Colombia has just taken another step towards the recovery of the Spanish wreck of the San José, sunk more than three hundred years ago, inside which hides a real treasure. The government considers this loot a “national treasure” and wants it to be displayed in a future museum built in Cartagena.
The War of the Spanish Succession
The San José was a 62-gun galleon of the Spanish Navy during the War of the Spanish Succession. This conflict opposed from 1701 to 1713 several European nations who disputed the succession to the throne of Spain and, by extension, the domination of all of Europe following the death without issue of Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg.
In late May 1708, the San José led a fleet of three warships and fourteen merchant ships from Portobelo, Panama, to Cartagena, where the crew members planned to take shelter as hurricane season approached. At the time, both regions were under Spanish rule.
Unexpectedly, the Spanish fleet was intercepted a few days later near the Barú Peninsula by a British squadron of five Royal Navy warships. A battle ensued. Eventually, the San José’s gunpowder stores exploded, eventually sinking the ship somewhere near the Barú Peninsula, south of Cartagena, Colombia. Nearly 600 crew members were drowned that day.
The treasure of the San José was also lost. During this trip, the ship was indeed loaded with about 200 tons of gold and silver whose value is estimated today at more than seventeen billion dollars. This booty was destined for France, allied at that time to the Spanish royal court.
A coveted treasure
In 2013, Colombia passed a law proclaiming that all shipwrecks in its waters would be part of the country’s national heritage. In 2015, the government finally announced that it had located the San José at around 600 meters deep thanks to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts.
Subsequent investigations revealed very little developed marine life on the wreck, in part due to its depth. Its distinctive cannons and other artifacts were otherwise still clearly visible.
More recently, according to CBS, the Colombian government launched a legal campaign to recover the contents of this wreck, signing a presidential decree calling on salvage companies to participate. The latter will have to submit a detailed inventory of everything they have found. The government would then like these treasures to be exhibited in a future museum to be built in Cartagena.
However, other parties also claim the spoils. Spain indeed claims that having been a Spanish state ship when it was sunk, the San José is still Spanish according to international conventions. A Bolivian indigenous group, the Qhara Qhara Nation, also claim the treasure is theirs as their ancestors were forced to mine it by the Spaniards in what was in the 1500s the largest silver mine in the world. .
For now, the wreck of the San José and its multi-billion dollar treasure still lies on the seabed and no physical action has been taken to save it.