Shipwreck mystery: Colombia finds biggest sunken treasure ever

Colombian President Santos announced Saturday that the famed shipwreck of San Jose has been discovered. But the battle over questions of ownership may just be beginning. 

Colombian Ministry of Culture/Reuters
Artifacts found in the wreckage of Spanish galleon San Jose are seen in this undated handout photo provided by the Colombian Ministry of Culture on December 5, 2015. Colombia will build a museum to showcase artefacts found in the wreckage of a Spanish galleon discovered near the historic Caribbean port city of Cartagena, President Juan Manuel Santos said on Saturday. The San Jose, thought by historians to be laden with emeralds and precious coins, sank in 1708. It was part of the fleet of King Philip V, who fought the English during the War of Spanish Succession.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia announced Saturday that the Spanish galleon San Jose, sunk 307 years ago in the Caribbean, has finally been found.

In 1708, while carrying $17 billion worth of valuables, including gold, silver, and jewlery, from the South American colonies to the Spanish king, the San Jose was attacked by a British war ship during the War of Spanish Succession. Britain sunk the San Jose outside the Colombian city of Cartagena, killing all 600 people on board, because the valuables were traveling to Spain to fund the war.

“The galleons were lumbering bank vaults,” explains the Sea Search Armada (SSA), a group of US investors focused on marine salvaging.  

President Santos said the find “constitutes one of the greatest – if not the biggest, as some say – discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind.”

Santos says the ship’s buried treasure will be put on display in a museum to be built in Cartagena.

“It’s a huge feeling,” an unidentified crew member said in a video tweeted by President Santos Saturday. “This is the work of many years, a lot of work at that and a collaborative effort that has finally come to light, and there’ll be much work ahead of us, but this was a huge triumph.”

But instead of historic analysis and awe, valuables from the San Jose will be welcomed from the sea amid a tense international legal battle. As the crew member suggests, the findings Saturday will likely intensify an already heated dispute between Colombia and the United States. 

SSA claims it found the underwater site of San Jose in 1981, and the Colombian government has since tried “to illegally confiscate SSA’s finds.” The US company has since filed suits in both the US and Colombia, and while SSA claims it won a Colombian Supreme Court verdict that held all treasure be split 50-50, Colombia Cultural Minister Mariana Garcés Córdoba said at a press conference Saturday that all court rulings – in both countries – have favored the Colombian government. 

The fight over San Jose’s sunken treasure is one of many international disagreements regarding the home of ancient artifacts.

Although “[m]ost Western museums now acknowledge a strong ethical case for returning objects,” art repatriation across the world is often reflects international comparisons of affluence, The New York Times explains. Referencing similar disagreements between the US and countries such as Greece, Italy, or Peru, the article suggests that “Some repatriation cases underscore countries asserting their place on the world stage rather than simply reclaiming past glory.”

Researchers with the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) say they are still in the early phases of uncovering the hidden treasure. But regardless of how much work is left for Colombian researchers, SSA says they would be no where without the US agency’s help.

The Colombian government, however, says they located the ship in a place “never before referred to by previous studies,” and the wreckage – no matter how valuable – belongs in Cartagena. 

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