Spain laid claim to the island of Jamaica from the time Columbus landed there in 1494. In 1503, Columbus was shipwrecked there for a year. In 1655, Jamaica was captured by British Admiral William Penn, father of Pennsylvania’s founder. Jamaica was too far from England to defend, so the inhabitants turned to privateers, freebooters, buccaneers and pirates for protection.
The likes of Blackbeard, Calico Jack and Captain Henry Morgan, namesake of the rum, attacked Spanish ships and settlements, then returned to Jamaica with their booty. The skull pirate flag, called the “Jolly Roger,” was adapted from the flag of the Muslim Barbary pirates who raided ships and beheaded with their scimitar swords.
On the island of Jamaica’s sandy southeast coast, the city of Port Royal grew to surpass Boston as England’s most prosperous New World settlement. Many of the Caribbean’s thousand pirates and smugglers operated from there, with half of the 200 ships a year passing through the harbor transporting slaves, liquor, and other contraband trade to Spanish America.
Drinking, gaming houses, slave trading, brothels, taverns and grog shops, attracted “pirates, cutthroats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world.” Port Royal was called “the richest and wickedest city in the world” or “the Sodom of the New World.”
Suddenly, June 7, 1692, an earthquake and tsunami sank Port Royal under the sea, followed by violent aftershocks. Over 2,000 drowned. Graves were opened and bodies washed about.
The sea inundated the town’s wharf, “with all those goodly brick houses upon it … and two entire streets beyond that.” Enormous waves tossed ships from the harbor into buildings, and in many places the ground opened up and “swallow’d up multitudes of people together.”
Members of the Jamaica Council declared: “We are become … an instance of God Almighty’s severe judgment,” therefore every future “seventh of June … be kept and observed by all the inhabitants of this Island, as an anniversary day of fasting and humiliation,” in hopes that acknowledging “manifold sins and wickednesses committed against his Divine Majesty,” may “appease God’s imminent wrath and prevent heavier judgements.”
A Quaker resident, John Pike, wrote June 19, 1692: “Ah brother! If thou didst see those great persons that are now dead upon the water thou couldst never forget it. Great men who were so swallowed up with pride, that a man could not be admitted to speak with them, and women whose top-knots seemed to reach the clouds, now lie stinking upon the water, and are made meat for fish and fowls of the air.”
Eyewitness Rev. Emmanuel Heath, the Anglican rector for Port Royal, had finished his morning prayer service at St Paul’s Church and was meeting with John White, president of the island’s council, when the floor began “rowling and moving” and they “heard the church and tower fall.”
Rev. Heath wrote: “Port Royal was terribly destroyed by an earthquake and breaking in of the sea upon it. The destruction was sudden … in four minutes multitudes were killed by the falling houses. … I believe God I never in my life saw such a terror … the earth opened and swallowed up people before my face. … The sea swallowed up the greatest part of that wretched sinful place. … They are so wicked, I fear God … will utterly destroy all by this dreadful Judgment. … By this terrible judgment, God will make them reform their lives, for there was not a more ungodly people on the face of the earth.”
A resident, Samuel Bernard, wrote: “We shall be unworthy of God’s mercies if we be not by His judgments taught to learn righteousness.”
Rev. John Shower wrote in his “Practical Reflections on the late Earthquakes in Jamaica,” 1693: “It is dreadful to think … how Atheism, and Infidelity prevails, and barefac’d Deism, with the Rejection of Christianity, and all Revealed Religion. … If you do not truly Repent, so as to hate Sin, and leave it, and turn to the Lord; if you do not unfeignedly give up Yourselves to God in Christ, as your Saviour, and Sovereign, your Judgment is near, your Destruction is at hand, you must Perish; and that more dreadfully, than most others in the World.”
In September of 1860, Jamaica was visited with a tremendous revival, as documented in Dr. J. Edwin Orr’s book, “The Event of the Century: The 1857-1858 Awakening.” Moravian missionary Rev. Theodor Sonderman recorded that the revival began in St. Elizabeth Parish and spread to Montego Bay, Bethel Town, Spanish Town, Clarendon and Kingston.
Fervency in prayer was accompanied by trembling, crying out to the Lord, weeping, and repentance. One morning prayer meeting drew 500 people. Baptists reported over 6,000 baptized. United Presbyterian Church reported 4,000 new members, calling it “the most remarkable and encouraging (news) that have ever come from Jamaica.”
Churches were crowded to overflowing with membership roles exploding. Crime subsided, gambling houses closed, superstitions were abandoned, and cohabiting couples were married. Congregationalist considered the Island completely evangelized. The Wesleyan Methodist Churches reported thousands of new members with sinners wailing and “strong crying with tears.”
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