View of Port Royal, Jamaica
View of Port Royal, Jamaica
Oil on Canvas
Sight Size: 10.4 x 18 in. (26.5 x 45.5 cm.)
Framed: 16 x 23.5 in. (40.64 x 59.69 cm.)
Executed ca. 1850
Agnew’s of London
Port Royal is a historic city located on the southeastern coast of Jamaica at the mouth of Kingston Harbor. Founded in 1519 by Spain, Port Royal played a pivotal role in the island’s defense following Jamaica’s conquest by Britain in 1655, eventually becoming the center of shipping and commerce in the Caribbean. During the latter portion of the seventeenth century, the city’s fortunes were largely dependent upon its role as a center for seagoing privateers — essentially pirates given a legal mandate by the British Crown to attack Spanish interests in the Caribbean — who not only provided protection from Spain’s attempts to re-take the island, but also brought great wealth to the locale in the form of captured Spanish treasure. Port Royal served as the unofficial capital of the island until a devastating earthquake and tsunami destroyed two-thirds of the city and killed thousands of people in June 1692, forever altering the course of its history.
For centuries prior to Spanish colonization, the area was occuped by the Taino Indians, an Arawak-speaking people originally from South America who inhabited a number of Caribbean locales in addition to Jamaica, including Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. Though it is unclear whether they actually took up permanent residence in Port Royal, they used the area during their many fishing excursions, calling it caguay (or caguaya), a name retained by the Spanish following their settlement of the area. Disappointed by the lack of gold or other precious valuables on the island, the Spanish used Jamaica mainly as a military base to supply their other colonizing efforts in the Caribbean and American mainlands, in the process enslaving the Taino, who were driven to virtual extinction by the early seventeenth century through overwork and European diseases. Following the English conquest of the island in 1655, the area was renamed Port Cagway before receiving the name it still goes by today: Port Royal. Construction by the British on the first fort to be built in the city — initally called Fort Cromwell and then Fort Charles following restoration of the Crown in 1660 — began almost immediately after the British takeover. The fort became the island’s primary fortification against attack, supplemented eventually by the construction of four additional forts. By way of assuring that the island would have enough ships and men on hand to protect it from Spanish aggression, Jamaica’s colonial governor, Edward D’Oyley (1617-1675), invited the Brethren of the Coast — a loose coalition of Caribbean-based pirates and privateers — to make Port Royal their home port. Soon, crews captained by men such as Henry Morgan (1635-1688), Christopher Myngs (1625-1666), and (later) Edward “Blackbeard” Teach (1680-1718) engaged in attacks targeting Spanish ships and possessions, forcing Spain to continually defend its interests, to the point where a reconquest of the island was significantly mitigated in 1670 with the signing of the Treaty of Madrid.
Largely because of an economy based upon servicing the needs of the privateers and upon trading in prize commodities, Port Royal grew to become one of the two largest towns and the most economically important port in the English colonies. (Henry Morgan’s raid on Portobello, Panama, in 1668 resulted in each member of his crew returning to Port Royal with prize money equivalent to two to three times the average annual wage of a plantation worker in Jamaica at the time.) The city’s wealth reached such heights that coins became the preferred method of payment instead of the era’s more common system of bartering goods for services. By 1692, Port Royal’s population had increased to over 8,000 inhabitants, including (in addition to pirates) goldsmiths, tavern-keepers (at the height of its popularity, the city had one tavern for every ten residents), and a variety of artisans and merchants, all of whom lived and worked in 2,000 buildings crammed into a total of 52 square acres of land. Eventually, the city’s gaudy displays of wealth and, in particular, freedom from generally accepted European codes of conduct and morality earned it a reputation as the “richest and wickedest city in the New World”; in his 1740 book, A New History of Jamaica, Barbadian writer Charles Leslie offered this historical account of the pirates’ behavior: “Wine and women drained their wealth to such a degree that some of them became reduced to beggary. They have been known to spend 2 or 3,000 pieces of eight (silver coins each equal to one Spanish dollar) in one night. . . . They used to buy a pipe of wine (equivalent to 126 U.S. gallons), place it in the street, and oblige everyone that passed to drink.” As time passed and threats to the city and island diminished, many citizens found Port Royal’s reputation to be highly objectionable, which, coupled with the economy’s increasing reliance on the sale of slaves, led to a series of anti-piracy laws being passed in 1687. However, the city’s historical trajectory took a sharp turn on June 16, 1692, when the area was struck by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, causing most of the city’s northern section to fall into the sea (and with it many of the town’s houses and other buildings). Of the five forts that the British had erected, only Fort Charles survived this natural disaster. In the wake of the devastation, numerous efforts were initiated to rebuild the city, to no avail. An initial attempt at rebuilding failed after a fire in 1703, and subsequent endeavors were hampered by several hurricanes in the first half of the 18th century, as well as flooding from the sea in 1722, another fire in 1750, and a major hurricane in 1774. Despite the city never regaining its economic footing, Port Royal became the home of a substantial Royal Navy base and dockyard, which served as the headquarters of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean until the early nineteenth century and remained an important center for naval activities in the region until the early part of the twentieth. During this time Britain fought numerous battles with France and Spain in a contest over colonial expansion, with the naval forces at Port Royal being placed under the command of some of Britain’s most illustrious military heroes, including Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) and George Rodney (1718-1792). Though for most of the twentieth century Port Royal was known primarily as the “City that Sank,” and was of interest mainly to historians and underwater archaeologists, today the seaport is the focus of major redevelopment plans on the part of the Jamaican government, which has already allocated funding for the construction of a “floating dock” at the site which will serve as a disembarkment platform for passengers of international cruise ships. Eventually, the hope is to restore a part of the site into an authentic replica of the city’s time as a “pirate utopia,” while making sure that the restoration maintains an environmental sensitivity to Port Royal’s historical legacy.
