Skip to content

Were women among the drowned seamen?

1990 painting of the HMS De Braak sinking, by P. Kane

Take a close look at this tabletop assemblage of artifacts retrieved from the sinking of the HMS De Braak, off the coast of Lewes, DE in 1798. Why was a woman’s comb retrieved from the sunken vessel, when the crew was all male?

The comb could have belonged to Lydia Drew, the wife of Captain James Drew. He drowned in the shipwreck, though she was back at their home in New York City awaiting news of her husband’s return. But it makes sense that a married captain would carry a keepsake of his beloved to remember her during long months at sea.

Eight artifacts recovered from the sunken HMS De Braak

However, it’s also possible that the comb belonged to a woman actually on board at the time. In Horatio Nelson’s Royal Navy, warrant officers were given dispensation to bring wives and children on sea voyages. Warrant officers were the ship’s specialist officers. Their name comes from the fact that they received a warrant from the Admiralty, rather than a commission, which is what the captain and his lieutenants received. Five of the warrant officers (carpenter, purser, gunner, cook, and clerk) on the DeBraak went down with the ship.

The presence of women on British naval ships was largely hidden, for official purposes, as they were not paid or fed by the Navy, and therefore were not entered onto the ships’ muster books. Other records, such as order books written by ships’ captains, refer to their existence, as do memoirs and records of courts martial.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *