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The Deltebre l shipwreck, the story of a military disaster

Amongst the objects recovered are a bottle of Foundillon wine and a nine-and-a-half metre long rudder.

In the summer of 1813, during the course of the Peninsular War, an English fleet, organised by lieutenant general John Murray and commanded by rear admiral Hallowell set sail. The aim of the expedition was to liberate the city of Tarragona. It was a disaster. During the retreat a number of ships ran aground in the mouth of the river Ebre during a storm, and five of them sank with all their military equipment on board. One of them was the Deltebre I, named for the place in which it sank.

The wreck was found in 2008 by a local diver looking for shellfish and, since then, the Underwater Archaeology Centre of Catalonia has carried out the tasks of excavation, restoration and conservation. Today the Deltebre I is one of the few shipwrecks to have been found in Catalonia not to have suffered any kind of plunder. It is in good condition and is of high scientific value. Would you like to know more about it?

Image from the exhibition: Deltebre I. Història d'un naufragi (Deltebre I. Story of a shipwreck). Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya.

General Murray's indecisive and confusing orders

On 31 May the Deltebre I, together with the rest of the expedition, set sail from the Port of Alicante, a city that had not been captured by the French, for Tarragona. The fleet comprised ships from the Royal Navy as well as other vessels carrying military material and provisions. In total there were 14,500 men, amongst them English, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese. There were also 800 horses and 400 mules, along with 36 pieces of artillery with all their necessary crews and provisions.

Two days later the ships anchored in the Bay of Salou and the troops disembarked at the port and on the surrounding beaches, something welcomed by the local population as a sign of their imminent liberation. However, this was only the first of many disembarkations under the orders of Murray that would take place those days, something that dampened the troops' spirits.

On the road to retreat

At that time Tarragona still showed the signs of destruction caused by Napoleon's recent capture of the city in 1811, and its defences were practically inexistent. Nevertheless, Murray, who was aware of the city's precarious situation, failed to give the order to attack, but rather, spent the next ten days ordering manoeuvres such as loading and unloading, and other such senseless activities.

His doubts led him to decide, much to the surprise of his troops, to suddenly lift the siege and retreat. On 12 June the English troops abandoned their positions and the expected attack did not take place.

Official video of the exhibition,'Deltebre I'. MARQ Museo Arqueológico de Alicante.

The sinking of the Deltebre I and four other ships

The decision to return to Alicante having been taken, the English troops still had to overcome a very difficult hurdle, the Bay of Alfacs, at the mouth of the river Ebre, a marshy area and a very difficult one to cross in bad weather. That was the case on the night of 20 June 1813 when five ships in the fleet were grounded as a consequence of a storm with high East winds. Amongst those ships was the Deltebre I.

The crew and the troops abandoned ship, taking with them all the animals, armaments and other material they could. Whatever they had to leave behind remained buried on the seabed for almost 200 years after which, in 2008, a professional diver from Tarragona looking for shellfish, by the name of Carles Somolinos, discovered the shipwreck.
Image of the Bay of Alfacs, in the Delta de l'Ebre. Flickr by Josep Torta - CC BY -NC-SA 2.0
posta de sol a la badia dels Alfacs

Items of great historic value

It was then that the Underwater Archaeology Centre of Catalonia commenced its tasks of excavation, conservation and restoration. Given that the Deltebre I was a military transport ship, it was not surprising to find it was carrying munitions of various calibres, bombs, grenades, gunpowder and barrels containing ammunition.

Everyday objects were also found on the ship, such as compasses, paperweights and slide rules, as well as items belonging to military uniforms such as buttons, shoes and other leather items.

The underwater excavation of the Deltebre I. Centre d’Arqueologia Subaquàtica de Catalunya (CASC)

Foundillon, the wine of kings and princes

One of the outstanding objects recovered from the ship is a whole bottle of Foundillon wine, which comes from Alicante. It is a wine that had been very much favoured by monarchs, princes and cardinals to accompany their meals until the beginning of the 20th century, when it disappeared as a consequence of the devastation caused to vines by the phylloxera aphid.

During the excavation of the thirty-metre-long ship a nine-and-a-half-metre tall rudder was found, the finest example ever to have been found in the Mediterranean.

Bottle of Foundillon wine found during the excavation of the Deltebre I. Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya.

The exhibition, ‘Deltebre I. La història d’un naufragi’

All of these exceptional finds could be seen at the exhibition, ‘Deltebre I. La història d’un naufragi’ that was held at the premises of the Museu d’Arqueologia de Catalunya in Barcelona.

Source: Catalogue of the exhibition, ‘Deltebre I. La història d’un naufragi’, with texts by Carlota Pérez-Reverte / Press dossier for the exhibition, ‘Deltebre I. La història d’un naufragi’.