–132. Michael Winship, Seers of God: Puritan Providentialism in the Restoration and Early Enlightenment (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), exam- ines New England in the context of developments in England. For other studies of New England, see Ross Beales Jr., ‘‘The Smiles and Frowns of Providence,’’ Wonders of the Invisible World: 1600–1900: Annual Proceedings of the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklore 17 (Boston: Boston University Press, 1995), 86–96; Douglas Win- iarski, ‘‘ ‘Pale Blewish Light’ and a Dead Man’s Groan: Tales of the Supernatural from Eighteenth-Century Plymouth, Massachusetts,’’ William and Mary Quarterly 55 (October 1998): 497–530. Discussion of wonders in broader synthetic accounts of colonial America is usually limited to how New Englanders interpreted such events. See, for example, Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (New York: Penguin, 2001), 183. There have been a few recent studies of the world of wonders in the Chesapeake. See Edward Bond, ‘‘Source of Knowledge, Source of Power: The Supernatural World of English Virginia, 1607–1624,’’ Vir- ginia Magazine of History and Biography 108 (2000): 105–38; Kathleen S. Murphy, ‘‘Prodigies and Portents: Providentialism in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake,’’ Maryland Historical Magazine 97 (Winter 2002): 397–421.

Many of the above include discussion of earthquakes, but for specific studies of earthquakes see Kenneth Minkema, ed., ‘‘The Lynn End ‘Earthquake’ Relations of 1727,’’ New England Quarterly 69 (September 1996): 473–99; Maxine Van de Wet- ering, ‘‘Moralizing in Puritan Natural Science: Mysteriousness in Earthquake Ser- mons,’’ Journal of the History of Ideas 43 (July–September 1982): 417–38; William



395Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

But as English colonists who settled in Jamaica gradually discovered— and as John White’s initial comments to Reverend Heath indicated— earthquakes were not rare events on the island. They were common occurrences, and repeated experience with earthquakes during the second half of the seventeenth century presented a challenge to traditional won- drous interpretations. Put simply, minor earthquakes occurred frequently enough in Jamaica that they no longer appeared wondrous or unusual. As a result, as colonists slowly learned more about the physical environment of the region and gained more experience with earthquakes, many ceased viewing minor tremors as judgments or portents. Major disasters like Port Royal remained special providences, but colonists in Jamaica appeared to attach little significance to numerous other earthquakes, even as similar events in other parts of the British Atlantic occasioned an outpouring of sermons and moralizing. Reexamining the Port Royal earthquake within the context of other writings about earthquakes reveals that though seven- teenth-century colonists in Jamaica shared many of the attitudes and beliefs about the workings of the natural world with their counterparts in England and North America—in other words, they too lived in a ‘‘world of won- ders’’—the environmental realities they encountered in the West Indies re- shaped their understanding of wonders and the meaning they attached to particular natural phenomena.6� Port Royal sits at the end of a roughly ten-mile stretch of sand and gravel known as the Palisadoes. The Palisadoes creates a barrier between the Ca- ribbean Sea and Kingston Harbor, although at some points the distance between the two is surprisingly small, as visitors who arrive at Norman Manley International airport today soon discover. Often called a spit, the

Andrews, ‘‘The Literature of the 1727 New England Earthquake,’’ Early American Literature 7 (Winter 1973): 281–94; Charles Clark, ‘‘Science, Reason, and an Angry God: The Literature of an Earthquake,’’ New England Quarterly 38 (November 1965): 340–62. Eric Seeman and Peter Rumsey both have chapters dealing with earthquakes specifically. See Seeman, Pious Persuasions: Laity and Clergy in Eigh- teenth-Century Massachusetts (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 146–79; Rumsey, Acts of God and the People, 1620–1730 (Ann Arbor: UMI Re- search Press, 1986), 117–42. Thanks to Doug Winiarski for both references.

6. For another discussion of the role of experience in shaping attitudes about natural phenomena in the region, see Matthew Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624–1783 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 33–64.



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Palisadoes is technically a tombolo, formed by sediment from the moun- tains above Kingston that is carried to the coast by the Hope and Cane rivers and then pushed westward by the currents and winds.7 The sediment accumulated along a number of small cays, gradually extending the tombolo as far west as Port Royal cay. This sedimentary link, however, was often tenuous: one soldier who participated in the English conquest of Jamaica recalled that Port Royal was still something of an island in 1655, connected to the rest of the Palisadoes only by ‘‘a small Ridge of Sand, which then just appeared above Water.’’ The cay would be separated again at various points in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including a period following the 1692 earthquake. Most of the sand and gravel pushed west accumulated on the southern side of the tombolo, but some accumulation also occurred on the north side of Port Royal cay, as water swirling around what became a point probably carried some sediment with it. Needless to say, such ground does not provide a particularly solid foundation for a town. As one English governor reported in the 1670s, ‘‘This neck of land is exceeding narrow & nothing but a loose Sand that has neither grass, Stone, water, nor trees.’’ Modern scientists have determined that much of the ground on which the town stands comprises little more than water-saturated sand for about sixty-five feet, at which point sand and gravel mix with coral reef.8

Taı́no Indians had probably used the area as a fishing point in the centu- ries before contact with Europeans, but they apparently did not establish a more permanent settlement there. The tombolo remained essentially unin- habited during the Spanish period of colonization as well. The Spanish

7. A spit is an extension of sand and debris from the mainland into the sea, whereas a tombolo is a stretch of sand that connects the mainland to islands, or islands to one another. Some scholars call the area a ‘‘spit complex.’’ See Edward Robinson and Deborah-Ann Rowe, ‘‘The Island of the Palisadoes?’’ (working paper MGU-WP/0001/040105, Marine Geology Unit, University of the West Indies, Mona, January 2005). My thanks to Thera Edwards for pointing out this distinction to me.

8. Ibid.; Michael Pawson and David Buisseret, Port Royal, Jamaica (1975; repr., Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2000), 1–6; George R. Clark II, ‘‘The Quake That Swallowed a City,’’ Earth 4 (April 1995): 34–41; J. A. Steers, ‘‘The Cays and the Palisadoes, Port Royal, Jamaica,’’ Geographical Review 30 (April 1940): 279–96; Account VIII in ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane, M.D., and S.R.S. with Several Accounts of the Earthquakes in Peru October the 20th 1687. And at Jamaica, February 19th. 1687/88 and June the 7th, 1692,’’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 18 (1694): 90–91; ‘‘History and State of Jamaica under Lord Vaughan,’’ MS 159, f. 51, National Library of Jamaica, Kingston (hereafter NLJ).



397Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

established a small careenage on the last cay, but they otherwise left the area undeveloped.9

The social and economic geography of the area changed following the English conquest of Jamaica in 1655. Although the point had no immediate supply of water and no trees or other building materials, and it was situated on nothing but ‘‘a hot loose Sand,’’ the English valued its location at the entrance to an excellent deep-water harbor and its ‘‘bold’’ shoreline—the sea floor fell to thirty feet in many places only a few yards off the coast. Colonists soon fortified the site and began to construct a series of ware- houses for trade. The early settlers named the settlement Cagway, or Point Cagway. By 1657, one official wrote, ‘‘there is the faire beginning of a town upon the poynt of this harbour.’’ By 1664 the burgeoning settlement was renamed Port Royal.10

Port Royal grew quickly in the following decades, its expansion and de- velopment driven by profits from legitimate trade to England and the main- land colonies, illegal trade with Spanish America, and outright plundering of Spanish ports and treasure fleets. From about 300 houses and a popula- tion of 740, including 50 Africans, in 1662, the town grew to roughly 1,000 dwellings and a population of 2,086 whites and 845 Africans by 1680. By that date one of every six white colonists in Jamaica lived in Port Royal, and the town had become the ‘‘Storehouse or Treasury of the West-Indies . . . a continual Mart or Fair where all sorts of choice Merchandizes are daily imported.’’ Although no exact figures exist, by the time of the earthquake, the population of Port Royal had reached about 6,500, including roughly 2,500 African slaves. The town extended from Fort James and Fort Charles at the western tips of the Palisadoes point to Fort Rupert and a gate that marked the eastern entrance to the town, a distance of little more than a half a mile. Beyond the gate were a tavern and a graveyard, and beyond that were roughly 1,000 acres of commons that extended eastward close to where

9. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 179; Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh, No Peace beyond the Line, 314. Pawson and Buisseret note that Robert Marx suggests that natives had a town there, but they refrain from making that claim. Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 6.

10. Richard Blome, A Description of the Island of Jamaica (London, 1672), 32; James Knight, ‘‘The Natural, Moral, and Political History of Jamaica,’’ British Li- brary, Additional Manuscripts 12418–19, 2:14; Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 3, 7–13; ‘‘History and State of Jamaica under Lord Vaughan,’’ f. 51; Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 179.



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the tombolo intersected with the mainland. A remaining 300 acres were private land known as the ‘‘Goate Pens.’’11

Port Royal’s location at the end of the Palisadoes meant that land was limited, and as the town’s population expanded, colonists were forced to improvise to accommodate the demand for space. One solution was to create new land. Beginning in the 1670s, local officials began to grant indi- vidual colonists rights to ‘‘shoal water,’’ which they could reclaim for devel- opment. Benjamin Bathurst, for example, was granted ‘‘Ground . . . to be Restored out of the Sea for a Wharfe’’ in July 1680. Two years earlier, Peter Beckford received a grant for 1,748 square feet of ‘‘Shoal Water . . . to be recovered for Wharfe Ground’’ that extended 26 feet into the water. Water- side residents like Beckford then created a sort of landfill for the wharves by ‘‘driving down Timber and Wharfing, &c.’’ into the shoal water. One eighteenth-century historian noted that ‘‘all the Wharfs . . . were made with Piles drove into the Sea, and filled up with Stones and Earth.’’ Colonists then built warehouses and other structures on these wharfs. This artificial expansion occurred first on the harborside of town, and then later on the land bordering Chocolata Hole on the western side of the point. One writer observed in 1693, ‘‘All People know, that the part of Land whereon Port- Royal was built, was always encreasing since first inhabited.’’ Much of the new land had been slowly ‘‘gained in time out of the Sea.’’ Hans Sloane likewise stated that a good part of the land on which the town was built was nothing but ‘‘Sand kept up by Palisadoes and Wharfs.’’12

11. Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 135–36, 127–29; Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 179; Francis Hanson, The Laws of Jamaica . . . to which is added a Short Account of the Island and Government thereof (London, 1683), preface; Bridenbaugh and Bride- nbaugh, No Peace beyond the Line, 315–16. The Bridenbaughs claim a population of between 7,500 and 10,000, which would have made Port Royal the most populous town in English America, but that figure is too high. On Port Royal’s (and Jamai- ca’s) economic development, see a series of essays by Nuala Zahedieh: ‘‘Trade, Plun- der, and Economic Development in Early English Jamaica, 1655–1689,’’ Economic History Review 39 (1986): 205–22; ‘‘The Merchants of Port Royal Jamaica and the Spanish Contraband Trade, 1655–1692,’’ William and Mary Quarterly 43 (October 1986): 570–93; ‘‘ ‘The Wickedest City in the World’: Port Royal, Commercial Hub of the Seventeenth-Century Caribbean,’’ in Verene Shepherd, ed., Working Slavery, Pricing Freedom: Perspectives from the Caribbean, Africa and the African Diaspora (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 3–20.

12. Bathurst and Beckford grants are found in Real Estate Transactions before the 1692 Earthquake, City of Port Royal, Jamaica (Washington, D.C.: National Geo- graphic Society, 1960), cards 78, 84; Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 109, 115; ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account VIII, 90–91; Knight, ‘‘The Natural, Moral, and Political History of Jamaica,’’ 1:146; 2:15. By contrast, Knight noted that



399Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

Another solution to the limited supply of land was to build taller structures to accommodate the town’s growing population. By 1683, Francis Hanson explained, ‘‘the ground it [Port Royal] stands on is but 53 Acres, and cannot be inlarged in its buildings otherwise then what the Inhabitants gain by the height of their Houses.’’ Again beginning in the 1670s, colonists began to replace single-story structures with taller buildings. At some point in that decade a building code of sorts emerged that laid out requirements for the foundations of single-story structures (‘‘two bricks thick to the water-table and then one-and-a-half bricks to the wall plates’’) and for taller buildings (‘‘two and a half bricks thick to the water-table (or sometimes stone in the place of brick), and then two bricks thick to the first floor’’). As this code suggests, in addition to building taller buildings, colonists also began to build heavier structures. Use of brick became more common, reflecting both the increasing wealth of the town’s inhabitants and their desire to live in dwellings that resembled urban structures in England. Hanson wrote that many houses in Port Royal were ‘‘built with Bricks, and beautified with Balconies, after the modern way of building in London.’’ Hans Sloane found that the dwellings in Port Royal and elsewhere on the island were increasingly built with brick and ‘‘after the English manner.’’ On his visit to the port town in the 1680s, John Taylor found numerous four-story brick houses. The only thing missing, Taylor commented, were chimneys, unnecessary in tropical Jamaica.13

Thus, on the eve of the earthquake, Port Royal’s population of 6,500 was living and working in roughly two thousand structures, many of them made of brick, crammed onto little more than fifty acres of land. After subtracting eight acres for fortifications, religious structures, and other public buildings, one scholar has estimated that by 1692, Port Royal’s ‘‘net residential density would have been about 47 dwellings or 150 persons to the acre’’—a density similar to central London in the 1930s.14

wharves in eighteenth-century Kingston were simply extensions into the harbor: they were built with ‘‘Piles, drove into Sea, and covered with Plank’’ (2:13); Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers, and Jamaica (London, 1707–25), 1:lix.

13. Hanson, The Laws of Jamaica, ‘‘to the reader’’; Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 120–21; Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands, xlvii, lviii; John Taylor, ‘‘Multum in Parvo, or Taylor’s History of his Life and Travells in America,’’ MS 105, NLJ, 2:492. The best discussion of buildings in the pre-earthquake period is James Rob- ertson, ‘‘Jamaican Architectures before Georgian,’’ Winterthur Portfolio 36 (Spring– Summer 2001): 73–95.

14. Oliver Cox, ‘‘17th Century Port Royal Jamaica: Its Urban Form and Archi- tectural Character’’ (unpublished typescript, 1992), 11, NLJ. My thanks to Mr. Cox for permission to quote his article.



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Port Royal’s sandy—and in some places artificial—foundation and the density of development on it left the town vulnerable to a number of natural hazards, including storms and earthquakes. Colonists were well aware of these vulnerabilities before 1692. In 1683 a storm washed away a good deal of sand and ‘‘much damnified the edifices and buildings towards the sea by washing and spoyling their foundations.’’ The next year another storm flooded the town and cut a channel deep enough for a ferryboat to traverse. Colonists, however, recovered quickly, rebuilding damaged buildings and constructing a bridge across the channel.15

Colonists also knew that tall brick buildings were vulnerable to earth- quakes. Hans Sloane feared being caught in an upper story of a brick house when the ground began to shake in February 1688, during his sojourn on the island. Sloane contrasted the vulnerability of English structures with those built by the Spanish before 1655. To minimize the danger from earth- quakes, Sloane wrote, the Spanish had purposefully built their houses ‘‘very low,’’ with posts buried deeply into the ground, and he implied that English colonists should employ such designs as well. Seventeenth-century English colonists, however, remained committed both to their wealthy and flour- ishing port city and to familiar English building practices.16

The consequences of those decisions became tragically evident on the morning of June 7, 1692. A watch discovered by underwater archeologists during a 1950s excavation of the sunken remains of Port Royal suggests that the earthquake began shortly before 11:43 a.m.17 Some observers claimed the earthquake shook the ground for fifteen minutes, but most thought it lasted about three minutes.18 Regardless, those few minutes de-

15. Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 112. A law was passed in 1684 attempting to regulate waterside development. See The Laws of Jamaica (London, 1684), 49–52.

16. ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account II, 81–82; see also Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands, 1:xliv–xlv. On English building practices and the desire to maintain English standards, see Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 287–99; Robertson, ‘‘Jamaican Ar- chitectures before Georgian,’’ 73–95. Colonists ultimately did learn to make adjust- ments to the environmental realities of the region. For a discussion of the role of hurricanes and earthquakes in that process, see Mulcahy, Hurricanes and Society, 117–40.

17. Marion Link, ‘‘Exploring the Drowned City of Port Royal,’’ National Geo- graphic Magazine 117 (February 1960): 178–81.

