Fort Charles, Kingston, Jamaica
Fort Charles: Remnants of a Sunken Pirates’ Paradise
Once notoriously known as ‘the richest and wickedest city’ in the world; Port Royal, Jamaica is one of the last shreds of a pirate glory that overtook the seven seas in the 1600s. Previously recognized as the booming epicenter of trade, commerce and piracy is now only a remnant of its former glory. In modern times it is now a quaint fishing village located at the end of the Palisadoes strip, by the Kingston Harbour, in southeastern Jamaica. But Port Royal in its glory days was an important economic center of the ‘New World’. Now only pockets of history are left; with Fort Charles being one of the last narrators still present telling epic tales of the story that was.
A Journey Back
It had been a few years since I last visited Fort Charles. About six (6) years to be exact. And I was excited to rekindle a memory that is not quite as clear as before. You see the last time I was here it was a little different. It was a cultural trip to introduce a new friend to somewhere he didn’t think really existed. That summer I was hosting an exchange medical student from Spain at my house while he was on his medical school elective. He wanted to know about some of the sites about town and places he could visit during his stay.
Ever the budding travel guide I started reeling off some of my favourite places and places I thought he might be interested in. And when I mentioned Port Royal he looked at me a little quizzically. Then he said something that at the time made me laugh out loud. He told me that he didn’t think Port Royal existed. He actually thought it was a made up place from Pirates of the Caribbean movies much like Gotham City in the batman cartoons, comics and movies. I myself was shocked and I thought it was pretty funny to be honest.
Is this what foreigners think? Port Royal is some mythical made up place from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. A place of fairy tales and mythological creatures? Rather than the place of rich history that resides on the island of Jamaica. Is that what they really think? I couldn’t let him go on thinking like that. It was suddenly my duty to right this wrong and introduce him to the great city that was Port Royal. So off we went. He (Juan), along with my friend Keyva and I all headed to Port Royal for a day of adventure, fun and history. So before I go any further. Just to make it clear as day. For those of you who didn't know before…. PORT ROYAL REALLY EXISTS!!!!!
Now fast forward to a few years later and my feeling a little restless and wanderlust are kicking in as per usual. Now I have this sudden desire of just wanting to go on a random short day trip. Nowhere too far but somewhere interesting nonetheless. Somewhere to quell my thirst for adventure if even for a moment. And then it struck me like lightning. I haven’t been to Fort Charles in a while. And so a journey was begun.
Pieces of the Past: A look down memory lane
Let's start off with a little history lesson shall we? Shockingly, Jamaica was not always a British colony or the athletic and music producing titan it’s known to be. In fact, Jamaica was originally colonized by the Spanish since Christopher Columbus’ second voyage to the new world in 1494. However, it was later attacked and captured by the English in 1655. This change in government came after a failed attempt at getting the well-guarded Hispanola. So the British turned their sights on the less guarded Jamaica. I mean they sailed all this way, they couldn’t go home empty handed right? Pride really is a hell of a thing.
During the Spanish stay, Port Royal was used as a harbour and for cleaning and repairing sea vessels. But Port Royal’s legacy really stretches back to Jamaica’s indigenous inhabitants, the Tainos who used it as a fishing camp prior to the Spaniards arrival.
However, once the British took over, they immediately noted its strategic advantages and began to put fortifications in place. And this is when Port Royal began to thrive and transformed into the largest and richest harbour in the western hemisphere. It was the entry way and port to all of the English-speaking Caribbean at the time.
Port Royal became the most prominent coastal community during Jamaica's colonisation by the British. It was actually one of the richest places in the world of the time and one of the largest English towns. It was designed to serve as a defensive fortification, guarding the harbour entrance, and providing a platform for the easy loading and unloading of ships- large and small. During the 17th century, it was the virtual capital of Jamaica.
However, it's social milieu left much to be desired in the realm of morality. Because of its good natural harbour and key position, Port Royal quickly became a major haven for pirates and buccaneers, who were made welcome because of the need for defenders. In fact, though it is well known that Port Royal was a place of criminals, pirates, concubines and rampaged by every demoralized person of the time. Or so they say. These pirates and buccaneers were actually recognized agents of the King himself. And performed much of their plundering in the name of England. Which is how one of the most notorious pirates of the time was knighted and is known as Sir Henry Morgan. He was later made Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica.
Fun Fact: Port Royal was initially an island separated from Kingston and the rest of the Palisadoes
Tell me more about Fort Charles
Fort Charles was actually the first fort to be erected in Port Royal. It was built in the late 1650-60 and was originally called Fort Cromwell but was renamed Fort Charles.
Initially, Fort Charles housed 36 guns but eventually grew in numbers significantly to the tune of owning 104 guns and a 500-man garrison.
Fun Fact: The fort was built in the shape of a ship
So whatever happened to it you ask? Why is Jamaica a third world country despite these periods of prosperity? Despite Port Royal being a place filled with gold, jewels and precious stones and gems from all over the world?
Well apart from our poor management or rather the government's poor management of our funds and our underdeveloped industries; there were a few earthquakes and tsunamis that seemed to have it out for Port Royal and much of Port Royal is now buried below sea level.
On June 7th, 1962 at approximately 11:42 am disaster struck in the form of a major earthquake which sent portions of the town hurtling into the ocean. This led to the ultimate desolation of Port Royal. A large part of the town sank into the sea and many of its inhabitants died either from the earthquake or the disease that followed.
Rumour has it that much of the gold is still buried underwater, not that i'm sending anyone to go diving for treasure or anything.
Eventually, after recurrent disasters (such as the fire in 1703 and hurricanes in 1712, 1722 and 1726); the British relocated from Port Royal to what is now the capital of Jamaica, Kingston.
How to get there?
The town of Port Royal is located approximately fifteen minutes from the Norman Manley International Airport on the end of the Palisadoes strip in Kingston. It’s a pretty easy drive by private motor vehicle as it’s just a straight road. I’ve also heard that the JUTC bus #98 runs to Port Royal if you seek to take public transportation.
Fort Charles operates daily (except Good Friday and Christmas) between the hours of 9am to 5pm at a cost of US$15 and $8 for foreigners and JA$600 and $300 for locals, adult and child prices respectively. Local adults are required to present a valid local ID. Discounts are available for local primary and secondary school children at $250 while teachers and tertiary students with ID pay $500. Guided tours of the town are also available at an additional cost.
So what is there left to do at Fort Charles today?
Today, after surviving multiple earthquakes, hurricanes and even a fire; Fort Charles operates as a heritage tour site ran by the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT). The heritage and culture site is renowned for its rich history and deep roots firmly planted in Jamaica.
An approximately 30 minute tour is led by guide who is often time a local from the town who can share some interesting tidbits about Port Royal and Fort Charles. (Ask about Lewis Galdy. That is a tale definitely worth hearing). The JNHT has managed to upkeep much of the forts original appearance and houses artifacts of the times within its 2 museums.
Overall, Fort Charles is a symbol of Jamaica’s connectivity. A connection to a rich and interesting past that has shaped our multifaceted future. A remnant of a pirates’ paradise. It is a definite must see on your next Kingston adventure.
So if you're a history lover, a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie or just a regular old traveler looking for a new adventure, then you should definitely check it out.