What of the treasures that sank into the harbour? The gold and silver plate looted from New Spain by Morgan and the other buccaneers? The wealth of the new plantation owners, the merchant traders, and the fruits of piracy on the Caribbean waters?
They have never been found. The Jamaican government recently, and controversially, gave a salvage licence to an American group to prospect for sunken treasure off the island: like so many enterprises before them, they found nothing. In Scatterwood, which is set around the time of the Port Royal earthquake, I suggest a possible explanation.
During the seventeenth century, there was a great deal of public interest in diving bells and apparatus. In the 1680s, a man walked the width of the Thames in a diving-suit. In 1691, Edmond Halley completed his design for a bell which had an internal bench for divers to sit in, and which used barrels of air to replenish the atmosphere. In the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions of 1714, Halley says that “the only inconvenience that attends it, is found in the Ears… a Pressure begins to be felt on each Ear, which by degrees grows painful, like as if a Quill were forcibly thrust into the Hole of the Ear…”
Is it possible that an early diving bell could have been used to raise Port Royal’s wealth? It was certainly an era of searching for shipwrecks using free divers. In 1686, Captain Phips raised over £200,000 from a sunken Spanish treasure ship off Hispaniola, paying 10% over to the Crown. James II and his successor/usurper William III then got wise to the value of salvage, and increased the rate to 50%.