18. There are numerous firsthand accounts of the disaster. They include Heath’s Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake; the Vere Parish minister’s Truest and Largest Account of the Late Earthquake in Jamaica, June the 7th, 1692 (London, 1693), 1–2; [Captain Crockett], A True and Perfect Relation of that Most Sad and Terrible Earthquake at Port Royal in Jamaica (London, 1792 [1692]); a letter from John Pike



401Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

stroyed what had been the second most populous—and arguably most im- portant—town in seventeenth-century British America. As the tremors intensified, houses began to crack and fall, the earth opened up, and on the harborside of the town, whole streets sank into the water. Thames Street, which ran the length of the harbor and was lined with wharves, warehouses, stores, and ‘‘brave stately Buildings, where the Chief Men of the Place liv’d,’’ was the first to sink. Fort James, at the western point of Thames Street, and Fort Carlisle toward the eastern end, sank with the rest of the street. Moments later, as people watched in ‘‘Horror and Consternation,’’ the streets behind Thames—Queen Street and High Street—also collapsed, sinking St. Paul’s Church, among other buildings. Sections of Fisher’s Row and Lime Street also collapsed (figure 1). In addition, the land around Fort Rupert and the eastern end of the town sank, which cut the connection to the rest of the Palisadoes and rendered what remained of Port Royal an island.19

The June 7 disaster is often referred to as the Port Royal earthquake, but all Jamaica suffered damage. At Passage Fort no houses remained standing. At Liganee, across the harbor from Port Royal, only one building survived,

printed in The Widow Whiterow’s Humble Thanksgiving (London, 1694), 39–40; Edmund Edlyne to William Blathwayt, June 20, 1692, reprinted in Jamaican Histor- ical Review 8 (1971): 60–61; a series of letters from Quakers on the island, reprinted in H. J. Cadbury, ‘‘Quakers and the Earthquake at Port Royal, 1692,’’ in Jamaican Historical Review 8 (1971): 20–21; a series of letters collected by Sloane and pub- lished as ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane’’ in Philosophical Transactions; President and Council to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, June 20, 1692, CO 138/7/47–50, extracts in Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and the West Indies (Lon- don, 1860–), 651–52, hereafter cited as CSPC; the recollections of Mrs. Akers, published in William Smith, A Natural History of Nevis, and the rest of the English Leeward Charibee Islands in America (Cambridge, 1745), 62–63. Less well-known accounts are ‘‘Letter from T.L.,’’ June 27, 1692, Royal Society Archives, EL/L5/ 117; and James Wale[s] to Richard Ruding, received February 2, 1693, reprinted in Thomas Foster, The Postal History of Jamaica, 1662–1860 (London: Robson Lowe, 1968), 3–4.

19. ‘‘Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account VIII, 90–91. The author of the Truest and Largest wrote that the street ‘‘which we call the Wharf, where most of the noted Merchants lived, and where much of the Planters Goods was Landed for convenience of Sail and Shipping,’’ fell first, and that while people were watching ‘‘two or three more streets in their whole length tottered and fell . . . as far as the Jews Street [New Street].’’ Truest and Largest Account, 3–4; Edmund Edlyne to William Blathwayt, June 20, 1692, 60–61; Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 166; President and Council to the Lords of Trade and Plantations, June 20, 1692, 651–52; Heath, Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake.



402 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

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ity .



403Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

except for slave dwellings, some of which remained standing and were quickly commandeered by surviving planters and merchants. In Spanish Town all the houses were leveled except those built by the Spanish before 1655. Plantations throughout the island were ‘‘throwne downe’’ by the tremors. According to one observer, the earthquake ‘‘scarce left a Planters House or Sugar-work standing all over the island.’’ At Yallows, east of Port Royal, a mountainslide covered several settlements and killed nineteen peo- ple. On the north side of the island, one thousand acres of woodland in St. Ann’s Parish reportedly slid into the sea, along with several plantations.20

Nevertheless, it was in Port Royal that the earthquake caused the most dramatic destruction. More than half of the town’s roughly fifty-three acres sank to the bottom of the harbor, quickly covered by twenty or thirty feet of water. Even the part of town that remained above water—roughly twenty- five acres—experienced great damage. Some houses were partially sub- merged, so that their upper-story balconies became ground-level entrances. Others had collapsed into piles of bricks, or were in danger of doing so. Indeed, some of buildings that remained standing after June 7 succumbed to the numerous aftershocks that rattled the town in the followings days and weeks. Heath wrote on June 28 that he had preached a sermon the previous Sunday in a tent because he was wary of entering any of the ‘‘shatter’d’’ structures. Other buildings sank into ground softened by the ‘‘daily in- croaches’’ of the sea on what land remained above water. Heath and others worried that the whole town soon would be ‘‘wholly eaten up’’ by the sea.21

A number of accounts estimated that between 1,500 and 2,200 people perished, of whom roughly 600 to 700 were enslaved Africans. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of survivors were ‘‘covered with bruises, blood and wounds.’’ Most of the deaths occurred in densely populated Port Royal. One survivor wrote that no more than fifty people were killed in the rest of the island. Considering some of the specific numbers noted in other ac- counts, that estimate seems a bit low, but it is clear that most deaths oc- curred in the port town, where roughly one-third of the population died.

20. ‘‘Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account VIII, 94, Account III, 83, Account V, 84; Cadbury, ‘‘Quakers and the Earthquake,’’ 21; letter from Gilbert Heathcote, September 26, 1693 (Helyar Manuscripts, microfilm, J. Harry Bennett Collection, University of Texas); Heath, Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake; [Crock- ett], True and Perfect Relation.

21. Edlyne to Blathwayt, June 20, 1692, 60, says the structures along the wharf sank to ‘‘a depth of three to five fathoms’’ (eighteen to thirty feet); Truest and Largest Account, 4; Heath, Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake; Pike letter, Widow Whiterow’s Humble Thanksgiving, 39–40; Pawson and Buisseret, Port Royal, 169.



404 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

Some of the victims were crushed by falling houses. Some drowned when rising waters flooded the city. A number of people were literally sucked into the ground during the earthquake. Others were caught halfway down when the earth stopped shaking and became trapped in the ground. They suffo- cated because they were unable to expand their lungs once the earth again became firm, a gruesome scene depicted in several woodcuts (figure 2). In addition to those killed during the disaster, at least another 2,000 colonists died in the following months from disease, including Council President John White, who died on August 21.22

Some modern accounts have speculated that the 1692 earthquake was a relatively minor one, but that the shaking occasioned an underwater land- slide, causing the town to slide into the harbor. Scientists and underwater archaeologists now believe that the earthquake was a powerful one and that much of the damage at Port Royal resulted from a process known as lique- faction. Liquefaction occurs when earthquakes strike loose, sandy, water- saturated ground. The earthquake causes an increase in water pressure, which in turn causes the sand particles to separate, creating sludge similar to quicksand. Because such liquefied ground can no longer support any weight, buildings quickly collapse. This is what happened in Port Royal: the buildings on the harbor side did not slide down into the water; they sank straight down. Likewise, when the tremors stopped, the liquefied ground immediately became firm, which left many colonists and buildings partially submerged. Because liquefaction occurs only with a prolonged shaking, some scientists speculate that the earthquake may have been a magnitude 8.0 or higher, a ‘‘truly great earthquake.’’23

22. Heath, Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake (1,500); Truest and Largest Account, 4–5 (1,500 whites, 600–700 blacks); [Crockett], True and Perfect Relation (2,000); Edlyne to Blathwayt, June 20, 1692 (one-third of Port Royal’s population); ‘‘Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account V, 84 (2,000 whites and blacks), and Account VIII, 97 (2,000). Edlyne to Blathwayt, June 20, 1692, 60 (‘‘covered with bruises’’). Truest and Largest Account, 11 (no more than fifty). On being sucked underground, see Truest and Largest Account, 7; on being trapped in the earth, see Heath, Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake; Clark, ‘‘The Quake That Swal- lowed a City,’’ 37; on John White, see Council to the Earl of Nottingham, Septem- ber 20, 1692, CSPC, 710–11. On deaths from disease, see ‘‘Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account IV, 83; Isaac Norris to John and Hannah Delavall, September 19, 1692, in Cadbury, ‘‘Quakers and the Earthquake,’’ 26; ‘‘Diary of Lawrence Ham- mond,’’ Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd ser., 7 (1891–92): 164.

