Delaware shipwreck an international affair

by Michael Short on February 24, 2011

By Michael Short

When the bits of pottery and glass began showing up on Lewes Beach in 2004, few thought those shards from a bygone century would link Lewes to businesses around the globe.

The artifacts began to show up after a dredging project disturbed a shipwreck believed to date to 1774, which is believed to be the wreck of the ship Severn. Among those toy soldiers, bricks and bits of clay and glassware, was a piece of a broken wine bottle.

Engraved with the words Constantia Wyn, the bottle fragment was traced to the Groot Constantia Winery in South Africa, a winery still in business today.

That prompted a connection between the old and new worlds that led to the head of the Constantia winery coming to Lewes in 2007 for a banquet hosted by the Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame.

At that banquet, General Manager of Groot Constantia Jean Naude received proclamations from the Delaware governor’s office, which note that the bottle fragment forever link Lewes with the winery.

An email from Naude notes that the proclamation said “Because of that broken wine bottle recovered from “the Severn” wreckage, the State of Delaware and the Groot Constantia Estate and winery will always share an association. It continues today, uniquely providing a link to our past, our maritime heritage and our ties to the sea.”

The shipwreck had lain unknown in some 20 feet of water about 6,000 feet offshore near the mouth of Roosevelt Inlet until disturbed by a dredging project to replenish Lewes Beach. The dredging took place in October and by December, beachcombers were finding toy soldiers, shards of pottery and pipe, bricks and the like.

That prompted a small fever of speculation about where the artifacts came from. The experts, however, generally believe it was the  Severn, which sank in a storm in May of 1774. The captain and crew survived, but the cargo of grist millstones, mineral water jars, china and other vital necessities was lost.

Divers later recovered some intact artifacts from the merchant ship, including grist millstones and mineral water jars.

Naude’s email was sent to David Ennis, a former Delaware State representative who has been active with the Delaware Maritime Hall of Fame.

Ennis noted in a recent interview that that link ultimately led to Groot Constantia deciding to sell its’ wines once again in America. “I told them (wine importers) that if there is one state where our products should be in the USA, it should be Delaware,” Naude wrote.

In fact, Groot Constantia has remade a bottle design to mirror that of the long-ago vintage and is placing it in a wooden box with an insert which says “In 2004, a piece of glass bearing the words “Constantia Wyn” was discovered on the shores of Lewes, a city in Delaware on the American East Coast. Careful research by U.S. historians pointed the origin of the glass to a ship, the Severn, which had sunk there in 1774. The find inspired historians and craftsmen to reconstruct the original bottle, an elegant vessel which is now being used to revive the Grand Constance trademark.”

Ennis is among those who think Lewes and Delaware is missing an opportunity by not developing a facility to showcase maritime artifacts like those from the Severn and from the Debraak, found off Cape Henlopen in 1984.

Both have proven rich treasure troves, not of actual treasure, but of the life and times of sailors and merchants from centuries ago. The Debraak wreck even included preserved leather shoes worn by sailors.

The captain of the Debraak, James Drew, is buried in Lewes.

The story of the ship’s finding prompted intrigue and speculation ranging from midnight raids that spirited away the ship’s artifacts to stories of salvagers armed with machine guns to protect their prize.

Ennis feels that with the emphasis on ecotourism, the abundance of shipbuilding history, shipwrecks, pirates, World War II history and general maritime history, that the area is ripe for a building or museum to showcase some of those artifacts.

“We’re sitting on a unique opportunity to tell the story of the maritime history,” he said.

But the South African Groot Constantia winery is not the only international connection to the wreck of the Severn.

Ennis said that mineral water jugs found offshore at the wreck site and recovered intact have been traced to a beverage company in Germany, which is also still in business. Just as with Groot Constantia, overtures have been made to the beverage company, but there has been no visit to America yet.

The business is the Selters Mineral Water Bottle Company, which began in approximately 1773, he said. According to the website, the term seltzer once referred to effervescent water found in the natural springs in Southwest Germany near the village of Niederseltsers.

When Ennis visited Williamsburg last year for Christmas, he said he saw a museum display of similar mineral water jugs. The display said the largest collection of such jugs was found in Lewes at the wreck site.

All of which leaves Ennis and others hoping for a facility to share all of that history. “If anybody in Lewes wins the Powerball, we’ll be talking to them,” he joked.

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