History at the heart of Port Royal development

Jonathan Greenland explains how Jamaica’s national museum and port authority are working together

History at the heart of Port Royal development
An 1864 watercolour of Fort Charles, which is part of the National Library of Jamaica’s collection

By Richard Humphreys |

When Port Royal in Kingston, Jamaica, opened to cruise passengers at the start of 2020, they were given the opportunity to explore the country from a new perspective and learn how the destination is built on history and community. 

“Sharing the history of Jamaica and the foundational role Port Royal has played are important aspects of the development,” says Jonathan Greenland, director of National Museum Jamaica. 

The port, once known as “the richest and wickedest city in the world”, has a long and vibrant history. It was part of the Spanish Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries before Britain took control of Jamaica following the Treaty of Madrid in 1670. 

“Before the Spanish Empire and the British conquest, the location was used as a fishing ground by the Taino, the original Jamaicans,” says Greenland. “The Spanish then used it for careening ships because of the shallow waters, where they could bring in ships at high tide before turning them on their sides at low tide for cleaning. The British created a fortress called Fort Cromwell [renamed Fort Charles in 1660] at the tip of a string of little islands because it controlled the deep-water channel into Kingston Harbour.” 

The British had a naval presence in Port Royal from the 1670s and built Port Royal Dockyard. “The dockyard progressively got busier, and it became almost like other colonial stops in the British Empire, such as Gibraltar, the Cape of Good Hope or Madras,” says Greenland. “In 1905 the British Royal Navy effectively pulled out and took everything with it, leaving the port as a small naval base without a dockyard. It survives now as a very beautiful little town with a military base manned by the Jamaica Defence Force.” 

Much of the port’s long history remains despite Jamaica experiencing devastating earthquakes through the centuries, including one in 1692 that left a third of the city underwater. To ensure it remains protected, National Museum Jamaica and the Port Authority of Jamaica formed a relationship and worked together when re-establishing Port Royal as a new cruise destination. The Port Authority of Jamaica has already implemented the western hemisphere’s first Seawalk system, which is also used in the fjords of Norway and Sweden. The dock floats out to meet the ship. 

Meanwhile, says Greenland, the museum’s role is to show visitors what Port Royal was like throughout its history. “Port Royal has this epic history and we’re working with the port authority to showcase that,” he explains. “There are some long-standing historical structures, like Fort Charles, which is one of the few fortresses that didn’t fall down in the earthquake. There are also the remains of a Victorian battery, St Peter’s Church, Lime Street, a women’s jail, the remains of a torpedo boat slipway that has an interesting role in naval history, and the old naval hospital, which is a fascinating one-of-a-kind iron-framed building.” 

Greenland values Port Royal’s archaeological history greatly. “We’ve always fought to protect it,” he says. “The solution that the port authority devised works for us as there’s no permanent structure there – ships essentially dock where they used to in the old days anyway. The port authority is very cognisant of the fact that Port Royal has this really interesting history and it’s crucial to maintain it.” 

Soon, a museum will be built on the Old Coal Wharf, tracing the port’s history from the Spanish Empire and age of piracy to the earthquake of 1692 and life thereafter. Greenland was recently at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, going through archives documenting the port and dockyard’s past to find information he can incorporate into the museum. 

“We’ve developed a walking tour with a book that visitors can use to guide them through the historic structures and spaces within Port Royal,” says Greenland. “It will also be virtual too. We are working with the ‘Port Royalists’ [local people], encouraging them to lead walking tours and share their community’s history. We’re very mindful of ensuring the local population get something out of this development because it’s vital we protect their heritage and culture. Port Royal is not your typical cruise destination.” 

This article was first published in the 2022 Autumn/Winter issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.     

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