Helena Lyng Blak
6 weeks ago

18th Century Sunken Treasure Spurs International Quarrel

As plans progress to pull the San José ship from the ocean floor, nations argue over the rights to its riches.
Kichigin / Shutterstock.com
Kichigin / Shutterstock.com

At the bottom of the sea, 30 miles off the coast of Colombia lie the remains of the San José, a Spanish galleon also dubbed the ‘holy grail’ of shipwrecks, worth billions.

Sunken in 1708, the ship’s cargo is of the kind that is usually reserved for romantic tales of pirates and hidden treasures: Precious stones such as emeralds, hundreds of gold coins, silver, and jewelry, amounting to a dizzying, estimated value of around $20 billion.

Now, Colombian authorities have announced plans to send an underwater robot to recover parts of the wreck’s bounty throughout April and May.

According to CBS News, the Colombian government will reportedly recover the items in order to assess how they fare when brought out of the water and then decide on further actions.

But that has raised the question: Is the archeological site of the San José even Colombia’s to decide what to do with? Who else might have the right to the ship - and its valuable cargo? And should it even be recovered?

The History of the San José

The San José was a Spanish three-masted galleon, launched in 1698, as a part of the “Spanish treasure fleet”, carrying gold, silver, emeralds, and jewelry collected in South America and intended to help fund the Spanish king’s war efforts during the War of the Spanish Succession.

On June 8, 1708, it encountered a British squadron in the Caribbean Sea and was ultimately sunk during the battle, with only 11 people surviving.

For years the wreck’s precise location remained unknown.

The Sea Search Armada and Its $10 Billion Demand

In 1981, an American group named the ‘Sea Search Armada’ claimed to have found the San José.

For decades following the discovery, Colombian authorities and the American company were in long and complicated legal disputes over how much of the shipwreck’s value the group was owed, arguing anything from a 50/50 split to a 5% finder’s fee taxed at 45%. 

In 2015, Colombia announced that it had found the San José at a different location than the Sea Search Armada. The Sea Search Armada, however, disagreed and asserted that the discovered location of 2015 does, in fact, align with the company’s discovery in the 1980s.

Today, the Sea Search Armada continues to insist on the validity of its 1981 discovery and its right to a share in the riches of the sunken ship.

The Sea Search Armada demands $10 billion - half the estimated value of the wreck.

Colonial Conflicts

But the Sea Search Armada are not the only ones disputing Colombia’s claims to the wreck and its treasure. Ghosts of a colonial past are haunting the discussions of San José’s ownership.

First, there is Spain, which has laid claim to at least part of the ownership of the ship and its bounty due to the fact that it is the country of origin of the ship and the majority of its passengers. But it is not alone.

According to the Olive Express, Panama and Peru also believe they are entitled to their share of the ship because much of its valuable cargo was stolen from their lands.

Lastly, Bolivia’s indigenous Qhara Qhara nation believes that it should receive part of the treasure as it was Qhara Qhara people enslaved by the Spanish who mined for the wreck’s expensive metals.

Not a Treasure

Not everyone, however, sees the shipwreck and its contents as a treasure to be uncovered and its value divided among those who feel entitled to it.

Archeologists around the world are bringing into question the ethical and scientific legitimacy of trying to recover the shipwreck.

Archeologist Justin Leidwanger of Stanford University told Live Science that, “One is not supposed to intervene in war graves … Can you pluck treasure off the seabed without disturbing a war grave? I doubt you can.”

Around 600 people died aboard the San José.

he United Nations has also expressed concern about the Colombian recovery efforts. A 2018 letter from UNESCO, as reported by The Washington Post, states that allowing commercial exploitation of Colombia's cultural heritage contradicts the best scientific standards and international ethical principles outlined in the UNESCO Underwater Cultural Heritage Convention.

However, the Colombian government itself is supposedly not planning to treat the recovery of items as a commercial venture.

“This is an archaeological wreck, not a treasure,” said Culture Minister Juan David Correa, as reported by CBS News.

As nations lay claim to the San José, the dispute transcends mere financial gain.  The ‘holy grail’ of shipwrecks thus represents not only a potential fortune in sunken wealth, but also deeper issues of ethical practices in terms of recovery, as well as post-colonial heritage preservation and the respect for maritime war graves.

Whether it becomes a source of shared historical insight or continues to spur international quarrels, the story of the San José is a reminder that beneath the ocean's surface lie not just treasures, but also tales of the human experience.

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