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Sunken Ship DeBraak Reveals Its Secrets, Two Centuries Later

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DeBraak, a British Royal Navy ship, sank to the bottom of the Delaware Bay.
Bryan Russo
DeBraak, a British Royal Navy ship, sank to the bottom of the Delaware Bay.

More than 200 years ago, a British Royal Navy ship called the DeBraak sank to the bottom of Delaware Bay. It sat there for nearly two centuries before being brought to the surface in the late 1980s. And now, the public can finally view the shipwreck and its artifacts.

Chuck Fithian, an archaeologist with the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, says DeBraak is "a real important link that sort of ties Delaware to the Atlantic; it ties Delaware to major events that were sweeping across Europe."

Fithian says those events were the wars of revolutionary France, followed shortly thereafter by the wars of Napoleon.

"So Debraak is a physical reminder of these important events that were really shaping Western history, and links Delaware directly to it."

The sinking of the DeBraak

Fithian says the DeBraak was a type of vessel called a sloop of war. "They combined firepower with speed [and] agility," he says. "So it made them very versatile."

But DeBraak was felled on May 25, 1798 by an unusual storm system that moved across the entrance of the Delaware capes, striking the vessel and laying her over on her side. The DeBraak filled with water and capsized, and nearly half her crew perished. The ship remained at the bottom of the bay for nearly 200 years.

Treasure myths surrounding the DeBraak

Fithian says rumors of sunken treasure began to swirl around the DeBraak in the 19th century.

"The myth sort of started during the time when Debraak had gotten separated from [its] convoy and had picked up a Spanish prize. And the mistaken notion was the Spanish prize was a treasure ship, without really looking at the history and really what it said," he says. The "prize" was a common merchantman with a cargo of cocoa beans and copper. But that didn't stop the myth from getting "bigger and bigger and bigger," says Fithian.

"The real treasure, if you want to use the word, are the artifacts and the history that Debraak gives us an unparalleled look into," he says. "There is no other way right now that we can look at seafaring in the Royal Navy, what it was like to be on a Royal Navy war ship, what it was like to be on a sloop-of-war, in quite the same way that Debraak provides for us."

The remains of the DeBraak

There are 20,000 different artifacts from the DeBraak that remain today, including about a third of the ship's lower hull. But the ship needs to be kept wet to make sure those remains aren't lost.

"The timbers were waterlogged from almost two centuries under the sea," Fithian says. "And we just can't pull the water away really quickly. Because what will happen, is the cell structure will collapse. And the hull will deteriorate, so we have to keep her wet, [and] we have to figure out what sort of treatment we need to do and then gradually start pulling the water away, over a period of time."

Fithian says DeBraak has now been back on land for 27 years, and that archaeologists have learned a lot from this ship. But he thinks there's still more to understand.

"The study of the hull is still ongoing. So I think it's pretty safe to say Debraak's not given all her secrets up," Fithian says.

[Music: "Sea of Love" by Tom Waits from Brawlers / "Thank You" by Karaoke from Alanis Morissette]

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