Division of Historical & Cultural Affairs : Delaware State Museums


The Wooden World Revealed: The Archaeology of His Majesty’s Brig DeBraak

During the late 18th century, Great Britain, France, and Spain became locked in a military struggle on a global scale called the Napoleonic Wars. The armies and navies of these warring powers became engaged on nearly every continent and in every sea and ocean around the world. Critical to these countries, military success was the maintenance of their own, or destruction of their adversaries’ overseas markets. The young United States provided an important outlet for British and European manufactured goods. As the 1790s progressed, the British government sought to protect its American markets by having merchant convoys to North America escorted by ships of the Royal Navy.

The DeBraak was a small but powerful vessel called a brig or brig-sloop. It was fitted with two masts, and was armed with sixteen cannons. The ship’s company consisted of eighty five officers, marines, boys, and sailors. The vessel began its Royal Navy service in June 1797.

After a period of time on duty in the English Channel, the DeBraak was ordered to fit out for convoy duty. During the Atlantic crossing, the DeBraak became separated from its convoy. While attempting to reunite with the merchant ships, DeBraak was struck by a violent squall, capsized, and sank off the Delaware coast on May 25, 1798. The brig settled in about eighty feet of water and over nearly two centuries, gradually became part of the archaeological record and maritime lore of Delaware’s Atlantic coast.

Life Aboard a Warship at Sea.

Navigational instruments, a sailmaker’s palm and the surgeon’s bone saw and tooth key reveal the many skills, training, and expertise required to keep a small vessel functioning at sea. Ceramic plates, drinking glasses, uniform coat buttons, furniture fragments, bone dice, a cube from the game called Crown and Anchor, and the captain’s mourning ring are just a few of the many personal items that provide important clues to understanding the human and social dimensions of the life aboard a warship at sea. Many of these artifacts helped to maintain occupational and social distinctions among the officers and crew. Interestingly, a large number of the ceramic plates were used by the common sailors and indicated an improved level of material culture than what sailors had previously used.

Delaware State Museums has sponsored more than fourteen years of research and work by archeologists, historians, material culture specialists, and conservators into the remains of the DeBraak. This work continues to uncover new information about life at sea in the age of sail. Much remains yet to be discovered.

For more information on the DeBraak and to experience the vast collection of artifacts salvaged from the DeBraak, visit Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes. You may also email the Curator of Archaeology.

For exhibit information you may call Zwaanendael Museum at (302) 645-1148 or for collections/research information you may contact the Curator of Archaeology at (302) 739-6402

The DeBraak Collection

The DeBraak and its associated collection of 20,000 artifacts presents an unparalleled look into naval life in the heyday of the Royal Navy and provides important clues to a better understanding of the human experience at sea. This rich and diverse collection includes the surviving hull remnant and represents every facet of shipboard life from the ships’s armament and operation to food and provisions, to clothing and personal objects. Many of the artifacts are rare and others are the only known examples.

The hull, of which approximately thirty percent survives, is the only known example of the architecture of a class of vessel called a brig-sloop. These small, but powerful vessels saw expanded and important service throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Many of the artifacts, such as the footwear and small arms collection, are the largest ones known from a naval context.

Others are remarkably rare, such as a group of eight canister, giant shotgun-like projectiles capable of inflicting many casualties in an enemy ship’s crew, which are still packed in their original box. Many artifacts form the DeBraak are examples of important technological innovations that revolutionized the production of ship’s fittings, changed tactics, and helped expand British seapower. They include cooper alloy bolts that held the ship together, cooper plates that protected its hull, rigging components made by Walter Taylor of Southampton, England, a new powerful type of cannon called a carronade, and flintlock gunlocks mechanisms used to fire these cannons. The use of carronades tripled the DeBraak’s firepower while reducing the weight carried by the vessel by two tons. Analysis of the many blocks and sheaves used in the warship’s rigging revealed the problem of overmasting that sank the DeBraak so suddenly that afternoon in May of 1798.