CARTAGENA, Colombia, Monday December 7, 2015 – The wreck of the San Jose, a storied Spanish galleon laden with gold, silver and precious stones, has been found off Colombia three centuries after it was sunk by the British in the Caribbean.
Described by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as “the most valuable treasure that has been found in the history of humanity,” the wreck has also been dubbed “the holy grail of shipwrecks,” with a cargo comprising one of the largest amounts of valuables ever to have been lost at sea.
Santos, who was speaking from the northern port city of Cartagena, close to where the wreck had been located, said the cargo was worth at least US$1 billion. Some experts put the figure closer to US$3 billion.
The San Jose was sunk in June 1708 near the Islas del Rosario, off Colombia’s Caribbean coast, during combat with British ships attempting to take its cargo as part of the War of Spanish Succession.
The galleon was the main ship in a treasure fleet carrying gold, silver and other valuable items from Spain’s American colonies to King Philip V.
— Jonathan Potter Ltd (@jpmaps) December 7, 2015
Only a handful of the ship’s crew of 600 survived when the San Jose sank some 16 miles off Cartagena in about 1,000 feet of water.
After decades of searching for the wreck, experts confirmed that they had located the San Jose, which was lying on its side, with positive identification provided by its unique bronze cannons with engraved dolphins.
“The amount and type of the material leave no doubt of the identity” of the shipwreck, said Ernesto Montenegro, head of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History.
Cartagena mayor Dionisio Velez described the discovery as “an unprecedented event for the country.”
While Colombian officials would not reveal the precise location of the wreck, President Santos added that the find “constitutes one of the greatest – if not the biggest, as some say – discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind.”
He said that a museum would be built in Cartagena to house the ship’s treasures.
BBC News reports that ownership of the wreck has been the subject of a long-running legal row.
The Colombian government did not mention its protracted quarrel with US-based salvage company Sea Search Armada (SSA) over claims to the treasure, but a group now owned by SSA said in 1981 that it had located the area in which the ship sank.
SSA has been claiming billions of dollars for breach of contract from the Colombian government, but in 2011 an American court ruled that the galleon was the property of the Colombian state.
According to SSA, the loot is estimated to be worth around $3 billion, its value having dropped significantly due to the falling price of silver.
SSA’s managing director Jack Harbeston wrote an account titled “The Sinking of the San Jose” in 2011, in which he tried to put a value on its cargo. An extract follows:
“In the armada of 1708, the value of the cargo on the flagship alone exceeded Spain’s annual national income from all sources. When the bullion and coins on all the galleons of the armada were totalled, it was two or three times Spain’s annual income.
The financial value of the shipment of 1708 is difficult to comprehend in today’s (2011) terms. Given the relative buying power of silver in those days, which was far greater than it is today, the shipment would have exceeded $US50 billion.”
The San Jose was the most sought-after of more than 1,000 galleons and merchant ships that sank along Colombia’s coral reefs during more than three centuries of colonial rule.
The wreck is reported to satisfy the United Nations’ definition of an underwater cultural heritage site.