Apocalypse 1692: Empire, Slavery, And The Great Port Royal Earthquake, by Ben Hughes
Sometimes in order to write a book about something, you need to make the issue a bigger one and complicate it so that there is enough material to fill up a book. I have occasionally noted in my own research efforts that sometimes one needs to make a problem larger to understand it fully, as sometimes problems are distorted by viewing them in too narrow of a scope. It seems likely that the author has something similar in mind here. Here the author wishes to point out the horrors of the Port Royal Earthquake in 1692, which destroyed what was then the capital of Jamaica and also demonstrates the immense suffering that resulted from slavery and piracy and imperialism, and that also shows the English in a negative light. This book demonstrates a great many of the mixed motives that writers have to deal with when it comes to examining their own work. This is a book that is sadly all too full of mixed motives, where the author’s evident desire to make some people look bad, and his lack of ability to appreciate divine providence or take religious discussions seriously makes this book a little less enjoyable and worthwhile than it would otherwise have been.
This particular book is an average-sized book at about 200 pages or so. It begins with a list of illustrations, chronology, maps, and a prologue. After that the author discusses the West Indian fleet and its business interests involved in slaving as well as privateering and its guarding duty (1). This leads to a discussion of the heat and wickedness of Port Royal, an overcrowded city built on a sand spit on the other side of Kingston harbor from the modern capital of Jamaica (2). After that there is a discussion of the importance of the slave trade to Jamaica’s wealth (3) as well as a look at plantation slavery in the New World (4) and the people who were profiting at it at the end of the 17th century in Jamaica. There is a discussion about the troubled relationship between planters and maroons who sought to be free from the domination of planter elites but found diplomacy necessary to secure their own fragile freedom (5). After that there is a discussion of the decline and fall of the Earl of Inchiquin into death, but a profitable one for his family (6). Finally, the author talks about the earthquake itself at long last (6) and its aftermath in barbarous conflict between the English and French (7), after which there is an epilogue, notes, bibliography, acknowledgements, and index.
The experiences of Jamaica during 1692 reveal at least some of the difficulties that result from natural disasters in the imperial perspective. We have problems of engineering, where the failure to learn the right construction principles lead to a great deal of suffering, and where property speculation sometimes goes haywire. Likewise, the book reveals the sort of lack of fellow spirit that various imperial nations had with each other. The dangers that the British were suffering and the losses that game to their capital encouraged the French to try to invade the island, thinking that the British were greatly weakened, only to be beaten off at considerable loss to themselves. Yet the fall of Port Royal, if it signified the fall of the freewheeling piratical culture of early Jamaica, was more notable in what it did not do, and that is change the destiny of Jamaica from its trajectory towards an island based on the sugar crop and slavery to work the cane fields, and wealthy landowners to profit from that labor and control political power for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the author would have wanted that to be different, but this book is still an arresting look at the context of a natural disaster.