|Fictionalized Cap'n Morgan and his fictionalized buccaneers|
I was pretty jazzed when I found out that the National Geographic Channel had a new documentary coming on about the underwater ruins of Port Royal. For those unfamiliar with this major piece of Caribbean and pirate history, here are the basics. Port Royal was England's toehold in the Caribbean during the era of the "Spanish Main." The English captured the town from the Spanish in 1655, and for the next few decades Port Royal was the center of both (illicit) English commerce and English-led buccaneering. Legends like Henry Morgan not only sailed from Port Royal to attack Spanish ships and towns but also brought the booty back to spend on rum and women. At its height, over 6,000 people called Port Royal "home." The problem with pirate (or privateer?) paradise was that it was built on little more than a sand spit on the outside of Montego Bay. In 1692, when a major earthquake struck Jamaica, the ground under Port Royal essentially liquefied, and within minutes two thirds of the town had slid into the ocean and most of the remainder was flooded by the ensuing tsunami. Many of those that were not killed immediately were soon dead from injury or disease. The English shifted their city to Kingston on the other side of the bay. The buccaneer era passed as Royal support waned, and piracy shifted to the Bahamas. The famous Cap'n Morgan had died four years before the earthquake, killed by edema, tuberculosis, and/or the rum. His grave sank into the sea along with the town he had helped make famous.
|Cartographer Shawn Brown's imagining of Port Royal|
It's rattling good history and equally great archaeology. Thirteen acres in size, the Port Royal site is considered the underwater city of the Western Hemisphere and is well-protected as an archaeological preserve. It was thus a surprise--or perhaps a giveaway--when the dive team in "Wicked Pirate City" 'couldn't find' it. Sure, the visibility is awful, but it seemed a bit overly dramatic. Hasn't Texas A&M's Port Royal Project been there since 1981? Then there's tension between the American archaeologists and the French team there to do photogrammetry--that is, to do underwater photography that would later be used to create a 3-D CGI image of Port Royal. In a recent interview, San Jose State archaeologist Dr. Marco Meniketti verified that a lot of the drama was made up. "We were there to locate the site of the destroyed city, photograph the ruins and progress to the interpretation, whereas the director had to create drama and suspense of the type needed to keep a television audience watching the two-hour special. And she wanted spontaneity from us. So this often meant we were prevented from getting in the water when we were ready (and dive conditions were best), or not allowed to speak with one another unless a camera was rolling. I was brought to serve as a consultant, but gradually was written into the script as team leader. The director also manufactured some of the tension between the American and French crews."
|Will the real Port Royal please stand up?:|
A pic of Texas A&M's underwater dig
O, National Geographic, where art thou? Hast thou succumbed entirely to movie tie-ins and commercial appeal? Hast documentary integrity given way completely to making science palatable to those who have no idea what's going on? Alas, I fear it be so...