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On May 10, 1655, an English fleet bearing 7000 men sailed into Kingston Harbour and, after desultory resistance from the Spanish defenders at Passage Fort, captured Jamaica for Oliver Cromwell. For several decades the site of the future city was used for rearing pigs. When an earthquake leveled Port Royal in 1692, survivors struggled across the bay and pitched camp with the swine. A town plan was drawn up on a grid pattern, centered on an open square.

Though it was devastated repeatedly by earthquakes and hurricanes, the port city prospered throughout the 18th century, becoming one of the most important trading centers in the Western Hemisphere and an important transshipment point for slaves destined for the Spanish colonies.

As the city expanded, the wealthier merchants moved up to the cooler heights of Liguanea, where they built more expansive homes. In 1755, Governor Admiral Charles Knowles bowed to political pressure and transferred his government’s offices to Kingston. His successor revoked the act, however, and it wasn’t until 1872 that the capital was officially transferred.

In 1907 a violent earthquake leveled much of the city, killing 800 people and rendering tens of thousands homeless. The aftermath witnessed a transformation – modern buildings replaced the ruins and damaged edifices were given new life. This urban evolution reached its zenith in the 1960s, when the Urban Development Corporation reclaimed the waterfront, and several historic landmarks, including Victoria Market, were razed to make way for a complex of gleaming new structures, including the Bank of Jamaica and the Jamaica Conference Centre.

About this time, Kingston’s nascent music industry was beginning to gather steam, lending international stature and fame to the city. This, in turn, fostered the growth of New Kingston, an uptown area of multistory office blocks and banks, restaurants, shops and hotels developed in the 1960s on the site of the Knutsford Park racecourse.

The boom years of the 1960s lured the rural poor, swelling the slums and shantytowns that had arisen in the preceding years. Unemployment soared, and with it came crime. The fractious 1970s spawned politically sponsored criminal enterprises whose trigger-happy networks still plague the city. Commerce began to leave downtown for New Kingston, and the middle class began to edge away as well. That exodus began a period of decline from which the downtown has yet to recover.

Despite ongoing inner-city strife, hoteliers and the Jamaica Tourist Board are pushing to dispel the city’s negative image and to resurrect its tourist industry. They have long talked up plans to bring cruise ships and tourists back to Kingston. Development of a free port has been proposed, as has a restoration of the historic downtown and Port Royal. Meanwhile, efforts to beautify uptown have flowered with the 2003 opening of Emancipation Park, a welcoming and spacious public swath of green that immediately became a daily gathering place for visitors and residents alike.