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A Matter of Convenience


At the time of the 1692 earthquake that submerged much of the city, Port Royal was probably the largest English city in the Americas, and certainly the most wealthy. It had at least 6500 inhabitants occupying at least 2000 buildings. Some of these were substantial brick structures four stories tall (Hamilton, 40). All these people lived and worked entirely within a very restricted area of less than 60 acres. Commercial and residential structures and their associated yards and outbuildings were crammed into virtually every foot that was not occupied by a street or alley. Crowding was the major factor that influenced everyday life (Pawson and Buisseret, 93).

There is no reason to suppose that Port Royal had better sanitary arrangements than comparable English cities. Indeed, there are at least two reasons to suppose that they were worse. First, the tropical heat would have greatly accelerated the putrefaction of excrement and other organic waste. Second, there was the absence of any organized water supply or drainage.

Most British towns had rudimentary water distribution and drain systems as early as the Middle Ages, fed by rivers or springs. [Port Royal Cistern]Due to Port Royal's position at the end of a long, flat peninsula surrounded by salt water, there was no way to deliver pressure to a waterworks before the development of modern pumping engines. Fresh water came from cisterns [one from Yard 5 at Port Royal may be seen at the left] or by boat from the mainland, since salty water lay only a few inches or feet below the surface over the entire town (Pawson and Buisseret, 94). This water-saturated sand was the major factor in the liquefaction that caused most of the damage during the 1692 earthquake (Clark). Most fresh water was brought in great casks from the mouth of the Rio Cobre, but this was downstream from Spanish Town and the water was suspected of carrying the flux. A better water supply was at a spring called the Rock near Kingston, but this was not regularly used until the Royal Navy established a watering station there after the earthquake. Most residents of Port Royal avoided the problem by drinking wine, beer, or rum (Pawson and Buisseret, 102).

Due to the high water table, privy cesspits--where they existed--would thus have to have been either very shallow or watertight. Nor was there much of a slope to promote drainage if slops were thrown on the ground. The residents had to rely on tropical rainfall to wash rubbish, animal droppings, and sewage from the streets into the sea and harbor. The streets of Port Royal were surfaced with loose sand. Only the parade ground near the town gate was paved with brick (Pawson and Buisseret, 82). It would therefore have taken a great deal of rainfall to clean the streets. This situation should have promoted the use of chamberpots or bucket privies that could be dumped into the sea or harbor.

We know that there were chamberpots in use on Jamaica. The evidence is both historical and archaeological. Chamberpots are occasionally mentioned in probate inventories. For example, the 1675 inventory of Captain Thomas Barrett lists 4 chamberpots with a collective value of ten shillings, as well as a bedpan (Wallace). The 1674 inventory of a Port Royal tavern owned by Thomas Taylor lists "two old chamber-potts" among the furnishings of one of the bar rooms. Sir Thomas Lynch, the Governor who died in 1684, owned a 5 shilling "close stool" among his very few personal items at the King's House in Port Royal (Pawson and Buisseret, 108-09). One would have expected the contents of these pots to have been disposed of in a safe place.

However, five years after the earthquake, Edward Ward visited Port Royal and observed that the inhabitants were then depositing their waste in midden heaps on the seaward side of the settlement. As Ward wrote:

In the Afternoon, about four o'clock, they might have the refreshment of a sea breeze, but suffering the Negroes to carry all their nastiness to windward of the town, that the nauseous effluvias which arise from their stinking dunghills are blown in upon them. Thus what they might enjoy as a blessing, they ingratefully pervert by their own ill management (Ward, 15).

Note that Mr. Ward does not fault the Jamaicans for leaving their excreta exposed, but only for leaving them upwind of their homes. It is clear that in 1697, at least, the contents of Port Royal's chamberpots (and possibly the privies) were being deposited into nearby open pits, rather than being disposed of at sea or hauled some distance for burial. If this was true then, it is even more likely to have been the case before the earthquake, when there was much more land area available for disposal.

