History

Sailing Vessel
Sailing vessel of approximately the same size and rigging as El Nuevo Constante.

During the colonial period, Spain depended on a system of fleets of ships that carried goods to and from the Americas. One, known as the New Spain Fleet, left from Cadiz in southwest Spain bound for Veracruz, Mexico. The owners of the frigate El Nuevo Constante planned for it to sail with this fleet when it left Cadiz on February 24, 1765. However, they delayed the trip for nearly 10 months, waiting for a complete load of cargo.

El Nuevo Constante began its final voyage from Spain on December 7, 1765. Nine days earlier stevedores had completed loading the main cargo: 1,334 boxes of mercury, each of which weighed 150 pounds. Mercury was vital to Spain because it was critical in the extraction of silver from ores. Other cargo on board was wine, liquor, iron, nails, plow points, vinegar, and a "box of relics from the holy places in Jerusalem," all bound for Mexico.

The ship was making its first trip to the New World under the Spanish flag. Only a year earlier, it belonged to the English trading firm of Bewicke-Timmerman. Then its name was the Duke of York. In 1764, a Spanish merchant family bought it for the New World trade.

El Nuevo Constante, under the command of Julian Antonio de Urcullu, arrived at Veracruz, Mexico on February 27, 1766. No one knows how long it took to unload the mercury and other cargo. Records do show that repair work was done on the ship, including caulking some of the seams. By early May, it was loaded and ready to sail back to Spain with the New Spain Fleet.

Four other ships also were in the convoy. The fleet carried private cargo worth 14,889,890 pesos. For the royal government, it transported copper, cacao, vanilla, dyewood, and 84,937 pesos in silver. El Nuevo Constante's private cargo was worth 74,620 pesos. Half of that was in silver coins, gold coins, and silver bars.

The fleet put to sea during the day of May 25, 1766. A lack of wind kept the ships from going very far. At midnight, a ship reached them with an order to await the arrival of a royal warship that would accompany the fleet to Spain. The warship arrived nearly two months later, on July 11. Bad weather and repairs to the warship's main mast delayed the fleet's final sailing date to August 21.

During the delay, the crew members shifted much of the precious metal from El Nuevo Constante to other ships. They added various other export items. Records show that 47 individuals, in addition to the Spanish government, shipped cargo on El Nuevo Constante. The ship carried almost the full range of goods exported from New Spain during this period, including cowhides, medicinal plants, ceramics, dyewood, cochineal, copper, and silver. Archaeologists have recovered many of these cargo items.

At least 11 passengers and 60 crew members were aboard El Nuevo Constante when the fleet finally left Veracruz on August 21, 1766. By that time, another ship, the Corazon de Jesus y Santa Barbara, had joined the fleet. The first 10 days of the voyage went as planned. On September 1, the fleet was just east of Cape Negrillo, Mexico. At 8:30 that night, according to the second pilot of El Nuevo Constante, a storm hit. It had "such bad symptoms that it grew by the instant and became strong hurricanes and unimaginable seas" (Echagoyen 1766).

The hurricane scattered the fleet. On September 3, the ships made contact, so the entire fleet was in sight. However, on September 4, the same storm dispersed the fleet again, and the continual pounding of the wind and waves began to take its toll. Soon six of the seven vessels in the fleet lost parts of masts and rigging. Despite the damage, all but two of the ships eventually made it safely to harbor. The Corazon de Jesus y Santa Barbara lost all of its masts and rigging, and the storm drove it toward the coast to the north. There it wrecked.

Routes
Routes of the Spanish fleets to the New World

The crew and passengers on El Nuevo Constante commented on how well their ship had withstood the three days of the storm. Hours later, however, they noticed a gradual rise of water in the ship. It turned out that during the night of September 3, it had begun to leak. By the morning of September 4, the rising water was getting ahead of the pumps. While more men pumped and bailed, the ship's carpenters and caulkers searched for the source of the water. Clearly, the leaks were in the front part of the ship, called the bow. Afterward, the crew concluded that the pounding seas had worked the caulking out of the seams, or possibly had knocked knots from the planking.

