This Week in Maritime History: 17th Century Pirate Haven Destroyed, Israel Attacks USS Liberty

Published Jun 6, 2012 4:50 PM by The Maritime Executive

June 7, 1692: Earthquake Destroys Caribbean Pirate Haven

On this day in 1692, an earthquake destroyed the city of Port Royal in southeastern Jamaica. The city was founded in 1518 on a small island just outside the harbor across from present day Jamaica. For the first half of the 17th century the city was the center of shipping commerce in the Caribbean Sea and was well known for elaborate displays of wealth and loose morals. Many considered it one of the most sinful cities in the world.  English and Dutch sponsored privateers came to Port Royal to spend their treasure. After governments gave up the practice issuing Letters of marquee and reprisal, many of these privateers turned to piracy and continued to use Port Royal as their home port. 

Three powerful earthquakes struck Jamaica on the morning of the 7th, followed by a large tsunami that put half the tiny island town under water. The HMS Swan was pushed ashore and thrown on top of a building. The ship would later become a refuge for survivors. The tsunami revealed that Port Royal was mostly made up of water saturated sand that liquefied into quick sand under the pressure from the earthquake. Several buildings on the island literally sank into the ground. Nearly every building on the island was left inhabitable. The quake killed an estimated 3,000 and 2,000 more were killed and another 2,000 were killed from disease following the disaster. Widespread looting took place following the destruction and multiple aftershocks discouraged the rebuilding of Port Royal. Many in the Christian world believed that the earthquake was God’s punishment for this sinful town.

June 8, 1967: Israel Attacks USS Liberty

Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty in international waters off Egypt’s Gaza Strip. Israeli aircraft fired napalm and rockets at the intelligence ship that was well marked as a U.S. vessel. The Liberty called for assistance but radio transmissions were blocked by Israel. The lightly armed vessel was eventually able to make contact with the U.S. carrier, Saratoga, whose 12 fighter jets and four tanker planes were launched to defend the Liberty.

Shortly after the aircraft were deployed, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered the planes to return to the carrier.  The Israeli air raid left nine of the 294 crew members dead and 60 wounded. Israeli torpedo boats also attacked the Liberty. The ship successfully dodged four of the torpedoes but was hit at the waterline by one. With severe damage to its hull, the Liberty launched its life boats, but these were also met with attack, a violation of international law. The Liberty did not sink and Israel retreated. The damaged USS Liberty managed to sail to a safe port. A total of 34 Americans were killed and 171 were wounded in the two hour attack.

Israel later apologized for the attack and paid $6.9 million as compensation to the families of the dead and wounded. In 1980, Israel and the U.S. came to an additional settlement of $6 million plus 13 years of interest for damages to the vessel. Israel claims they had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian military vessel. U.S. and Israeli reports also concluded the attack was a mistake due to confusion of the identity of the ship. However, Liberty survivors and some U.S. officials from the time say they believe the attack was intentional; done in order to conceal Israel’s planned seizure of Syria’s Golden Heights, which occurred the next day. Officials say that the Liberty, an intelligence ship, would have picked up in the communications in planning the controversial seizure of Golan Heights.