Remembering the HMS DeBraak 225 Years Later

By Paul Nasca, curator of archaeology at the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

Not all anniversaries are a cause for celebration. Such is the case with the HMS DeBraak, a famous British warship that sank off Delaware’s coast 225 years ago this May. A milestone like this offers an opportunity to reflect on the past, assess the current situation and provides a chance to revive a faded effort to save this important piece of Delaware’s history.  

Photo of a painting depicting the capsizing of the DeBraak
Artistic rendition of the capsizing of the DeBraak by Peggy Kane, 1990.

On the afternoon of May 25, 1798, the DeBraak, captained by the seasoned Royal Navy Commander James Drew, approached Cape Henlopen. Drew’s intent was to have his warship come to anchor at Lewes to take on needed drinking water. As customary, Drew allowed a local Lewes pilot to board the King’s vessel to guide the ship through the treacherous waters at the mouth of the Delaware Bay.  The experienced pilot, Andrew Allen, observed a storm approaching and had the ship’s sails taken in, but Drew countermanded the order, as he was said to have been in a boastful mood having recently captured a Spanish ship as a naval prize. At about 4 p.m., before rounding the Cape, the storm struck the DeBraak and filled its sails with such a force of wind that the warship violently heeled to one side, causing water to fill its hold and rapidly sink. Lost in that instant were Commander Drew and 46 other souls on board the DeBraak. The local pilot, Andrew Allen, survived the ordeal.

A force of nature caused the demise of the DeBraak and so many of her crew, but it was the ill winds of war and economy that initially brought this British warship to Delaware. In the late 1790s, the United States was a fledgling country without much of a navy and wholly dependent on the importation of European manufactured goods. France was undergoing its own political revolution and was openly engaged in war with several European counties, including England.  Caught up in this political struggle was America’s merchant fleet. Depending on the origin of the cargo they transported, American vessels were harassed and seized on the Atlantic by both the French and English navies and privateers. To help normalize trans-Atlantic trade, the United States entered into an agreement with England as its sole trading partner. In exchange, England had to provide the military might to see the safe passage of the Anglo-American merchant vessels across the ocean. The DeBraak, a fast and agile British brig-sloop packing plenty of firepower with its 16 guns, was on convoy escort duty the day she met her fate. 

A sampling of artifacts from the Debraak.
A sampling of the DeBraak artifact collection. Image courtesy of Dave Tabler.

The news of the sinking of the DeBraak quickly spread. The Royal Navy responded by dispatching two ships to recover the vessel. This effort, however, was unsuccessful and the Admiralty deemed the DeBraak a total loss. With that, the DeBraak slipped away into history and the realm of Delaware’s maritime lore. Efforts to locate the ship and recover her fabled Spanish treasure began in the 1880s and gained momentum throughout the 20th century.  Numerous attempts were made, each proving fruitless, until the mid-1980s. An ambitious lot of treasure-hungry rogues employing side-scan sonar technology finally found Delaware’s greatest mystery ship.

At the time of discovery, the DeBraak represented a near-perfect and untouched time capsule of 18th-century Royal Navy maritime life. Amongst political wrangling and media hype, the wreck of the DeBraak was thoroughly looted and destroyed by the salvage company. The anticipated treasure was never found, and the company that originally found the wreck would eventually go bankrupt. It is at this time that the DeBraak got its first lucky break since its sinking when the State of Delaware stepped in to purchase and care for the 20,000 artifacts that had been recovered along with a large remnant of the ship’s hull. The disastrous salvage of the DeBraak also directly led to the passage of state and federal legislation protecting underwater archeological resources.

In the years that followed, great advances were made in the understanding and preservation of the artifact collections under the care of the staff at the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. In 1998, at the 200th anniversary of its sinking, an exhibit on the DeBraak was launched at the Zwaanendael Museum and a ceremony was held on the museum grounds to unveil a monument dedicated to those who lost their lives aboard the ship.

The hull of the Debraak as it exists today.
The remnant of the DeBraak hull.

In the last 20 years, public programming and tours have continued with success at the Zwaanendael Museum, but the DeBraak has faded from the headlines. Conversations of a dedicated museum have all disappeared. Most of the artifact collection was recently boxed and moved to a new curatorial facility in Dover, and the hull remnant is maintained in a specialized curatorial facility at Cape Henlopen State Park. During the recent pandemic, the facility received some critical upgrades necessary for the care of the hull (read more on that work here).  And a recent assessment of the hull indicates that it is still viable for conservation, but the window of viability is closing.

The Division's curatorial staff pose in front of a poster at the exhibit opening of the Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia exhibit.
The Division’s curatorial staff at the exhibit opening of the Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia exhibit.

Interest in the DeBraak, its story and its incredible collection of artifacts documenting life on board have not completely been forgotten. DeBraak artifacts were recently loaned to the Museum of the American Revolution in support of their exhibit, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” which runs through November 26, 2023.  The future of the DeBraak, particularly the hull remnant, hinges on public and political support, building new partnerships and finding the financial resources to complete the project that was started decades ago. The next decade will prove her ultimate fate. Will the DeBraak finally find fair winds and calm seas, or will the looming clouds of indifference be her ruin?

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