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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Great Earthquake in Jamaica

By Thomas Prince (1687–1758)

[Born in Sandwich, Mass., 1687. Died in Boston, Mass., 1758. An Improvement of the Doctrine of Earthquakes. 1755.]

THERE are many in this country that well remember the fearful tidings of that earthquake in Jamaica, on June 7th, 1692. It came on between 11 and 12 at noon in a clear, calm, and sunshine day. It began with a small trembling, so as to make some think of an earthquake; which thought was confirmed by a second shake something stronger, accompanied with a hollow rumbling noise almost like thunder, which made them begin to run out of their houses. But alas! This was but short warning for them to provide for their safety; for at the heels of the second came the third and most violent shake, which threw down and drowned nine-tenths of Port Royal, their capital town, in two minutes, and all the houses by the wharf in less than one.

The streets rose like the waves of the sea; lifting up all that were in them, and immediately dropping down into pits. The shake was so fierce, that it threw the people on their knees and faces, as they ran in the streets to seek for safety. In several places the ground would crack and open and shut quick and fast in a wonderful manner. Some have seen two or three hundred of these openings at one time; in some of which many of the people were swallowed up. Some the earth caught by the middle and squeezed to death. The heads, arms, or legs of others only appeared above ground. At the same time a flood of water gushed out and rolled over others. Some caught hold of beams and rafters; others were afterwards found dead and almost covered with sand. Some who were swallowed quite down, rose again in other streets, being cast up with great quantities of water, and some into the midst of the harbor; and yet some of these through the wonderful goodness of God were saved; while others that went down quick, were never seen more.

These were the smaller openings. The larger swallowed great houses; and out of some there issued whole rivers spouting to a vast height in the air, with ill stenches that were very offensive. All the wharves and some of the houses sunk at once; and the most so soon, that the people had no time to get out; those who were in the upper chambers meeting the waters at the garret stairs as they were running down for safety. While some of the houses were quite swallowed up in the earth, others were thrown on heaps; and even the best streets in the town, full of stately buildings, sunk so deep as to be near thirty feet under water.

Several sloops and ships were overset and lost in the harbor. The sea, suddenly rising and swelling with a strange emotion, came rolling with such a force as to drive the ships from their anchors, breaking their cables in an instant, and dashing them against the tops of the sunken houses.

While the earth was laboring in these convulsions, the people ran up and down, pale and trembling with horror, like so many ghosts; as if the dissolution of the whole frame of the world were at hand.

And yet the shake was stronger in the country than in the town, where it left more houses standing than in all the rest of the island; though it be more than one hundred and sixty miles long and about fifty broad. They were almost all either thrown down or swallowed up. And my author says it is not to be doubted, if there had been five thousand towns in Jamaica, but every one of them had been ruined.

The waters of wells above thirty foot deep flew out at the top. In several places the earth gaped prodigiously with great spoutings of water. The sky, which before was clear and blue, became in a minute dull and reddish, like a red-hot oven. Amazing noises were made by the fall of the mountains and the rumblings that were heard under ground.

In the mountains were the most violent shakings. Some falling down stopped up the roads and rivers; and many were thrown in heaps upon others. A great mountain split, and tumbling drove all the trees before it, and overwhelmed several settlements with their inhabitants, a mile off. Another large high mountain sunk and was quite devoured; and in the place thereof arose a lake twelve or fifteen miles over.

In a certain ground on the north side of the island the planters’ houses, with the greatest part of their plantations, were swallowed up, houses, people, trees and all, in one great opening. In the room of which arose at first a lake of a thousand acres extent; but afterwards it dried away, and left not the least appearance of house, tree, or anything else that was there before.

In fine: The earth continued shaking for two months after; and all the while the mountains tottering, and bellowing most loud and hideous noises. About two thousand people perished in town, a thousand more in the other parts of the island; and ’tis thought, if the shakes had fell out in the night, but very few had been left alive. Great numbers of dead bodies were floating from one side of the harbor to the other; sometimes one or two hundred in a heap, as the winds and seas drove them. And such a general sickness presently followed which few escaped, and was very fatal. Half the people saved from the earthquake at Port Royal are said to have died of the sickness at Kingston; where five hundred graves were dug in one month’s time, two or three buried in one grave. About two thousand swept away; and in the rest of the island a thousand more.

And thus I have mentioned something of God’s amazing execution of this sort of judgments in other places.