The passengers and crew continually bailed and pumped. However, by dawn on September 5, the ship was gradually settling at the bow. Desperate, the crew threw some cannons overboard to lighten the ship. Realizing that it was but a question of time before El Nuevo Constante would sink, the officers decided to head for the nearest land.

Between 4:00 and 5:00 that afternoon, the keel struck bottom. Lifted and carried a bit farther by the waves, the ship finally came to rest in 10 feet of water about 1,600 feet from shore. Rocked by the force of the storm, it began to work its way into the mud. Shortly after that, the crew cut down the masts, because their movement in the wind was opening the ship's seams even further. Fortunately, no one died during the hurricane.

For another two days, the storm kept the crew and passengers on the ship. Finally the seas calmed enough so that the crew could go to shore in the ship's boat. At first, they found little but marsh and tangled undergrowth. Then, finally, they discovered an area of high ground about two miles from the wreck. Here the crew and passengers began to build a camp.

Over the next few days they salvaged all the cargo that was above decks and carried it to shore. The captain selected a crew of trustworthy men and put them and supplies into the ship's boat. They began the journey to Balize, about 180 miles to the east, at the entrance to the Mississippi River. Their arriva1 at Balize set in motion a complex salvage effort that scattered El Nuevo Constante's cargo and crew to many ports around the Gulf of Mexico.

Spain's new Governor of Louisiana, Antonio de Ulloa, sent several ships to the rescue of El Nuevo Constante and the Corazon de Jesus y Santa Barbara. A British-American schooner, El Diquiblot, and a French vessel reached El Nuevo Constante's camp in mid-September. Four other ships arrived later to help in the salvage efforts.

Parital list
Partial list of cargo initially loaded on El Nuevo Constante in Veracruz in 1766.

English
English translation of cargo list1 arroba = 25 pounds, 1 libra = 1 pound)

Crew members completed loading salvaged material on the Diquiblot and another vessel by October 2. A large portion of the cargo was still onshore. Therefore, Captain Urcullu bought the Diquiblot outright for 1,600 pesos so it could make several trips without a high daily freight charge. The two ships left the camp at 6:00 p.m. on October 2, expecting to get to Balize in a few days. Strong winds prevented them from reaching their destination. On October 13, the vessels were separated in bad weather.

The Diquiblot reached Havana harbor on October 29, but that night a storm drove it on the rocks. Both crew and passengers were rescued. Now the twice-salvaged cargo included 25 bales and packages, three gold discs marked M, H, and G, and three small pieces of silver. No one claimed the gold or silver pieces, which probably had been illegally smuggled aboard.

Three other ships had left the salvage camp on October 17 heading for New Orleans. One presumably reached New Orleans, but storms drove the other two to Veracruz. They carried 30 crew members, hides, flour, and some ship's fittings from El Nuevo Constante. The final ship to leave the salvage camp arrived at Balize near the end of November. It carried El Nuevo Constante's captain and the last of the passengers, crew, and salvaged cargo. Captain Urcullu remained in Louisiana until early April 1767, when he sailed for Havana, Cuba. Goods from El Nuevo Constante were collected in Havana and eventually were carried to Cadiz, Spain on Captain Urcullu's ship, the Belle Indio. In Cadiz, the salvaged cargo was weighed, evaluated, and made available to its owners. Their last claim on the cargo was made in July 1769, almost three years after El Nuevo Constante had been lost. The total value of the salvaged cargo was about 7,290 pesos. This is perhaps 11% of the value of the cargo when the ship left Veracruz.

The tale of the salvage of El Nuevo Constante was over. Wind, weather, and shipworms soon took the remains of the ship from view. They lay untouched for 213 years beneath a protective cap of fine mud. Erosion claimed the shore where the passengers and crew had come on land, destroying their salvage camp. The name of a nearby stream, Bayou del Constante, preserved the memory of the events of 1766. In time, this became Constance Bayou, a name whose significance was forgotten.

