Kingston is Jamaica’s smallest parish with an area of 8.4 square miles. It does not include the entire city of Kingston; it officially includes only two neighborhoods, old downtown Kingston, Jamaica and Port Royal. It also includes the Palisadoes strip where Norman Manley International Airport is located. Together with neighboring Saint Andrew Parish, Kingston makes up the administrative unit called the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation.
Originally situated at the western end of the Palisadoes sand spit that protects Kingston today, Port Royal was well positioned as a harbor. When the Spanish occupied Jamaica the capital city was in Spanish Town, located 10 miles inland, but the major commercial center was Port Royal. Britain acquired Jamaica in 1655. By 1659 there were 200 houses, shops and warehouses and, by 1692, five forts defended Port Royal.
As a port city, Port Royal was notorious for its gaudy displays of wealth and loose morals, and was a popular base for the British and Dutch-sponsored privateers to bring and spend their treasure during the 17th century. The British encouraged and paid buccaneers based at Port Royal to attack Spanish ships. They issued letters of marque which allowed these privateers to seize the goods from Spanish treasure fleets. When this practice was abandoned, many privateers became pirates and used Port Royal as their main base during the glory days of the Caribbean pirates. Pirates from around the world congregated at Port Royal coming from waters as far away as Madagascar on the far side of Africa.
In 1692, a major earthquake all but destroyed Port Royal, causing two-thirds of the city to sink into the Caribbean Sea. Today it is covered by a minimum of 25 feet of water. Known to archaeologists as the City that Sank, it is considered the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere.
Before the earthquake, the Kingston area consisted of Colonel Barry's Hog Crawle (a place where pigs were kept), housing little more than a few pig farmers and fishing shacks. Refugees from the earthquake fled and settled in this area, setting up homesteads there. Plans for a city were eventually drawn up and the city was named Kingston in honor of British King William of Orange. In May 1693 the Assembly declared Kingston a parish. It was not until a fire in 1703 destroyed what was left of Port Royal that Kingston began to grow.
By the early 18th century, Kingston's natural harbor enabled the city to flourish as an important seaport. The city soon thrived and became the largest town on the island. Merchants lived above their businesses and many houses had look-out towers to watch for ships coming into port. Gradually wealthy people began to move their residences to the pens in St Andrew parish. Pens were livestock farms. Some of these pens were cut up and sold as residential lots as the city expanded.
Between 1775 and 1783, Kingston had a population of 11,000, which was about two-thirds of the population of Boston’s 18,000 (USA), and about one-third of the population of Liverpool (UK). Kingston was a stop-off port for goods going from England to the Spanish colonies. Britain supplied slaves to the Spanish colonies and they were kept in Kingston until they were sent to Latin America. In 1807 the British abolished the slave trade so this activity ceased.
Calamities plagued Kingston’s early years, changing the look of the city: a massive hurricane in 1784, an enormous fire in 1843, a cholera epidemic in 1850, fire again in 1862, and a devastating earthquake and fire in 1907 that destroyed much of the city. In 1872, Kingston became the official capital of the island.
For more information on the city of Kingston today, visit our Saint Andrew parish page.