Port Royal: A Rebirth or a Reinvention?

January 27th, 2020

I have mixed emotions about the little town of Port Royal. It is now undergoing some kind of transformation, due to the development of a (floating) cruise ship pier in the mangroves just north of the town itself. What is the future for the town, its beleaguered environment, and the livelihoods of its residents?

It is a place filled with memories for my family – of long Sunday afternoons (waiting for dinner to arrive as we sat in Gloria’s restaurant, which is unfortunately still synonymous with slow service), while the radio played Sunday “oldies.” After we had eaten a substantial meal, we would walk down to the seashore and get lungfuls of fresh air on the beach, watching container ships and frigate birds glide.

Evening football at Port Royal. (My photo)

Evening football at Port Royal. (My photo)

Over many years now, we have enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of Port Royal. It has always been a backwater; a place where, as the shadows lengthened, an impromptu game of football might start and the slapping sounds of domino games could be heard. Considering its proximity to the city of Kingston, it was almost completely free of crime and violence – and economic activity, apart from Gloria’s and one or two bars.

But Port Royal was left alone for far too long. In the past several years, we have noticed that the town has gradually decayed. Its pleasantly ramshackle air has declined further into one of degradation. During a visit last year, we took note of an unpleasant stench, clogged drains and garbage scattered everywhere by the wind. Even the branch library looked unkempt and uninviting.

Rotting and rusted cannonballs and cannon near the old hospital in Port Royal. A British Army Garrison, which included detachments of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, was stationed at Port Royal from 1655 until 1962. (My photo)

Rotting and rusted cannonballs and cannon near the old Naval Hospital in Port Royal. A British Army Garrison, which included detachments of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, was stationed at Port Royal from 1655 until 1962. (My photo)

The historic homes built by the Port Royal Brotherhood became run-down. Truly it has been a place where “nuttin’ nah gwaan” (nothing is happening). Port Royal needed something to happen. Was a cruise ship pier the answer, after decades of neglect?

By the way, the era of the buccaneers glamorized in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies did not actually last very long. Its legacy as an outpost of the British Navy is considerably longer and very rich, as Brett Ashmeade Hawkins, curator of the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society Facebook page, points out:

Port Royal’s era as a haven for Bucaneers, Privateers and Pirates was relatively short-lived. It only lasted from the 1660s till the Great Earthquake of 1692, less than 30 years. In contrast Port Royal’s role as one of the most important Royal Navy Stations in the British Empire lasted from the about 1700 to 1905, for more than 200 years. All the most famous British Admirals of the 18th and 19th Centuries, served at Port Royal, Jamaica during some time in their career.

The history is fascinating. However, the Johnny Depp fantasy is much more exciting and fun for the tourists, so that’s what counts.

There have been environmental concerns over the cruise ship pier, which have been mostly swept under the carpet. The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has tried to raise questions, but it seems the Government was in a tearing hurry to get everything set up in time for the arrival of a cruise ship on January 20 this year. I am not sure how many of JET’s questions were answered back in February 2019 – and even fewer answered at a “stakeholders’ consultation” organized by the Port Authority of Jamaica, when very little time was allowed for questions.

Meanwhile, Robert Stephens, Director of the Port Royal Development Company and a tireless advocate for Port Royal over the years – nay, decades – has expressed major concerns at the “piecemeal” approach to the town’s development, dependent on the occasional cruise ship call.

The Mayor of Kingston and St. Andrew, Delroy Williams (an eminently sensible man) had something to say also, as the tourists disembarked and were treated to live entertainment, original arts and crafts, and more…According to a Jamaica Gleaner report, he advised local leaders in the town:

“Just ensure that you continue to be vigilant … to ensure that the decisions taken are in the interest of the community.”

Of course, this is absolutely critical. If the (at times bemused and confused) residents are not fully integrated into the ongoing plans, disappointment and cynicism will result. And I wonder – what will “Port Royalists” do with themselves outside the cruise ship season? Is this development sustainable? Has the infrastructure been improved? What is being done to restore the environment, in particular the “protected” mangrove systems – a Ramsar wetland of international importance?

How will it all turn out? Time will tell.

The next ship will deliver its load of tourists some time next month, I understand.

A home in Port Royal. (My photo)

A home in Port Royal. (My photo)

 

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