23. Clark, ‘‘The Quake That Swallowed a City,’’ 34–41; D. L. Hamilton, ‘‘Pre- liminary Reports on the Archaeological Investigation of the Submerged Remains of Port Royal,’’ International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Explora- tion 13 (1984): 11–25; Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Sanders, Earthquakes in



405Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

Although seventeenth-century Jamaican colonists had no understanding of liquefaction, at least a few local observers suggested that the level of destruction at Port Royal was not simply a matter of sin and divine retribution. Instead, they briefly speculated on possible natural processes at work in the earthquake and, more important, argued that much of the extent of the damage resulted from the combination of large brick houses built on a sandy, unstable founda- tion. In one account transmitted by Hans Sloane to the Royal Society, an anonymous author (who, it should be noted, was not on the island when the earthquake struck, but who arrived shortly after and talked to many residents who survived the disaster) made no specific mention of divine justice. Instead, he wrote, colonists found a great deal of ‘‘Sulphureous Combustible Matter’’ following the earthquake, and the tremors struck most violently in the moun- tains. These observations echoed prevailing theories advanced by natural phi- losophers who argued that earthquakes probably resulted from an underground explosion caused by winds, water, various minerals, or some combination thereof. The author then wrote that the parts of the town that sank were ‘‘nothing but perfect Sand,’’ much of which was supported only by the ‘‘Timber and Wharfing’’ colonists had sunk during the previous fifteen years to help extend the town’s available acreage. ‘‘On this sandy Neck of Land,’’ he contin- ued, ‘‘did People build great heavy Brick Houses, whose Weight, on so sandy a Foundation, may be supposed to contribute much to their Downfall; for the Ground gave way as far as the Houses stood only, and no further.’’ The part of town that remained above water was ‘‘said to stand upon a Rock.’’ He concluded that in the end the sea had ‘‘at once recovered all again; whereby we may see how dangerous it is to contend with a powerful Enemy.’’24

Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Seismic Disruptions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 78–79, 248; Bruce Bolt, Earthquakes, rev. ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1993), 164–65. A nineteenth-century diver stated that he believed many of the houses remained essentially intact underwater, although covered in sand and mud. See Frank Cundall, Historic Jamaica (1915; repr., New York: Johnson Reprint, 1971), 58–59. The Program in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington has a good Web site that discusses liquefaction, including video simulations. See�liquefac- tion/html/what/what1.html (March 9, 2007).

24. ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account VIII, 99, 90–91. The account is dated July 3, 1693, but Sloane emphasized the author’s ‘‘Industry and Accuracy in relating what he heard from others.’’ ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ 79. For a discus- sion of early modern theories of the natural causes of earthquakes, see John Taylor Gates, ‘‘Eighteenth-Century Earthquake Theories: A Case-History Investigation into the Character of the Study of the Earth in the Enlightenment’’ (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1975), esp. 23–48.



406 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

Figure 2. [Captain Crocket], A True and Perfect Relation of that most Sad and Terrible Earthquake, at Port-Royal in Jamaica (London, 1692). Courtesy of the British Library.



407Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

Hans Sloane echoed these ideas from London a few years later. Sloane had been in Jamaica in the 1680s, but the first volume of his natural history of Jamaica did not appear until 1707. In that work Sloane endorsed the ideas presented by the anonymous author. ‘‘For the whole Neck of Land being sandy (excepting the Fort, which was built on a Rock and stood) on which the Town was built, and the Sand kept up by Palisadoes and Wharfs,’’ he wrote, ‘‘when the Sand tumbled upon the shaking of the Earth, into the Sea, it covered the Anchors of the Ships riding by the Wharfs, and the Foundations yielding, the greatest part of Town fell, great numbers of peo- ple were lost, and a good part of the Neck of Land where the Town stood was three Fathoms covered with water.’’ Sloane recalled that some colonists told him in the 1680s that the Spanish had specifically avoided building at Point Cagway for two reasons: ‘‘The first was the frequency of Earthquakes, which, when considerable, would certainly overturn it. . . .The second cause of the aversion of the Spaniards to this place, was its being liable to being wash’d off by the violent Sea-Breezes or Souths.’’25

These ideas regarding the destruction at Port Royal were reprinted fre- quently in several histories of Jamaica that appeared in the following dec- ades, suggesting they had become commonly accepted by colonists. Henry Barham’s 1720s account of Jamaica, James Knight’s 1740s manuscript his- tory, and Edward Long’s monumental three-volume History of Jamaica, published in 1774, all recounted the basic argument outlined by Sloane and the anonymous author. Knight, for example, wrote that a ‘‘great part of that land [that sank in the earthquake] was made out of the Sea, by the Peoples driving Piles into the Shoal Water, and filling it up with Stones and Sand; and on this foundation was built Brick houses two and three stories High.’’ Knight stated plainly that ‘‘this dreadfull Calamity [would not] have been so destructive and Ruinous, had the Town stood, on any part of the firm land on this Island.’’26

25. Sloane, Voyage to the Islands, 1:lix. Parts of Sloane’s discussion of earthquakes in this book appeared in one of the letters he sent to the Royal Society that were published in 1694, which suggests he was working on the larger project. ‘‘A Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account II, 81–82. Sloane gained another connection to the island when in 1695 he married Elizabeth Langley, the daughter and widow of Jamaican planters, thereby becoming an absentee planter and slaveholder. See Kay Dian Kriz, ‘‘Curiosities, Commodities, and Transplanted Bodies in Hans Sloane’s ‘Natural History of Jamaica,’ ’’ William and Mary Quarterly 57 (January 2000): 39.

26. Henry Barham, ‘‘A Most Exact and Particular Account of the Island of Ja- maica,’’ ca. 1722, Sloane Manuscripts 3918, British Library; Knight, ‘‘The Natural, Moral, and Political History of Jamaica,’’ 2:14–15, 1:145; See also Edward Long, The History of Jamaica, 3 vols. (London, 1774), 2:141; John Oldmixon, The British



408 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

Reactions to the Port Royal disaster thus are somewhat more complex than typically portrayed in scholarly accounts. At least some contemporaries in Jamaica or who had been to Jamaica did not discuss the destruction caused by the earthquake as simply divine retribution against the ‘‘Sodom’’ of the West Indies. Instead, they emphasized geography and local history as factors that influenced the extent of damage. Highlighting such factors, of course, did not preclude interpreting the earthquake as divine justice. The Quaker Joseph Norris wrote that the ‘‘dreadful calamity’’ was God’s ‘‘just judgment brought over us, for inequities,’’ but he also noted that Port Royal, ‘‘being chiefly a bank of sand, endured not so much shaking.’’ Like- wise, a minister from the parish of Vere believed that the earthquake was a ‘‘Judgment,’’ but he also stated that his parish experienced less damage than neighboring parishes because many residents lived in ‘‘mean and low-built Houses, for the most part built with Timber,’’ which withstood the shocks better than tall, brick structures. Nevertheless, by emphasizing geography and architecture, rather than simply the morals of people living in the town, Sloane and the anonymous author offered a somewhat different interpreta- tion of the disaster, one that recognized the particulars of Port Royal’s phys- ical environment and suggested a role for human action beyond colonists’ sinful lifestyles.27 � Along with the various accounts of the Port Royal earthquake that he for- warded to the Royal Society in 1693–94, Hans Sloane also included a de- scription of his experiences with an earthquake that shook the island during his visit in 1688. Although not directly related to Port Royal, his account of the 1688 tremor provided a larger context for thinking about the disaster and highlighted one particularly important point—namely, that earth- quakes were frequent events in Jamaica.

Jamaica is located on the Gonâve microplate, which separates the north- ern edge of the Caribbean plate and the southern edge of the North Ameri- can plate. The island itself separates the Walton and Plantain Garden faults, which run along the southern boundary of the microplate. There are several

Empire in America, 2 vols. (London, 1708), 2:288–95; and Patrick Browne, The Civil and Natural History of Jamaica, 2nd ed. (London, 1789), 7–8. Browne empha- sizes that ‘‘heavy buildings were everywhere destroyed.’’

27. Joseph Norris to Richard Hawkins, June 20, 1692, in Cadbury, ‘‘Quakers and the Earthquake,’’ 21–22; The Truest and Largest Account, 2. On recognizing human action (in the form of sin) as a ‘‘cause’’ of earthquakes, see Van de Wetering, ‘‘Moralizing in Puritan Natural Science,’’ 417–38.



409Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

faults on or near the island that account for most of the earthquake activity. The most active on the island are in the Blue Mountain block to the east (including parts of the Plantain Garden fault, which some scientists specu- late ruptured in the 1692 disaster) and the Newmarket-Montpelier region in western Jamaica. Most are strike-slip faults, meaning that the sections of earth on opposite sides of the fault move horizontally rather than vertically, although thrust faults (one part of the earth is pushed up and over another) are also a threat. Contemporary scientists measure roughly two hundred earthquakes per year in and around the island. Most are minor—less than 4.0 on the Richter Scale—and have no real impact on the built environ- ment. Some, however, are noted by residents; the Earthquake Unit at the University of West Indies, Mona, has recorded between six and twelve ‘‘felt earthquakes’’ per year over the past four years.28

The number of ‘‘felt earthquakes’’ quickly became apparent to Sloane and other seventeenth-century commentators. Sloane began his account of the 1688 tremor by noting, ‘‘The Inhabitants of Jamaica expect an Earthquake every Year. Some of them are of Opinion, that they follow their great Rains.’’ He recalled seeing ‘‘bare Spots’’ in the mountains, which residents told him ‘‘were the Effects of Earthquakes throwing down part of the Hills.’’ When he revised his account for publication in his Natural History, he noted further that earthquakes were ‘‘common’’ on the island. Although not as devastating as the June 7 disaster, tremors shook the ground often, and immigrants to Jamaica soon learned that earthquakes were part of life. John Taylor stated that the island was subject to frequent earthquakes. Fran- cis Hanson wrote in 1683 that the island experienced ‘‘Earthquakes some- times, two or three perhaps in a Year.’’ Both Taylor and Hanson claimed

28. The Richter scale measures the amount of energy released by an earthquake. The effect of that energy—the extent to which the earthquake is felt by humans and the amount of damage caused to infrastructure—is usually measured by the Modified Mercalli scale (MMI), ranging from I (registers on instruments) to V (felt by most persons, some dishes and windows break) to XII (catastrophic, total destruction). The Earthquake Unit at UWI–Mona now uses the European Macro- seismic Scale, which uses a similar, twelve-point scale for classifying damage. Scien- tists speculate that the Port Royal disaster was X (disastrous) on the MMI scale. Information on earthquakes in Jamaica gathered from the Web site of the Earth- quake Unit of the University of the West Indies, Mona, quake, and C. DeMets and M. Wiggins-Grandison, ‘‘Deformation of Jamaica and Motion of the Gonâve Microplate from GPS and Seismic Data,’’ Journal of Interna- tional Geophysics 168 (2007): 362–78. See also Zeilinga de Boer and Sanders, Earth- quakes in Human History, 4–12.



410 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

that none was violent enough to do any real harm, and Taylor thought their occurrence had decreased somewhat by the 1680s, but all three writers agreed that the frequency of earthquakes marked the physical environment of Jamaica as distinct.29

Such commentary continued to appear in the eighteenth century. The planter Henry Barham wrote in an account published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1717, ‘‘We are very subject to Earthquakes, several happen- ing every Year.’’ In his history of the island, James Knight stated that colo- nists experienced earthquakes at least ‘‘once or twice in a year.’’ One report printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1737 stated simply that ‘‘Jamaica is remarkable for Earthquakes.’’ Although no records were kept on the num- ber of earthquakes in the eighteenth century, scattered evidence in official correspondence underscores these general observations. In February 1703, for example, the governor reported that the island had experienced ‘‘Severall earthquakes’’ in recent weeks. He commented again on ‘‘frequent earth- quakes’’ three months later. In 1704 he reported on earthquakes on three occasions: in March he noted a small earthquake that had occurred in Feb- ruary, in September he wrote about ‘‘two or three small earthquakes,’’ and in December 1704 he noted two more tremors had struck that year.30

The frequency of earthquakes presented an intellectual challenge to colo- nists: specifically, how were they to make sense of such regular tremors? In England earthquakes were ‘‘wonders,’’ unusual events that generated con- siderable fear and reflection on the power of God. This was true even when tremors caused little or no physical damage. An earthquake in April 1580, for example, damaged some chimneys and dislocated part of Westminster Abbey. Despite what one historian called ‘‘its negligible effects,’’ within a day pamphlets and sermons began to appear suggesting that the earthquake was a token of divine anger and portent of even greater destruction if En- gland did not reform. Officials proclaimed a day of fasting, the usual official response to calamities and other providential events. Likewise, when a

29. ‘‘Letter from Hans Sloane,’’ Account II, 81–82; Sloan, A Voyage to the Is- lands, 1:xliv; Taylor, ‘‘Multum in Parvo,’’ 2:316; Hanson, Laws of Jamaica, ‘‘to the reader.’’

30. ‘‘A Letter of that Curious Naturalist Mr. Henry Barham . . . With Remarks on the Weather, Earthquakes, &c. of That Island [Jamaica],’’ Philosophical Transac- tions 30 (1717): 838; Knight, ‘‘The Natural, Moral, and Political History of Ja- maica,’’ 2:49; ‘‘Remainder of the Discourse upon Earthquakes,’’ Pennsylvania Gazette, December 22, 1737. See letters from Governor Handasyd dated February 3, 1703, May 23, 1703, March 5, 1704, September 17, 1704, and December 17, 1704, in CSPC.



411Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

minor earthquake struck England in September 1692, pamphlets poured off the presses interpreting the event as a signal of divine displeasure and calling for ‘‘National and Personal Repentance and Reformation.’’31

The 1692 earthquake in England appeared to have special meaning, coming little more than a month after news of the Port Royal disaster ar- rived in England, and writers highlighted God’s mercy in sparing England from the destruction visited on Jamaica. But more important, the earth- quake was notable, and thus meaningful, because earthquakes were so un- common in England. One minister wrote that ‘‘these Motions of the Earth . . . is [sic] very rare; [and] ought to be taken notice of, as calling aloud to us to Repent.’’ Another stated that the earthquake was ‘‘(especially as to us in these parts of the World) a rare and unusual visit,’’ and as a result, ‘‘we should take more notice of it, acknowledge the finger of God in it, and think of it with an awful trembling.’’ A pamphlet writer declared that al- though the earthquake had done no damage, it was ‘‘very terrible and amaz- ing, because not frequent in these parts.’’ A few writers even suggested that the destruction of Port Royal represented an ‘‘extraordinary’’ warning be- cause ‘‘We do not read of any Instance of Earthquakes before in that Island of Jamaica.’’32

Similar attitudes regarding earthquakes existed in other parts of British America. Increase Mather counted the earthquakes that struck New En- gland in 1638, 1658, 1662, and 1668 as ‘‘Remarkable Providences’’ by which God signaled his power to men, even though ‘‘never was yet any harm done amongst us thereby.’’ Well into the eighteenth century, colonists in New England continued to emphasize the role of God in earthquakes, in part because they were ‘‘uncommon event[s].’’ God’s voice ‘‘becomes very Nota- ble’’ on such occasions, preached Cotton Mather, because they were ‘‘out of the Ordinary Road.’’ Following a 1727 earthquake, Benjamin Coleman

31. Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England, 130–35, 142–47; Thomas Beverly, Evangelical Repentance unto Salvation . . . Upon the Solemn Occasion of the Late Dreadful Earthquake in Jamaica; and the Later Monitory Motion of the Earth in London (London, 1693), 122–23.

32. Beverly, Evangelical Repentance unto Salvation, 123; Samuel Doolittle, A Ser- mon Occasioned by the Late Earthquake (London, 1692), 17 (emphasis in original); A Sad and Terrible Relation of two Dreadful Earth-quakes That happened in England and at Jamaca [sic] (London, 1692), 6; for the idea that earthquakes were rare in Jamaica, see John Shower, Practical Reflections on the Late Earthquakes in Jamaica, England, Sicily, Malta, &c. Anno 1692 (London, 1693), 130; Robert Fleming, A Discourse of Earthquakes, as they are Supernatural and Premonitory Signs to a Nation (London, 1693), 16.



