Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | May 23, 2011

"Wicked Pirate City"–or, what’s wrong with the National Geographic Channel

Fictionalized Cap’n Morgan and his fictionalized buccaneers

I was pretty jazzed when I found out that the National Geographic Channel had a new documentary coming on about the underwater ruins of Port Royal.  For those unfamiliar with this major piece of Caribbean and pirate history, here are the basics.  Port Royal was England’s toehold in the Caribbean during the era of the “Spanish Main.”  The English captured the town from the Spanish in 1655, and for the next few decades Port Royal was the center of both (illicit) English commerce and English-led buccaneering.  Legends like Henry Morgan not only sailed from Port Royal to attack Spanish ships and towns but also brought the booty back to spend on rum and women.  At its height, over 6,000 people called Port Royal “home.”  The problem with pirate (or privateer?) paradise was that it was built on little more than a sand spit on the outside of Montego Bay.  In 1692, when a major earthquake struck Jamaica, the ground under Port Royal essentially liquefied, and within minutes two thirds of the town had slid into the ocean and most of the remainder was flooded by the ensuing tsunami.  Many of those that were not killed immediately were soon dead from injury or disease.  The English shifted their city to Kingston on the other side of the bay.  The buccaneer era passed as Royal support waned, and piracy shifted to the Bahamas.  The famous Cap’n Morgan had died four years before the earthquake, killed by edema, tuberculosis, and/or the rum.  His grave sank into the sea along with the town he had helped make famous.

Cartographer Shawn Brown’s imagining of Port Royal

It’s rattling good history and equally great archaeology.  Thirteen acres in size, the Port Royal site is considered the underwater city of the Western Hemisphere and is well-protected as an archaeological preserve.  It was thus a surprise–or perhaps a giveaway–when the dive team in “Wicked Pirate City” ‘couldn’t find’ it.  Sure, the visibility is awful, but it seemed a bit overly dramatic.  Hasn’t Texas A&M’s Port Royal Project been there since 1981?  Then there’s tension between the American archaeologists and the French team there to do photogrammetry–that is, to do underwater photography that would later be used to create a 3-D CGI image of Port Royal.  In a recent interview, San Jose State archaeologist Dr. Marco Meniketti verified that a lot of the drama was made up.  “We were there to locate the site of the destroyed city, photograph the ruins and progress to the interpretation, whereas the director had to create drama and suspense of the type needed to keep a television audience watching the two-hour special. And she wanted spontaneity from us. So this often meant we were prevented from getting in the water when we were ready (and dive conditions were best), or not allowed to speak with one another unless a camera was rolling. I was brought to serve as a consultant, but gradually was written into the script as team leader. The director also manufactured some of the tension between the American and French crews.”

Will the real Port Royal please stand up?:
A pic of Texas A&M’s underwater dig

Add to this artificiality is the outright melodrama of the composite (ie, completely fictitious) docudrama protagonist, “Thomas Blakeway.”  Pirate falls in love with the local cook, only to lose her to natural disaster and become one of the sole survivors of Port Royal?  Seriously?  And the French and American teams gather in a theater–with popcorn–for the unveiling of a computer-generated version of her shop?  If I wanted a movie experience, I’d go see On Stranger Tides.  Oh, wait…

O, National Geographic, where art thou?  Hast thou succumbed entirely to movie tie-ins and commercial appeal?  Hast documentary integrity given way completely to making science palatable to those who have no idea what’s going on?  Alas, I fear it be so…



  1. why do you (and pauline) act like experts when all you do is google stuff and rip off others that are actual experts. you think a dumb ass costume makes you the authority? you should have stayed in school and gotten some credibility and learned a little thing about copyright issues and plagarism and maybe you actually be a crew member on an underwater excavation project instead of telling stories in costume to cranky children and 'blogging'.

  2. Basically this is an accurate description. Texas A&M did most of the work for a ten year period yet received next to no credit. This blog article also quotes quotes me correctly. The site was relatively easy to locate but seriously covered over in silts because no one has been back to the site for 25 years.
    As for the composite character created for the dramatic reenactment, he is based on true accounts of various survivors. The broader question of what is going on with National Geographic can probably be summed up as: ratings.

  3. Thank you very much for your comment, Dr. Meniketti. I am honored (and tickled) that you have found my humble, obscure review. You are, of course, correct that it comes down to National Geographic's bottom line: get more viewers. What remains disappointing to me is that National Geopraphic used to be the gold standard for scientific documentary filmmaking; they defined the big time. Now this mantle seems have moved on, perhaps, to History Channel and its offspring H2. Watching Nat Geo's evolution is sad in a similar way to watching Banana Republic fall from being essentially a small outfitter to a national fashion chain.

    It is also disappointing to learn that Port Royal had gone unstudied that long. I know there are a lot of reasons why archaeology _doesn't_ happen–funding, academic politics and popularity, international relations, etc. Nevertheless, Port Royal just seems too important, too precious. I am pleased, sir, that you got your chance. May you have another.

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