Jamaica Readies Port Royal for UNESCO World Heritage Status

Earlier this year, the Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT) announced that it was submitting Port Royal, a historic port, for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Port Royal has been on the World Heritage Site’s tentative list since 2009.

Located on a spit of land just beyond the Norman Manley International Airport near Kingston, Port Royal was settled originally by the Tainos, Jamaica’s original inhabitants, who used it as a fishing village.

By 1518, Port Royal was a Spanish settlement, then it was taken over by the British when they captured the island in 1655. Jamaica, a British colony, was surrounded by Spanish settlements in Cuba, Hispaniola, Mexico, Panama.

In order to protect its colony, the governor of Jamaica invited privateers to the island. They were given Letters of Marque by the governor, essentially license to attack and capture any vessel or settlement belonging to Spain — and split the plunder with the Crown.

Because of its location and the size of its harbor, Port Royal was an ideal spot from which the privateers could operate. Soon, it was overrun by about 1,500 privateers. There were men like Henry Morgan and Blackbeard, who were well known, and those who had come to the island to make their fortune – Jamaica was the place to be for those who wanted to get rich.

There were probably as many prostitutes as privateers to greet the men when they returned home to port, and, in time, Port Royal gained the reputation as being the “richest and wickedest city on Earth.”

It was from Port Royal that Morgan launched some of his most daring raids, including Cuba and Panama. Later, he received knighthood and became a lieutenant governor of Jamaica.

On June 7, 1692, an earthquake and tsunami destroyed Port Royal, causing part of the city to sink beneath the sea, taking treasures — much of it is still buried in the sand — and about 2,000 lives. Some believed that the city was being punished for its evil ways.

When privateering was outlawed, it became the place where those who were caught, like Calico Jack Rackman, were hanged. Eventually, the colony found another way to make money – sugar. Port Royal suffered more setbacks, including fires, hurricane, and another earthquake in 1907. It never recovered its former glory.

National Geographic has created a documentary on Port Royal, Wicked Pirate City. You can see it here.

So what exactly is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and how does a place get this designation?

According to UNESCO’s website, to be named a World Heritage Site, a location, whether it’s “a forest, mountain, lake, desert, monument, building, complex or city” must be recognized by them to be “of special cultural or physical significance.”

Before a site can be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it must first be proposed to the World Heritage Committee by the member country or state in which it is located. If it is determined that the property nominated meets at least one of the necessary requirements, it is inscribed on the World Heritage List.

There are now 936 sites located in 150 countries, with 25-30 added annually.

UNESCO Heritage Sites in the Caribbean


  • Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison


  • Historic Town of St George and Related Fortifications


  • Old Havana and its Fortifications
  • Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios
  • San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba
  • Viñales Valley
  • Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba
  • Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos
  • Historic Centre of Camagüey


  • Historic Area of Willemstad, Inner City and Harbour

Dominican Republic

  • Colonial City of Santo Domingo


  • National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers

Puerto Rico

  • La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site

Saint Kitts and Nevis

  • Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park

There is no doubt that Port Royal is of historical significance — it created wealth for many, including the Crown. If accepted, it will be Jamaica’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. The plan is to revive the old city and make it a tourist attraction.

20 comments on “Jamaica Readies Port Royal for UNESCO World Heritage Status

  1. I’ll keep my fingers for Jamaica. That would be great and put a bigger stamp on Jamaica’s heritage. It’s been through a lot with colonization and great to see the island come into it’s own independently.

  2. What a fascinating read. Good luck to Jamaica! I never think of Jamaica as being in an earthquake zone let alone a tsunami zone. Have you ever felt one?I can’t imagine how crazy life would have been in the 1600’s on the island.

  3. That would be a great thing for Jamaica if it is awarded this honor! Hopefully they won’t have to wait to long for the determination.

  4. Good luck to Jamaica with the submission! It looks like it will be joining a wonderful set of Caribbean UNESCO sites. I didn’t know Cuba had that many!

  5. Thanks, Mary. Yes, Cuba has the lion’s share. I need to check out the ones in the Caribbean — I’ve only seen one: The Forteleza in Old Town Puerto Rico.

  6. I was surprised too but when I learned about the selection criteria, I understood why the one I thought would have been a definite pick — the Cockpit Country — could not be considered. Keeping my fingers crossed. Port Royal has a rich, long history.

  7. Thanks, Leigh. Yes, we are in an earthquake zone. We sit on the same fault line as Haiti. The earthquake center knew there’d be an earthquake, they just weren’t sure whether it’d hit Haiti or Jamaica.
    No, I’ve not felt one here. But I did in California.
    I can’t even begin to imagine life in Port Royal then. Must have been total chaos.

  8. Port Royal has been and still is one of my all time favorite places I\’ve visited in JA. The pirate history fascinates me, so much that after visiting I watched a whole slew of documentaries about it. Love this post!!!

  9. Thanks! It is a great place for history and if you’re interested in pirates or bucaneers, it’s definitely the place to go in Jamaica.
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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