Legendary Shipwreck May Have Been Found off the Colombia Coast

The sunken treasure on the Spanish galleon San Jose could be worth up to $17 billion

Hallazgo del Galeón San José - 5 de diciembre de 2015

Centuries after sinking, the wreckage of one of the world’s most storied warships has finally been found, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos announced last week. The San Jose, a Spanish treasure ship that sank off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia has been called the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks” and its long-lost cargo could be worth up to $14 billion, Bill Chappell reports for NPR.

"Great news: We found the galleon San Jose!" Santos announced on Twitter on December 4. Santos confirmed his statement the next day at a press conference in Cartagena, where he called the discovery "one of the biggest findings and identification of underwater heritage in the history of humanity," Chappell reports.

In order to find the wreckage that eluded treasure hunters since the 18th century, researchers with the Colombian Ministry of Culture relied on sonar scans, remote-controlled robots and underwater cameras. The international team discovered the ship’s remains resting almost 1,000 feet below the surface about 16 miles away from Cartagena, Sarah Kaplan reports for the Washington Post.

Santos’ office also released a video reportedly showing the researchers using an underwater robot to examine the sandy ocean floor, revealing a pile of broken pots and bottles alongside a cannon. According to Colombian officials, the ship’s dimensions, location, and a cannon match the San Jose’s description, though it will take more time to definitively prove that it is the fabled shipwreck.

When the San Jose sunk on May 28, 1708, the galleon was the flagship of the Spanish Armada. The 150-foot-long ship was armed with 64 cannons and 500 crewmen when it set sail for Europe loaded with treasure worth more than all the money Spain made in a year. When the entire 17-ship fleet’s cargo was tallied, it was worth two to three times as much as Spain’s annual income, according to a history written by Sea Search Armada, an American salvage company involved in the hunt for the wreckage.

But the ship didn’t make it far from Colombian shores. The treasure-laden fleet had no escort and was soon attacked by a small British fleet led by Commodore Charles Wager. According to Wager’s journals, cannon fire from his ship struck a store of gunpowder on the San Jose, triggering an explosion that sunk the massive vessel.

If the San Jose had reached Europe unscathed, it could have changed the course of European history by giving the Spanish and their French allies some much-needed funds during the War of Spanish Succession.

But even now, the San Jose is still caught in a legal tug-of-war between the Colombian government and Sea Search Armada (SSA), who claimed to have found the shipwreck in 1981. At the time, SSA said they had discovered the shipwreck just a few miles off of Colombia's coast at a depth of 800 feet, writes Chappell.

Ever since, the commercial salvage company has been locked in a legal battle with Colombia over how the ship’s billion-dollar treasure should be split, preventing further investigation of that site. According to Colombian officials, the San Jose has been found at an entirely new location "never before referred to by previous studies," Chappell reports.

Since 1984, SSA has filed multiple lawsuits in both the United States and Colombia, arguing that the Colombian government broke an agreement to give the salvagers 35 percent of the treasure. However, the Colombian government has laid claim to all treasure found in the wreck aside from a 5 percent finder’s fee.

While SSA representatives say the Colombian Supreme Court ruled in their favor, the two lawsuits SSA filed in the United States were dismissed, with U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg writing in a 2011 ruling that "The Complaint in this case reads like the marriage between a Patrick O'Brian glorious-age-of-sail novel and a John Buchan potboiler of international intrigue," Martinez and Prifti report.

That’s not the only fight that could be brewing: Since Saturday’s announcement, Spanish culture secretary José María Lasalle has announced that Spain is investigating what actions it can take to defend its rights to its “sunken wealth,” Jonathan Watts and Stephen Burgen report for The Guardian. Even centuries after the San Jose had sunk, its treasure’s allure seems as strong as ever.

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