Few other locales in the annals of recorded history have had its natural and man-made landscape as dramatically altered within a (historically) brief period of time as Port Royal, which underwent a series of natural disasters that battered the peninsula’s fragile ecosystem and architectural infrastructure from 1692 through 1907. Consequently, few highly consistent representations of the locale — whether in oil painting, watercolor, drawing, lithographic, or other forms— were executed during this lengthy period; rather, there are a number of varied representations of the landscape and seascape throughout this time. In our opinion, the artist of the painting we are offering for sale — titled Port Royal, Jamaica — was not preoccupied with photographic realism, but rather an attempt to capture the essence of what was observed, likely for artistic purposes alone, or perhaps for reporting back to England observations made, or both. To this end, the artist was not above altering physical appearances to express what he/she perceived as the objective “character” of the landscape. Topographically, the artist is reporting a British Empire in Jamaica in retreat following the abolition of slavery in 1834 and the de-militarization of Jamaica as a whole; he/she seems to be committed to a conceptual rendering of a “Caribbean paradise”: a calm and peaceful setting enveloped by the wondrous Jamaican light, with time itself seemingly frozen in a moment of pristine serenity. Historically speaking, we know that there were massive socio-economic fissures in Jamaican society in the eighteenth century and first three-quarters of the nineteenth, events that played a significant role in influencing topographical artists of the time period. In the eighteenth century alone there were over a dozen major slave uprisings, including Tacky's Revolt in May 1760, in which hundreds of slaves took over several plantations, killing many of their enslavers in the process. Following the suppressed revolt a group of defeated rebels chose mass suicide rather than returning to slavery. The nineteenth century witnessed two significant slave rebellions, the first one coming in 1831. The Baptist War, as it became known, was the largest slave uprising in the history of the British West Indies, lasting ten days and involving 60,000 slaves.The brutality exercised by the white Jamaican plantocracy during and after this rebellion accelerated the process toward emancipation, with initial measures instituted in 1833 and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire taking effect as of August 1, 1834 (though Jamaican slaves were indentured to their owners until 1838 under what was called the Apprenticeship System). The end of slave labor and Britain’s passage of the “Sugar Duties” Act in 1846 — by which Jamaica lost its traditional status as Britain’s primary suppliers of sugar — caused the economy and highly unrepresentative, plantocracy-controlled political system to stumble from one crisis to another until tensions boiled over during the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865, which resulted in hundreds of black Jamaicans being killed directly by soldiers, and hundreds more arrested and later executed, many without proper trials. Over 600 black Jamaicans were flogged, including pregnant women, and thousands of homes belonging to black Jamaicans were burned down for no reason. According to the testimony of one soldier: “We slaughtered all before us . . . man, woman, or child.” It is entirely possible that a major consideration for the artist of Port Royal, Jamaica (like so many topographical British painters before or after him/her) was the burnishing of a positive image on behalf of a colonial empire wishing to put its best foot forward to the world. What is evidenced in the painting is a rendition in seemingly perfect symbiosis with an idealized natural world — a theme that runs throughout British nineteenth century topographical painting. In seeking to evince “larger truths” about the landscape, Port Royal, Jamaica affects a merger of a dome-like blue sky, maroon specked mountains, and gently swaying palm trees, all contained within a carefully controlled space. However, the artist does take a literalist approach to afford the viewer a sight unique to Port Royal among all Jamaican seaports: the masts of a tall sailing ship rounding the tip of the “sandspit” that separates the Caribbean Sea from Kingston Harbor (a harbor that in its heyday could provide refuge to over 50 man-of war ships), visible in the middle ground of the painting. The distinctive geographic reality allowing for this passage (along with the man-made Fort Charles, also viewed in the painting) exists independently of any and all changes that occured to the landscape, and its appearance in the painting attests to the veracity of the subject matter as being a definitive rendition of historic Port Royal.
Apropos of the aforementioned plans on the part of the Jamaican government to restore Port Royal in a way that accentuates its place in Caribbean history, the painting takes on added import as the representation of a legendary seaport whose reawakening is certain to broaden the amount of attention and resources already invested in the area by archaeologists, historians, and the Jamaican government. Ultimately, what we are offering is a rare, well-preserved vision of a locale whose sublime natural beauty exists side by side with the tumultuous social and economic upheavals of the Colonial New World.
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