Stamp
Tax stamp from the ship's manifest

Archaeological Research

Curtis Blume's discovery of the copper ingots and the wreck of El Nuevo Constante in 1979 led directly to the research reported in this volume. Until that time, the wreck had received little recent attention. However, in 1785, Jose' de Evia did mention the wreck. During an expedition to map the Louisiana coast, the Spaniard noted:



Maps from the late 1700s use some form of Constante for the bayou. Even today, bayous and lakes in the area have Constance in their names. The location of the wreck off Constance Bayou was a clue to the name of the ship. Researchers also compared artifacts from the site with cargo listed in Spanish records. This has allowed them to positively identify the shipwreck as El Nuevo Constante.

After Blume discovered the copper ingots, he and his associates dove on the ship. Soon they found gold and silver ingots. Then they began digging on the wreck with a mechanical dredge. They removed ballast stones and many other artifacts that covered the wreck. Luckily, this did little damage to the bottom of the ship, which was still intact.

Research area
Research area

Realizing that the site was in state waters, they told authorities. State officials knew the importance of careful study of the wreck and its place in the history of Louisiana. The state drew up a contract to have the ship excavated under the direction of professional archaeologists from Coastal Environments, Inc., of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In September 1980, the archaeologists began work.

A remote sensing survey was the first research on the wreck site. Archaeologists used a magnetometer, side-scan sonar, and subbottom profiler. The purpose of the survey was to find out about the ship before excavation began. The side-scan sonar gave the most useful information. It produced a clear picture of the sea floor using sound rather than light. This image showed the ship's outline, a cannon, and the holes from the dredging.

Side-scan sonar
Side-scan sonar record of El Nuevo Constante shipwreck.

The side-scan record served as a map for planning excavations. Archaeologists marked a line down the center of the ship, then laid 10-foot squares off this line. They excavated and recorded what they found within these square units. iron
Bringing an iron artifact to the surface
Monitoring
Archaeologists on the dive boat monitoring divers at the wreck.
El Nuevo Constante lay in only about 19 feet of water. However, divers could not see the wreck because of mud. The liquid mud formed a thick soup extending 2 or 3 feet above the sea bottom. As a result, the archaeologists excavated and mapped by touch. Divers used surface-supplied air and had radio contact with the diving boat.
Mud covering the wreck had kept oxygen from reaching it. This reduced organic decay, helping preserve the ship and its contents. Oyster and barnacle growth and shipworm damage occurred only on the upper portions of the wreck, above the thick, liquid mud covering the sea floor. Preparing
Preparing for the dive.


Dive boat
Dive boat

Raising ballast
Raising ballast stones to the surface

Lift
Water lift discharging on the boat
Archaeologists mapped and removed artifacts that could be found by touch in each square. Then they excavated each unit using a hydraulic water lift. This piece of equipment sent a large volume of pressurized water through a pipe down to the bottom. It then forced the water and bottom material through a pipe back up to the diving boat at the surface. On the boat, the material was collected in a wire basket. Archaeologists catalogued all artifacts according to their square. They left large artifacts in place until they mapped them near the end of the excavation. Excavations concluded on February 15,1981.
Archaeologists also searched the shore for the shipwreck survivors' camp. They found only a few historic artifacts. One of these, a small clay bowl, was identical to several from El Nuevo Constante. It appeared, however, that waves had washed it on shore. No other evidence of the survivors' camp was found. Maps show that the shoreline in this area has eroded about 4,600 feet since 1766. It is likely that erosion destroyed the site of the camp. Recording information
Recording information about the wreck.
Silver disks
Silver disks
Plate fragments
Plate fragments
Ceramic bowl and lift
Ceramic bowl and lid
Buckles
Buckles

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