The Underwater City of Port Royal

Photo by Zoe Sheng.

The Underwater City of Port Royal is part of the Tentative list of Jamaica in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

Port Royal, commonly referred to as "the wickedest city on earth", boats an intriguing and turbulent history as it rapidly grew to become the most important trading post in the New World. At the height of its glittering wealth, on June 7, 1692, Port Royal was consumed by an earthquake and two thirds of the town sank into the sea. The underwater assemblage of excavated buildings in the sunken city is an excellent example of an architectural ensemble representing everyday life in a colonial port town.

Map of The Underwater City of Port Royal

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

Community Reviews

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UK - 10-Feb-19 -

We visited Port Royal as long ago as 2004 and I review it now simply because it is nominated for 2019 and no one else has! I fear that the result will provide WHS travellers more with an indication of what the normal visitor will NOT see rather than describing a great visiting experience!!

We should first come clean that neither of us is into diving/snorkelling – which was always likely to prove a hindrance to viewing what is clearly badged as an “Underwater city”!! However it turns out that anyone wanting to dive the archaeological remains of Port Royal needs “special permission” from the authorities - and I have no indication from any Web site that this is readily given, though it may be of course that surreptitious trips are available. I wouldn’t have expected that gaining permission or making unauthorised dives will have become any easier since it was decided to nominate the site for WH status. ICOMOS will have wanted good evidence that the remains were properly protected. A web search will show that there are many dive companies offering diving in the “Port Royal Cays” but closer reading indicates that these are to reefs and wrecks well away from the excavations and the likely nominated marine area.

All is not lost however for those wanting a “visited tick”, since part of the site lies above the water and has presumably been included within the nominated area. The 1692 earthquake which destroyed the thriving town of some 7000 inhabitants, led to around 2/3rds of it disappearing under the water. Excavations have shown that these sections were “lost” in 2 ways – those close to the current shore which “slid” into the water and were badly damaged and those further out which appear to have “dropped” vertically and which are thereby remarkably preserved. Excavations have been concentrated in this latter area. This is their official Web site. The map on it shows how the 1/3rd of the town which wasn’t destroyed remains, such that, to this day, one can walk along a part of Queen St which then continues underwater to a series of well preserved buildings which form the heart of the underwater excavations and have provided a wide range of artefacts and information on daily life, trade etc etc from the late 17th C.

The town has been undergoing investment in pursuit of a “Master Plan” developed in 2000. I quote from the Plan’s “Vision”!!! “To restore the city’s heritage and become a vibrant historical attraction and cruise ship port of call …an interpretive master plan that would open up Port Royal to cruise ship stopovers by providing adequate infrastructure and strategic visitor experiences designed to evoke exploration of the entire town. From the moment of arrival, (the) plan introduces visitors to the heritage, cultural and natural diversity of Port Royal at two key anchor areas. Old Port Royal, located at the end of the new cruise ship pier, sets out to recreate a 17th century ethos of vibrancy and excitement. The hub will be the reconstructed Chocolata Hole harbour, which features Fisher’s Row, a mix of period-style waterfront cafes and shops. The King’s Royal Naval Dockyard, designed as a second arrival center, offers a cultural experience with the renovated British Empire’s Admiral headquarters and a Ship Building Museum displaying tools and navigational equipment.” Unfortunately Wayback machine doesn't seem to want to provide regular access to the plan I quote from above using what should be valid links. You might want to try Ref 26 on this Wiki page for Port Royal if you want to learn more about “Fort Rocky Entertainment Centre” and “Entertainment Alley”. If you reach it then at least have a look at the "aerial experiental" image – note the enormous cruise ship drawn up to the new pier and overshadowing the nearby “mix of period-style waterfront cafes and shops” at Fishers Row and the reconstructed “Chocolata Hole”!! If you can't reach the plan itself then this 16 minute video, full of hyperbole and management speak, describes the project.

Well, there wasn’t a lot of “vibrancy and excitement” when we were there in 2004 - but perhaps it hadn’t got going. Indeed, information on the Web as to how far the development has progressed in the intervening years is remarkably “thin”. I did, however, find this Web site which describes the construction of a new cruise ship pier due to open in early 2019. It has been designed with a floating pontoon to avoid any damage to the archaeological remains so, hopefully, should avoid censure by ICOMOS? What we reached was a rather sleepy "village" at the end of a long spit of land shared with, but beyond, Kingston airport. The city of Kingston lies close across the bay (water taxis are envisaged at some time!) but the road has to go the long way round for 23kms. There was a reasonably plush hotel – but not, i think the same as the “Five Star” model foreseen in the “Plan”. It had a marina and was full of “Yachties” and rich tourists sipping expensive drinks - we beat a hasty retreat! We walked around the “above water” streets and indeed saw a number of ruined walls with notice boards describing them but there wasn’t in all honesty a lot to see. Recently taken photos I have seen when writing this review indicate that presentation of the historic areas might have been improved and opened up since 2004. But I don’t even have a photo of the visit (I can’t have thought that it might one day far into the future become a WHS!)  The Fort areas had the most visible remains. but they were no Brimstone Hill (St Kitts) and the harbour was no Nelson’s Dockyard (Antigua). This latter WHS has also undergone a fair amount of “rich tourism” development but has a much more significant "on view" historic footprint than “terrestrial” Port Royal. It does appear that excavations which have been carried out in the remaining town have also yielded significant finds (see this) but they didn’t provide much in situ interest for us (maybe our fault?).

The reality is that the landside remains are not what make Port Royal special. Its OUV lies primarily underwater, inaccessible to most visitors, but important/special enough such that, if the nomination satisfies the more “managerial” requirements of the process, it will indeed justify inscription. The more grandiose aspects of the Development Plan might however create a stumbling block. I note that it was rejected way back in 1988 as only being of "importance to Jamaica" - but assessments have moved on since then - An understanding of the importance of underwater archaeology has grown and I don't think that a small developing country's heritage would be dismissed in such an out of hand way in 2019!!

As for the future - I don't really criticize Jamaica for trying to improve the wealth of its people by this ambitious project but foresee the emergence of a “Disneyfied” experience majoring on “Pirates of the Caribbean” (set at Port Royal but not filmed there) and its reputation as the “City of Sinners”  - all done, of course, in the “best possible taste”!!  If it helps pay for improved preservation of the "not on show aspects" then, so be it. Hopefully the planned museum will yet show the excavated artefacts in a satisfactory way if it is given a chance alongside all the rampant moneymaking developments and thus, at least in part, overcome the difficulties of making a satisfactory visit.

Full Name
The Underwater City of Port Royal
Nominated for
Archaeological site - Caribbean
2019 Deferred

2009 Added to Tentative List

1988 Rejected

Important for Jamaica but not WHS (earlier nomination under the name of 'Port Royal')

The site has 1 locations

The Underwater City of Port Royal (T)
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