We know from contemporary documents that a privy, known as a "house of office," was an almost invariable feature of a Jamaican yard, whether of a private residence or of a commercial establishment. This was a portable wooden structure measuring perhaps three by four feet, and resting on sills, sometimes stabilized by wooden corner posts. Some scholars have assumed that this outhouse covered a pit almost as big as the structure and up to four feet deep (Pawson and Buisseret, 106). This was the practice elsewhere; from time to time, a new pit was dug in the yard, the house of office moved to cover it, and the excavated material used to fill the old pit (Noel Hume, Historical Archaeology, 139).

click on image above for detail plan

It seems highly unlikely, however, that pits could have been used over such a high water table as existed at Port Royal. A four-foot hole in wet sand would have filled quickly. Recent excavations have recovered a wooden toilet seat, presumably from one of these houses of office, in the northwest corner of Yard 5 associated with Building 4/5 [Plan at left]. Since this yard was brick-covered, it seems more likely that it used buckets or chamberpots, rather than a large pit. The yards excavated along New Street by Priddy were also brick-paved, with the foundations of privies still evident above the paving (Brown,155-156). The observations by Thomas Ward quoted above suggest that most waste was hauled away to surface middens, rather than left in on-site cesspools.

In the decades immediately before the earthquake, yards in Port Royal were repeatedly subdivided as population density increased. It would therefore be hard to move the outhouses to an unused location. If pit privies were used, this would tend to mix fecal material pretty thoroughly into the sand of the yard, which was also the location of the cook-room and cistern. Studies of intestinal parasite remains in the soil of colonial homes in Newport, Rhode Island, show a similar pattern. Wealthier homes tended to have fecal material concentrated in a single area, with a minimum of associated tree pollen. This suggests use of a covered privy that was emptied, rather than moved. Poorer homes had a broader distribution of feces and pollen, suggesting that chamberpots were emptied into an open pit in the yard or even spread around as fertilizer (Reinhard, 34). The distribution of parasites in Port Royal was probably similar to these patterns, depending on the wealth of the Jamaican householder.

With these conditions of sanitation, it is not surprising to find from contemporary (and even from more recent) accounts that public health in Jamaica left something to be desired. Dysentery was very common, particularly among the slaves. Yellow fever was the most dangerous disease among the whites (Stewart, 46). At the time, it was widely observed that the fever was most common after long droughts and especially in the neighborhood of stagnant marshes (Stewart, 51). In fact, it was spread by mosquitoes. The cesspits, like other standing water, provided a fertile breeding ground for these insects.

Port Royal was considered fairly healthy from the viewpoint of fever, but gastrointestinal illness was a major cause of death, particularly in the early days of the Jamaican colony (Stewart, 52). Those who had been on the island for a while developed some immunity to the bacteria that caused dysentery, but newcomers very often suffered an attack on their arrival. After about four days, they either recovered or died. Drunkenness seemed to aggravate the flux, and also exposed the drinker to "the dry gripes," heavy-metal poisoning from rum distilled in lead pipes (Pawson and Buisseret, 101-102). The treatment of these conditions was sometimes almost as bad as the disease. One doctor (Trapham, 137) prescribes an enema of molasses ("which may well forward a beneficial Stool and the quieting of the Bowels").

Link to:

  1. A Matter of Convenience--Introduction
  2. A Matter of Convenience--Historical Background
  3. A Matter of Convenience--Dry Land Disposal
  4. A Matter of Convenience--Chamberpots
  5. A Matter of Convenience--Jamaican Sanitation (You are here)
  6. A Matter of Convenience--The Building 5 Privy
  7. A Matter of Convenience--Port Royal Chamberpots
  8. A Matter of Convenience--Conclusions

Revised: 1 December 1996
Christine A. Powell
Nautical Archaeology Program
Texas A&M University
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