De Braak and the birth of legend of Sea Witch
Michael Morgan(Photo: Ted Mathias photo)Buy Photo
“His Britannic Majesty’s sloop of war De Braak, Capt. Drew,” an account from Philadelphia, published on May 31, 1798, just six days after the disaster, stated, “overset in Old Kiln Roads, about 4 o’clock last Friday afternoon…she immediately filled and went down, with Capt. Drew, his lieutenants and 38 others seamen, and marines.
“About 25 days ago she fell in with, and captured a Spanish ship from La Plata, bound to Spain, with a very valuable cargo, consisting of 100 tons of copper in bars, a quantity of cocoa, etc.” Ignoring the phrase, “consisting of copper bars, a quantity of cocoa, etc.,” the mention of a “very valuable cargo” sparked a search for the remains of the De Braak that lasted nearly two centuries and led to the creation of a Halloween legend. By the late 19th century, many people concluded that the De Braak had been filled with gold and silver when it went down.
Several attempts were made to locate the sunken ship; but they all ended in failure. During the first decades of the 20th century, the stories of the wealth of the De Braak continued to excite treasurer hunters, but some people began to wonder if something sinister was protecting the lost ship. In 1935, Charles N.
Colstad, an engineer from Attleboro, Massachusetts,, surveyed the ocean floor off Cape Henlopen and announced, “We have been encouraged in what we have accomplished and believe we are on the right trail.” The arrival of harsh weather in November dashed Colstad’s hopes of retrieving the treasure of the De Braak. The expedition’s crew was convinced that the wreck of the British brig was protected by a “Weather or Sea Witch” who summoned violent storms to drive away anyone who approached the sunken ship and its treasure.
The superstitious sailors decided on an elaborate ritual to exorcise the evil spirit. After the demon was drawn on cardboard, the treasure hunters then used the cardboard image for target practice. After the first attempt to drive the Weather Witch away failed, the sailors constructed an effigy of the Weather Witch.
The old hag had long gray hair that streamed from under a tall peaked cap. Equipped with a broomstick and clothed with a flowing cape, “The witch was given the position of honor in the cabin, offered drink and food, and then was burned, with many incantations, in the galley stove.” At sunset, the witch’s ashes were collected and scattered on the sea.
The sailors’ exorcism appeared to have angered the Sea Witch. Strong winds whipped the sea into high waves and made the salvage vessels unmanageable. Faced with the worsening weather conditions, Colstad postponed the search until the following summer.
In August 1936, Colstad used two vessels to explore the ocean floor off Cape Henlopen. On Sept.
18, the Weather Witch returned and was accompanied by a full-fledged hurricane. The storm drove one of Colstad’s boats on to the beach 300 yards from the surf and destroyed the expedition’s range markers.
Defeated by the demon of the deep, Colstad abandoned the search for the De Braak. Charles Colstad’s vain attempt to locate the De Braak created notoriety for the legend of the Sea Witch. When the remains of the De Braak were raised in 1986, no gold, silver, or other treasure was found with the ship’s timbers, now on display at Cape Henlopen State Park.
Tours of the remains of the vessel are conducted on a limited basis. The Weather Witch, on the other hand, has a prominent place in the annual Rehoboth Sea Witch festival held Halloween weekend. Principal Sources:
>> Sylvanus Urban, editor, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, 1798, Part 2, London, July, 1798, p.
618. >> New York Times, Sept.
19, 1932; July 12, 1936. >> Donald Shomette, The Hunt for HMS DE Braak, Legend and Legacy, Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1993, pp.
>> Delaware, A Guide to the First Sate, Federal Writers’ Project, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, p.
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