Wreck of El Nuevo Constante yields treasure
By Terry L. Jones
In 1979, Curtis Blume, a shrimper out of Port Bolivar, Texas, was trolling his nets off the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge in Cameron Parish when he snagged some unusual copper ingots.
Realizing he had discovered a ship wreck, he and some friends began investigating the site and recovered more copper ingots, as well as some gold and a cannon.
Research revealed that the shipwreck was the El Nuevo Constante, one of many Spanish vessels that plied Gulf waters in the 18th century. At that time, Spain's Mexico colony produced tons of gold, silver, and other products that were regularly sent across the Atlantic Ocean aboard ships like the Constante.
A manifest discovered in the Spanish archives revealed that the Constante was an ordinary cargo vessel and not a treasure ship as Blume and his colleagues had hoped. Besides gold, silver, and copper, it also carried cow and goat hides, indigo, vanilla beans, chocolate, ceramic bowls, medicinal plants, dyewood, and cochineal (used in making dye).
With five other cargo vessels and a protective warship, the El Nuevo Constante set sail from Veracruz on August 21, 1766, with 71 passengers and crew. All went well until September 1. That night, according to one of the ship's pilots, a storm lashed the fleet and had "such bad symptoms that it grew by the instant and became strong hurricanes and unimaginable seas."
The fleet was battered for several days, and the vessels finally drifted apart as they lost masts and rigging. The Constante stood the storm well until it began to leak on the night of September 3. Despite heroic efforts to pump out the water, it was settling by the bow when dawn broke on September 5. Some of the heavy cannons were heaved overboard to lighten the vessel, but it did no good. Realizing his ship was sinking, the captain turned north and ran it aground in 10 feet of water just over a quarter mile from the Cameron beach. Amazingly, all of the passengers and crew survived the harrowing ordeal.
When the storm finally subsided two days later, the Spaniards set up camp onshore, and a few men took a small boat to try to get help. They made their way eastward 180 miles to Balize near the mouth of the Mississippi River and made contact with Spanish officials.
A rescue operation soon arrived to retrieve the stranded men and salvage the Constante, but the Spanish were able to recover very little of the cargo. In a short time, the wreck site disappeared from memory.
After Blume rediscovered the wreck in 1979, Louisiana officials forced him to turn over the artifacts to the state, and Coastal Environments, Inc., of Baton Rouge was contracted to conduct a professional excavation.
After 214 years of coastal erosion, however, the wreck was now almost a mile offshore in 19 feet of water that was so murky that divers could not see their hands in front of their faces.
The salvage job was quite nerve-wracking because the divers were constantly in danger of being entangled in fishing line that had broken off on the wreck. They also sometimes sensed (but did not see) large fish swimming nearby.
Among the hundreds of artifacts collected were more than 80 pounds of silver, 50 pounds of gold, and 7,000 pounds of copper. None of the silver or gold discs had any inventory markings, suggesting that they were smuggled aboard in an attempt to avoid paying taxes.
Other artifacts included metal and wooden ship fittings, ballast stones, three 8-foot-long iron cannons, intact cowhides, spikes, nails, bolts, cannon shot, anchors, and various personal items.
Hundreds of ceramic fragments were also recovered and many were in the shape of miniature shoes, dogs, llamas, ducks, and guitars. These were probably gift items, much like the knickknacks modern tourists buy at roadside stands.
Apparently in honor of the ship, the Spanish named a nearby waterway Bayou del Constante, but over the years its name became corrupted into Constance Bayou. Modern maps of the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge still show Big and Little Constance bayous and Big and Little Constance lakes. They are the sole reminders of the only Spanish shipwreck ever discovered in Louisiana waters.
Dr. Terry L. Jones is a professor of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe who has received numerous awards for his books and outdoor articles.