Colombia has stumbled upon what seems to be the biggest treasure shipwreck in history. Found off the coast of Baru, an island near Cartagena in Colombia, the wreck of San Jose is believed to contain coins, gold pieces and precious stones worth between $4 billion and $17 billion. A magnificent 18th century galleon operational during the War of Spanish Succession, San Jose has been the focus of several legal battles. What is more, its discovery on November 27 comes after a decade-long search.
The ship, which was part of the royal convoy during the War of Spanish Succession that took place between 1701 and 1714, was carrying gold coins, emeralds, platinum, silver, precious stones and other reserves from the Spanish colonies back to King Philip V when it met its untimely end. On June 8, 1708, the vessel, along with its crew of 600 people and all of its treasure, sunk to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, as a result of a sudden explosion while trying overtake a fleet of British warships near Baru. Charles Wager, the English Commodore who led the enemy squadron, wrote:
The heat of the blast came very hot upon us, and several splinters of plank and timber came on board us afire. I believe the ship’s side blew out, for she caused a sea that came in our ports. She immediately sank with all her riches.
The wreck was recently found at depth of 800 feet below the sea surface, by an international team of researchers led primarily by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) and assisted by the Colombian navy. Using advanced autonomous underwater vehicles, the team was able to identify the ship and its dolphin-stampled cannons. According to the archaeologists, several expeditions will have to be conducted before any of it can be retrieved from the site. Speaking about the find, Juan Manuel Santos, the president of Colombia, said:
Without room for any doubt, we have found, 307 years after it sank, the San Jose galleon… [It] constitutes one of the greatest – if not the biggest, as some say – discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind.
The findings of the exploration, however, will be kept secret, according to Santos. The statement is likely in response to the three-decade-long legal battle that the Colombian government is fighting with Seattle-based commercial salvaging company Sea Search Armada (SSA). SSA made the news with claims that it was the first to discover the wreck’s location back in 1981. In 1984, however, the Colombian parliament passed a law, reducing the so-called finder’s fee from 50-percent to only 5-percent. The ship, along with its treasures, are a cultural heritage belonging to the nation. President Santos is also planning to construct a museum in Cartagena, where the recovered materials will be kept.