DELMARVA ALMANAC

The Wreck of the HMS De Braak

by Dana Kester-McCabe

The wreck in Delaware Bay of a sloop of war called the HMS De Braak has inspired tales of treasure more than two centuries.

It is not surprising that there would be many legends of sunken ships with lost treasure in a coastal region like ours. But these stories have mostly spun disappointment from the thin straws of truth rather than any golden fortune waiting to be found.

One shipwreck which has inspired such tales was that of a sloop of war called the HMS De Braak. She started out as a single masted sailing vessel which was most likely built before 1781 probably in the Netherlands. Her name means the Beagle. The Dutch were fond of naming their boats after dogs and the Beagle was known to be small and fast, like the De Braak.

She enters the history books in 1793 when she was assigned to sail with a Dutch squadron defending the coastal city of Willemstad during hostilities with France. Next she was ordered to help escort a merchant convoy headed to the West Indies. On her way she put into the English port of Plymouth planning to take on supplies before heading south. But fate intervened. At about that time the British declared war on the Dutch; confiscating the De Braak along with several other Dutch vessels.

The boat was then refitted with a second mast and essentially rebuilt to satisfy the priorities and tastes of the British Navy at the time. Once the ship was outfitted with new cannons she was also assigned a new captain. James Drew had a rather dubious reputation both professionally and personally. He had sired an illegitimate child and then ran off to marry a wealthy American girl. His first promotion to captain a ship ended quickly in a demotion. In June of 1795, despite his so far poor military record, he got his first real chance to prove himself as a captain when he was assigned the De Braak.

They were deployed to protect the British merchant fleet. Captain Drew and his crew managed to survive a number of naval skirmishes and storms at sea before being assigned to escort a group of vessels with trade goods heading to Delaware Bay. On the way there, near the Azores, the De Braak was ordered to fend off what appeared to be a French privateer approaching their squadron. This and an oncoming storm caused the ship to lose sight of the rest of the convoy. For seven weeks the De Braak disappeared.

This is where all the fact and fiction start to diverge. One now discounted story was that Captain Drew had been under secret orders to carry government payroll money to Jamaica. Though he was not known for his daring, what actually happened was that he and his crew captured a Spanish ship called the Don Francisco Xavier, which was headed to Cadiz with a South American cargo valued at £160,000 sterling. It was common for British ships to attack and seize the civilian vessels of countries the Crown did not like. This so called privateering was profitable both for the Crown and for the ships' crews who got to keep a portion of any valuables seized. In this case it was an improbable yet noteworthy achievement for a small ship with a less than stellar captain.

With the captured ship in tow the De Braak sailed into her original destination, Delaware Bay, on May 25, 1798 unbelievably just hours after the rest of their convoy had already departed. A pilot boat master named Andrew Allen boarded the De Braak and met with Captain Drew to make arrangements for assisting the ship into port. But Captain Drew and his men were celebrating their arrival with a few beverages. They were not in any mood to take advice from Captain Allen who left the ship to tend to the more pressing duties getting his own boat ready for a gathering storm now visible on the horizon.

Captain Allen unknowingly narrowly escaped with his life. The foul weather came up very quickly and in a freak event a sudden extraordinary gust of wind flipped the De Braak. Some of her crew was able to swim to safety on the Spanish prize ship but Captain Drew, the rest of their mates, and some prisoners were swiftly pulled under to perish at the bottom of the bay. Forty seven men died that day.

Now, if there was any treasure most of it certainly sailed away on that Spanish vessel. The paymaster from the De Braak, Lieutenant Thomas Griffith, was on board with orders to make way to British authorities near Cape Henry should the two ships become separated. Historians presume that is what happened.

The British Consul in Philadelphia was informed of the disaster and they sent two salvage brigs to raise the sunken ship. This actually contributed to the rumors of treasure since the boat was relatively small and would never really be seaworthy again, at least not for the purposes of the British Navy. So why were they going to all this trouble? It may have been in response to stories of the surviving sailors who were said to have paid for rooms in local hotels with gold doubloons. For some time the ship's mast was visible above the water at low tide so there is also a good chance that some strong swimmers may have been able to dive from boats to scavenge a few things.

The British eventually wrote the De Braak off as a total loss. Eventually the mast fell and the sands shifted over the wreckage. But now a legend and a question had been created capturing the imagination of treasure seekers for years to come. Was there South American gold still on the wreck at the bottom of Delaware Bay?

Over thirty attempts to find and raise the De Braak failed until the 1980's. Located with sonar she was then finally lifted out of the water with a crane. This was accomplished only after two competing companies fought in court to work the wreck. Sadly, the company that won the right to excavate the ship was accused of going about this work in a very haphazard way. Some observers reported that the salvage team simply threw over board anything that did not look like treasure. The firm was also criticized for their improper disposal of the human remains.

The outcry from the archeological community was very loud. It led to the enactment of the 1985 federal Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which enables states to claim and protect the historical integrity of shipwrecks located up to three nautical miles offshore. Ultimately the state of Delaware was awarded one quarter of the salvage and the rest they purchased for $300,000. Portions of the hull along with over 20,000 artifacts eventually found a home at the Zwannendael Museum in Lewes. Among them is the ship's original muster roll listing the members of the crew and their home ports.

The rest of the collection tells the story of sailors lives through objects from their everyday life including: china, shoes, a bottle marked "Ketchup", a wig, and a ring belonging to Captain Drew which held an inscription that commemorated the death of his brother who also had been lost to the sea.

References:


Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters Along the Delmarva Coast 1632-2004
By Donald Shomette

188 Years After Sinking, HMS Debraak Is Raised
By William K. Stevens, Special to the New York Times
Published: August 12, 1986

The Prize Of Delaware The Debraak Is Pulled From The Deep, Where It Had

Rested Since 1798

By Leonard Boasberg and Michael Capuzzo, Inquirer Staff Writers
Posted: August 13, 1986

Who Owns Lost Ships?
Nova - PBS

Our Most Famous Shipwrecks

- The HMS De Braak is perhaps Delaware’s most famous shipwreck

by Pam George, author of "Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls & Treasure"
Delaware Today - Septemebr 2010

H.H.B De Braak Historical Chronology [in PDF]
Delaware State Archives

Public invited to see Delaware’s most

famous sunken ship

By John Mussoni - WHYY - May 25, 2012

Zwaanendael Museum
Lewes, Delaware