412 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

stated that ‘‘because the common and ordinary Means’’ of impressing on the people of New England the need for reformation had failed, ‘‘god has used One altogether new and extraordinary,’’ the earthquake. A recent study of the Chesapeake likewise suggests that providential thinking regarding earthquakes and other unusual events remained prominent throughout the eighteenth century. The printer of the Maryland Gazette, for example, echoed New England ministers by describing the 1755 earthquakes as ‘‘pe- culiar Tokens of His [i.e., God’s] Anger.’’33

A number of historians of seventeenth-century England have suggested that changing political, religious, intellectual, and cultural conditions under- mined belief in wonders during the second half of the seventeenth century, particularly among religious moderates known as Latitudinarians. Con- cerned about the political and religious upheaval that followed the Civil War and Restoration, and later the Glorious Revolution, these moderates sought ‘‘a more reasonable faith and more irenical church.’’ As part of that effort, Latitudinarians fought against what they saw as the politicization of ‘‘wonders’’ during the middle decades of the seventeenth century, and they sought to redefine what constituted a wonder and who could interpret its meaning. In place of special providences signifying the will of an interven- tionist God, Latitudinarians increasingly suggested that most events fol- lowed established patterns and laws, or what they called God’s ‘‘general providence.’’ They did not reject the idea of supernatural intervention in worldly affairs, but they generally sought to limit the possibility for such intervention. Building instead on new scientific discoveries about the opera- tions of the natural world, they highlighted the fixed laws by which God governed the universe. Wonder as a concept remained, but reformers sought to redefine it as an appreciation of God’s glory and his design of the world rather than an intense fear of divine wrath.34

33. Increase Mather, An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (Boston, 1684), 322–23; Thomas Foxcroft, The Earthquake, a Divine Visitation (Boston, 1756), 32; Cotton Mather, The Terror of the Lord: Some Account of the Earthquake that shook New England (Boston, 1727), 8; Benjamin Coleman quoted in Michael Crawford, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 115 (emphasis in original). On attitudes in New England toward earthquakes and other natural phenomena, see Kupperman, ‘‘Climate and Mastery of the Wilderness,’’ 26–29; Winship, Seers of God, 146; Clarke, ‘‘Science, Reason, and an Angry God,’’ 340–62; Maryland Gazette is quoted in Murphy, ‘‘Prodigies and Portents,’’ 397 (emphasis in original).

34. Winship, Seers of God; W. M. Spellman, The Latitudinarians and the Church of England, 1660–1700 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 1; Margaret Jacob, The Newtonians and the English Revolution, 1689–1720 (1976; repr., New



413Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

There is some evidence for such ideas regarding earthquakes in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Following the 1692 earthquake in England, Sir John Bramston prayed England would never experience the full force of a major earthquake, ‘‘tho’ I looke not on them as judgments from God, but as proceeding from naturall causes.’’ The Gentleman’s Journal in August 1692 included a brief item detailing the ‘‘extraordinary’’ disaster at Port Royal. The article noted three common explanations for earthquakes, ‘‘Di- vine, Astrological, and Physical,’’ suggesting that the first was ‘‘too general,’’ and the second ‘‘very uncertain, being generally grounded upon false princi- ples,’’ before moving on to a discussion of natural causes. Robert Hooke wrote in a 1690 essay on earthquakes, ‘‘’Tis the Contemplation of the won- derful Order, Law, and Power of that, we call Nature, that does most mag- nify the Beauty and Excellency of the Divine Providence.’’35

But if belief in wonders and special providences generally declined among certain social groups during the latter decades of the seventeenth century, providential interpretations of large-scale ‘‘public calamities’’—and earth- quakes in particular—remained common.36 John Tillotson, arguably the most influential Latitudinarian minister, wrote that earthquakes and other such disasters were ‘‘publick judgments’’ sent by God as punishments or portents. Tillotson discouraged efforts to read meaning into events that befell individuals, but he maintained that large-scale disasters like earth- quakes signaled God’s judgment or warning because, unlike individuals, nations could be punished only in this world. ‘‘The general and crying Sins of a Nation cannot hope to escape publick judgments,’’ he wrote. God may delay his action ‘‘’till the iniquities of a Nation be full, but sooner or later

York: Gordon and Breach, 1990); Daston and Park, Wonders and the Order of Na- ture, 329–43; Ned Landsman, From Colonials to Provincials: American Thought and Culture, 1680–1760 (1997; repr., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 63–66.

35. The Autobiography of Sir John Bramston (London, 1845), 371–72; Gentleman’s Journal, or The Monthly Miscellany (August 1692): 18–21; see also Burns, Age of Wonders, 147n58; Hooke quoted in Ellen Tan Drake, Restless Genius: Robert Hooke and His Earthly Thoughts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 329.

36. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 129; Burns, Age of Wonders, 138– 41. Burns writes that ‘‘Earthquakes were one of the few prodigies which retained a providential meaning into the eighteenth century,’’ in good measure because of their ‘‘sheer destructiveness’’; but, given the overall lack of major damage from most earthquakes, I would suggest it was their infrequency and potential for great dam- age, rather than their actual destructiveness, that explains why many in England continued to interpret them as special providences. See also J. C. D. Clarke, ‘‘Provi- dence, Predestination, and Progress: Or, Did the Enlightenment Fail?’’ Albion 35 (Winter 2003): 559–89.



414 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

they have reason to expect his vengeance.’’ John Shower concurred, writing in the immediate aftermath of the 1692 earthquake, ‘‘If God be provoked by National Sins, we cannot think that his Anger will be turned away, while the Cause of it remains; . . . The Punishment of such Sins can be only in this World.’’37

Some commentators continued to argue that specific earthquakes were caused directly by God. Thomas Doolittle, for example, maintained that the 1692 earthquake in England came ‘‘from the immediate hand of God.’’ In a 1693 pamphlet Robert Fleming argued that earthquakes were ‘‘Super- natural and Premonitory Signs to a Nation.’’ Others argued that God may have worked through secondary, or natural, causes, but that did not lessen the providential meaning of the event because God controlled all such forces. Thus, John Evelyn spent several pages in a letter dated October 15, 1692, to Dr. Thomas Tennison, the bishop of Lincoln, discussing the ‘‘irresistible effects of niter’’ as the natural cause of earthquakes—a position apparently held by the bishop himself—but he concluded, ‘‘when all is said, tho’ all [earthquakes] proceede from natural causes, yet doubt I not their being inflicted & directed, by the Supreme Cause of causes, as judgments upon a sinfull world, and for signes of greate calamities, if they work no reformation: if they do, of chastisements.’’ Earthquakes for Evelyn remained ‘‘portentous & of evil presage.’’ John Shower recognized that earthquakes were ‘‘capable of being solved by natural Causes,’’ but he emphasized that ‘‘The Hand of God is not to be overlooked in such things . . . especially such rare and unusual Instances as Earthquakes.’’38

Writers in the colonies echoed such sentiments. Cotton Mather warned, ‘‘Let the Natural Causes of Earthquakes be what the Wise Men of Enquiry

37. John Tillotson, ‘‘The Advantages of Religion to Societies,’’ in The Works of the Most Reverend Dr. John Tillotson, Late Lord Archbishop of Canterbury (London, 1752), 1:35–36. Shower, Practical Reflections on the Late Earthquakes, 124, 127 (em- phasis in original).

38. Thomas Doolittle, Earthquakes Explained and Practically Improved: Occa- sioned by the late Earthquake on September 8, 1692, in London (London, 1693), A4; Fleming, Discourse on Earthquakes; John Evelyn, Diary of John Evelyn, Esq., F.R.S., to which are Added a Selection from His Familiar Letters, ed. William Bray (London, 1879), 3:467–72. Writing in his diary after the September earthquake in England, Evelyn prayed, ‘‘God of his mercy, avert these Judgements, & make them to incite us to Repentance.’’ John Evelyn, Diary of John Evelyn, ed. Guy de la Bédoyère (Bangor, Wales: Headstart History, 1994), 385; Shower, Practical Reflections on the Late Earthquakes, 120–21. On the continuing power of Providence in the eigh- teenth century, see Clarke, ‘‘Providence, Predestination, and Progress,’’ 559–89.



415Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

please, They and their Causes are still under the Government of him that is the god of Nature.’’ John Danforth wrote in 1728 that earthquakes re- mained ‘‘awful Warnings, portentous Signs, and Fore-runners of great State- Quakes, and Church-Quakes, and Desolations.’’ Increase Mather concluded bluntly following a 1705 earthquake in Massachusetts, ‘‘There never hap- pens an Earthquake but God speaks to men on the Earth by it: And they are very stupid, if they do not hear His Voice therein.’’39

The response to earthquakes in England and New England, where people flooded into churches following earthquakes, suggests that large parts of the population agreed. They did so in great measure because, as Shower, Fox- croft, and numerous other writers noted, earthquakes were ‘‘rare and un- usual Instances’’ in most parts of the British Atlantic world. The shaking of the earth was a terrifying event, and, as a result, even minor tremors that did little more than ‘‘cause here and there the falling of some smaller Things, both within Doors and without,’’ regularly prompted fast days and an outpouring of sermons calling for reflection and repentance.40

This was not the case in Jamaica, however, where many colonists do not appear to have shared Increase Mather’s sentiments by the late seventeenth century. John White’s initial comments to Reverend Heath are in this re- gard revealing: ‘‘It is an Earthquake, be not afraid, it will soon be over.’’ Far from hearing God’s voice in the earthquake, White did not even interrupt his wine and pipe of tobacco until the tremors intensified. White, of course,

39. Mather, The Terror of the Lord, 9; John Danforth, A Sermon Occasioned by the Late Great Earthquake (Boston, 1728), 2 (emphasis in original); Increase Mather, A Discourse concerning Earthquakes, Occasioned by the Earthquakes Which Were in New England . . . June 22, 1705 (Boston, 1706), 8. For an example of the continuing strength of such sentiments following the 1755 earthquake, see Foxcroft, The Earth- quake, a Divine Visitation, 30.

40. Mather, The Terror of the Lord, 1; on the response to the London earthquake, which included closing a puppet show ‘‘profanely’’ depicting the Port Royal disaster at Southwark Fair, see Bédoyère, ed., Diary of John Evelyn, 385; Burns, Age of Won- ders, 138–41; The Summ of Two Sermons . . . Occaion’d from a Late Earthquake, Sept. 8 and Preached on the Fast following, Sept. 14 (London, 1692); on popular response to earthquakes in New England, particularly the 1727 earthquake, see Minkema, ‘‘The Lynn End ‘Earthquake’ Relations of 1727,’’ 473–82; Harry Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 177–79; Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 114–17. Of course, a variety of factors influenced interpretations of earthquakes, including the suddenness with which they struck and their unpredictability, and the fact that no general consensus had emerged among natural philosophers regarding their causes. See Andrews, ‘‘The Literature of the 1727 New England Earthquake,’’ 282–83.



416 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

turned out to be a bit premature is his dismissal of the rumblings on June 7, but his reaction suggests that many colonists had ceased to view earth- quakes as unusual events. As Sloane, Hanson, and others noted, by the 1680s—if not earlier—colonists expected that earthquakes would regularly rumble underfoot, even if their actual occurrence remained sudden and un- predictable.41

The frequency of earthquakes, in turn, undermined their status as won- drous events fraught with meaning. Although documentary material for early Jamaica is more limited than for England or New England, it appears that little or no commentary or moralizing followed many earthquakes in Jamaica during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Events that appear akin to the 1727 earthquake in New England or the 1692 earth- quake in London—meaning they caused relatively minor damage—do not appear to have generated anywhere near the level of concern about divine punishment that dominated public discourse elsewhere.42 Following the 1688 earthquake in Jamaica, for example, the governor reported, ‘‘there was a great earthquake in the island, but no great harm done that I can hear.’’ John Taylor reported that a few houses were thrown down and several others damaged, as were several small boats, but despite such losses, the governor apparently did not appoint a day of fasting in the wake of the disaster. Likewise, despite the fact that ‘‘severall’’ and ‘‘frequent’’ earthquakes shook the island in 1703, including one on January 30 that was ‘‘the greatest ever known in this Island excepting what destroyed Port Royal,’’ it appears that no fast days were called or noteworthy sermons published.43 After experi- encing two ‘‘Strong Shocks of an Earthquake’’ in early May 1712, and shortly thereafter ‘‘a terrible clap of thunder which lasted longer than ordi-

41. Heath, Full Account of the Late Dreadful Earthquake. 42. John Gates Taylor notes that ‘‘minor shocks’’ like those of the 1750 earth-

quakes in England ‘‘would have gone almost unnoticed if they had occurred in regions of the world where earthquakes were common.’’ ‘‘Eighteenth-Century Earthquake Theories,’’ 16.

43. Jamaica did not have a press until 1718, so few sermons on the island were published. But some were printed elsewhere, including one commemorating the Port Royal earthquake, which suggests that if a notable sermon had been preached, there was some chance of its being published. See William Corbin, A Sermon Preached at Kingstown in Jamaica, Upon the 7th of June, Being the Anniversary Fast for that Dreadful Earth-Quake which happened there in the Year 1692 (New York, 1703); also A Sermon preached on January the 1st. 1680/1: In the New Church at Port- Royal in Jamaica (London, 1681), which was published at the request of Sir Henry Morgan. On the press, see Roderick Cave, ‘‘Printing Comes to Jamaica,’’ Jamaica Journal 9 (1975): 11–17.



417Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

nary,’’ Hugh Totterdell expressed amazement that ‘‘a people to whome God speaks so frequently in Thunder, Lightning, fire and Earthquakes sho’d be so unmindfull of his power and Judgments.’’ But instead of heeding what Totterdell clearly viewed as divine messages, most of his fellow colonists continued about their daily business committing ‘‘horrid Abominations.’’44

Totterdell’s comments fit a long-standing image of seventeenth-century Jamaica as a particularly irreligious society, lacking churches and ministers, as well as basic morals, and it is worth considering whether the response to earthquakes simply reflected a larger culture dedicated more to material gain than to spiritual concerns. Certainly Jamaica struggled to build churches and staff parishes with resident ministers, but its experience was not distinc- tive; it mirrored that of most other British colonies outside New England (and Pennsylvania) for much of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centu- ries. Although officials decried the lack of ministers and worried about the spread of ‘‘atheism and irreligion,’’ there were seven ministers in the colony’s fifteen parishes in 1682. John Taylor noted that by the end of the 1680s, even debauched Port Royal boasted Anglican St. Paul’s Church, Quaker and Presbyterian meetinghouses, a synagogue, and a Catholic chapel. In other parts of the island, where ‘‘plantations are at such distance that it is impossible to make up congregations,’’ Governor Thomas Modyford re- ported in 1671 that colonists often met in private houses, ‘‘as the primitive Christians did, and there pray, read a chapter, sing a psalm.’’ Modyford worried about the lack of ministers in Jamaica, but he suggested that many colonists had come to Jamaica ‘‘well instructed in the article of our faith,’’ which allowed them to maintain basic beliefs and practices, although the intensity of such beliefs no doubt varied considerably.45

44. Governor the Duke of Albemarle to Lords of Trade and Plantations, March 6, 1688, CSPC, 514–15; Taylor, ‘‘Multum in Parvo,’’ 2:316–17; Lt. Governor Han- dasyd to the Council of Trade and Plantations, February 3, 1703, CSPC, 177; Lt. Governor Handasyd to the Council of Trade and Plantations, May 23, 1703, CSPC, 435–36; Lt. Governor Handasyd to the Council of Trade and Plantations, August 27, 1703, CSPC, 657–59; Hugh Totterdell to P. Castleman, May 27, 1712, MS. 2050, NLJ.

45. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 335–41; Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh, No Peace be- yond the Line, 379, 412–13. On the lack of ministers in Virginia and other colonies during much of the seventeenth and into the early eighteenth centuries, see Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Cambridge: Harvard Uni- versity Press, 1990), 38–51, 63–66; Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 7, 16–17, 23; Larry Gragg, Englishmen Transplanted: The English Colonization of Barbados, 1627–1660 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 85–86. On the



418 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

It is also clear that colonists continued to live in what the historian David Hall has called the ‘‘world of wonders.’’ As in other parts of the British Atlantic, unusual events often remained portentous in the eyes of many colonists in Jamaica. William Beeston maintained that the appearance of a comet in the 1660s ‘‘was the forerunner of the blasting of the cocoa trees,’’ which soon failed on the island. When the flag on Fort Charles blew down on the king’s birthday in 1678, Beeston wrote that colonists viewed it as ‘‘ominous, being so noted a day, and on the most noted fort.’’46

Moreover, colonists invoked the concept of Providence to make sense of strange occurrences and major calamities, including the Port Royal earth- quake. Colonists in Jamaica, like their counterparts in England and North America, often turned to rituals like fast days in the wake of such events to humble themselves before God. In the aftermath of the Port Royal earth- quake, local officials set aside July 13 as a day of humiliation. The next year they declared June 7 an annual fast day, which retained its importance well into the eighteenth century. One observer in the 1730s stated that the fasts on June 7 and August 28—declared following the 1722 hurricane—were ‘‘most devoutly kept’’ (although he noted that colonists generally exhibited indifference to religious affairs).47 When Port Royal was again thoroughly

state of churches and religion in seventeenth-century Jamaica, see ‘‘Sir Thos. Lynch’s Account of the state of the Church in Jamaica,’’ May 1676, CSPC, 237–38; Sir Thomas Lynch to the Bishop of London, October 23, 1682, CSPC, 313–15. Lynch wrote that there were fourteen parishes on the island, but he lists fifteen by name. Taylor is cited in Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 184; ‘‘The Governor of Jamaica’s [Sir. Thos. Modyford], answers to the inquiries of his Majesties Commissioners,’’ December 21, 1671, CSPC, 302–7. The range and intensity of beliefs among colonists in Jamaica probably mirrored those outlined by James Horn in his study of colonists in the Chesa- peake. See Horn, Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 381–418.

46. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, 71–116; ‘‘A Journal Kept by Col. William Beeston, from his First Coming to Jamaica,’’ in Interesting Tracts Relating to the Island of Jamaica (St. Jago de Vega, 1800), 284, 294; James Robertson, ‘‘ ‘Stories’ and ‘Histor- ies’ in Late-Seventeenth-Century Jamaica,’’ in Kathleen Monteith and Glen Rich- ards, eds., Jamaica in Slavery and Freedom: History, Heritage, and Culture (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2002), 25–51. Astrology, it should be noted, also attracted some colonists. John Taylor reported that many residents fled Port Royal in March 1686 after an astrologer predicted the town would soon be de- stroyed by an earthquake, although they returned when the appointed day passed quietly. Taylor, ‘‘Multum in Parvo,’’ 2:316.

47. Minutes of the Council, June 28, 1692, CSPC, 661–62; Lt. Governor Sir William Beeston to Lords of Trade and Plantations, May 24, 1693, CSPC, 106–8; Charles Leslie, A New and Exact Account of Jamaica (Edinburgh, 1740), 306–7.



419Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

destroyed in 1703, this time by a devastating fire, one pamphlet writer saw the destruction as a ‘‘Judgment’’ and hoped it would inspire a ‘‘more serious and more general Spirit of Humiliation, Prayer, and hearty Repentance to prevent our Ruin.’’48

The absence of providential interpretations to numerous minor earth- quakes during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries thus suggests that it was the island’s physical state, not its religious environment, that played the key role in shaping attitudes about earthquakes. Colonists in Jamaica shared basic Protestant beliefs with their counterparts throughout the British Atlantic world, including belief in wonders, and they responded to such wondrous events with the same rituals. What distinguished colo- nists in Jamaica was a new sense of what constituted a wonder, a sense that developed from their experience on the island. As they gained more knowledge about the natural world in Jamaica, English colonists came to appreciate distinguishing features of the physical environment, one of which was that earthquakes were not ‘‘rare and surprising’’ events. They were in- stead common—and expected—occurrences. As a result, they gradually ceased to appear as extraordinary or providential events and instead became accepted as part of life in Jamaica.

Earthquakes, of course, remained terrifying events for colonists. John Taylor remarked that many residents were ‘‘much afrightned’’ by the 1688 earthquake. Lieutenant Governor William Beeston wrote in July 1693 that earthquakes occurred ‘‘pretty frequently’’ and although they caused little damage, they were ‘‘sufficient to terrify.’’ After 1692 even minor tremors generated fears that another disaster on the scale of Port Royal was about to occur, and perhaps no colonist ever again dismissed a rumbling underfoot as nonchalantly as John White. But the fear was momentary, and once the moment had passed, the experience did not result in the sustained reflection on divine judgment so common in other parts of the British Atlantic world. When a minor earthquake struck Jamaica on the night of June 11, 1766, a newspaper account described frightened residents fleeing their beds to seek safety, and it noted that it was seventy-four years and four days since the

48. A Further and More Particular Account of the late Dreadful Fire, at Port Royal in Jamaica (London, 1703?). See also An Account of the late Dreadful Earth-quake in the Island of Mevis [sic] St. Christophers, &c (London, 1690). The account details a devastating earthquake in 1690 that killed several people and destroyed numerous houses and sugar mills. The author spent some time speculating on the possible natural causes of earthquakes—he thought that ‘‘both Wind and Water concur’d in this which we have suffered’’—but concluded that regardless of natural causes, the earthquake remained ‘‘a terrible Judgment of God upon us.’’



420 Early American Studies • Fall 2008

Port Royal earthquake. But another report a few months later indicated that although the initial shock generated some fear, ‘‘slight shocks had been so frequent since, at least twice or thrice every week, that they were now scarcely regarded.’’49

The same attitude appeared on some of the other islands that experienced regular earthquakes. William Smith, who served as rector of St. John’s par- ish in Nevis for five years in the late 1710s and early 1720s, wrote, ‘‘We are disturbed not a little by frequent Earthquakes, which we look upon to be caused by these Veins of Sulphur, Brimstone, &c.’’ Smith counted at least a dozen earthquakes during his stay. The worst occurred in 1717. The earth- quake lasted two and a half minutes and generated ‘‘inexpressible’’ fear among colonists, but ‘‘the very moment it stopped, we were no more con- cerned than if it had never happened at all.’’50� In his discussion of the culture of wonders in New England, David Hall writes, ‘‘It was in the very nature of the wonder that it be ‘surprising,’ that it run against the grain of routine expectations.’’ For colonists in Jamaica at the end of the seventeenth century, earthquakes no longer fit this definition. Far from being strange and surprising, earthquakes had become common- place, and their frequency influenced how colonists interrupted them. Whatever momentary terror they caused, repeated experience meant that colonists in Jamaica viewed many earthquakes that probably would have produced a flurry of sermons and pamphlets in other parts of the British Atlantic world as regular features of life in the region—once, twice, perhaps several times a year such events generated brief moments of fear, and then

49. Taylor, ‘‘Multum in Parvo,’’ 2:316–17; Sir William Beeston to Lords of Trade and Plantations, July 27, 1693, CSPC, 134; Pennsylvania Gazette, July 24, 1766; Pennsylvania Gazette, October 9, 1766.

50. Smith, A Natural History of Nevis, 59–63. Similar attitudes also developed regarding other natural phenomena in Jamaica. Thomas Thistlewood, who arrived in Jamaica in 1750, wrote that in some parts of Jamaica, the frequency of great thunder was such ‘‘that some people take no notice of it.’’ To cite one ‘‘remarkable instance,’’ he recalled a storm that struck in 1753. Thistlewood and several compan- ions had eaten lunch at a tavern, and one of his companions retired for a nap, ‘‘according to the Creole custom.’’ A great thunderstorm soon developed, and de- spite ‘‘the terrible flashes of lightning, and the surprising loudness of the thunder,’’ the longtime resident of the island slept through the entire storm. Quoted in Mi- chael Chenoweth, The 18th Century Climate of Jamaica, Derived from the Journals of Thomas Thistlewood, 1750–1786 (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2003), 42.



421Mulcahy • The Port Royal Earthquake and the World of Wonders

were forgotten. Major disasters, of course, remained powerful reminders ‘‘that there was a God, who governed the World,’’ as one English minister wrote in 1692. Events like Port Royal brought forth traditional providential interpretations, and their lessons lingered in the colonists’ collective mem- ory. But even the Port Royal calamity occasioned a variety of responses, some of which pointed to the town’s geography and architecture—not just its sinful social environment—as important factors for understanding the extent of damage and destruction.51

As various historians have long noted, the physical environment of the West Indies created unique challenges for English colonists in the seven- teenth century. As they gained more experience living in the region, colo- nists slowly adjusted to such challenges, changing their ideas about what houses should look like, what clothes they should wear, and what foods they should eat.52 Another of those adjustments involved altering some of their ideas about the natural world and the meaning they attached to various natural phenomena. In the end, accounts of the Port Royal disaster and other writings about earthquakes in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries reveal the extent to which colonists shared the basic beliefs and attitudes of people throughout the British Atlantic world, and the extent to which local conditions and experiences had shaped a distinct worldview.

51. Hall, World of Wonders, 115; Thomas Doolittle quoted in Gragg, ‘‘Port Royal Earthquake,’’ 34. On memory of Port Royal, see Corbin, A Sermon Preached at Kings Town in Jamaica Upon the 7th of June. The fast day was kept well into the nineteenth century. Writing in 1892, Maxwell Hall decried ‘‘the removal of the 7th of June from the list of holidays observed by public offices and the Colonial Bank.’’ Hall, ‘‘Notes on an Article Written by Captain Ellis,’’ Journal of the Institute of Jamaica 1 (January 1893): 198.

52. Dunn, Sugar and Slaves, 263–99.

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