On June 8, 1708, the San José, a 45-meter-long Spanish galleon armed with 64 cannons, a crew of more than 600, and a cargo of millions of gold and silver coins, emeralds and other treasures, burst into flames and sank off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, after a battle with a British squadron. The clash was part of the War of Spanish Succession, a 13-year conflict that drew in most of the powers of western Europe. Today, the San José is the subject of a very different international dispute — this one involving thorny questions of international law, national sovereignty and the legacy of colonialism.
In the more than 300 years since it sank, the treasure-laden galleon has taken on an almost mythical status for treasure-hunters. The San José has been dubbed the “mother of all shipwrecks,” and its legend looms large in Colombian culture. The country’s most famous writer, Gabriel García Márquez, wrote about the ship in his novel, “Love in the Time of Cholera.” The value of its cargo has been estimated at as much as $20 billion in today’s currency. This month, the Colombian navy released new footage of the stunningly well-preserved San José, resting at a depth of more than 600 meters. The film included tantalizing images of coins, pottery and porcelain cups.
Charles Beeker, an underwater archaeologist at Indiana University, told Grid, “We’ve got lots of 18th century shipwrecks, but we don’t necessarily have ones with this type of precious cargo on board.” The San José’s remains may hold Indigenous artifacts including gold that had not yet been melted down into coins by the Spanish, as well as a collection of Ming Dynasty porcelain from China. And yes, it’s worth an awful lot of money. “Any time you’re talking about a shipwreck that’s worth maybe $17 to $20 billion,” Beeker said, “the general public certainly perks up.”
Who owns it?
The new footage has brought new attention to a long-running debate about who owns the San José’s treasures. Claimants for the prize include Colombia, which says that any ship found in its waters is part of its national heritage; Spain, which argues that it holds the rights to what was its vessel — a “ship of state” under international law — and has threatened to bring its case to the United Nations; the descendants of the Indigenous people in South America from whom the cargo was originally taken; and an American company that says it’s being cheated out of its property.
Each argument carries a certain logic, and the dispute has been running for decades. It has also been complicated by contradictory stances taken by various Colombian governments over the years.
In 2015, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, for whom the San José was a personal passion project, tweeted, “Great news: We found the galleon San José!” His government had contracted with the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to find the wreck. The authorities have outlined plans to put artifacts from the San José in a museum.
But the Spanish government quickly stepped in to announce its own claim to the galleon, based on the fact that the San José was a Spanish military vessel, sunk in a military engagement. “A [military] ship, whether it’s Spain or the United Kingdom or France or the United States, remains property of that flag state,” James Goold, an attorney who has represented the Spanish government in several other shipwreck cases, told Grid. “That’s a well-established principle of international law.”
One example: In 2012, after a yearslong legal battle, Goold won a ruling on Spain’s behalf in U.S. court against an American treasure-hunting company that had excavated a Spanish frigate, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal in 1804. Some 594,000 gold and silver coins were returned to Spain as a result of the ruling.
Spain’s argument was bolstered by the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which grants states sovereign rights over military ships.
If the San José had been discovered in international waters, it would likely be a fairly open-and-shut case.
“Let’s face it, it’s in Colombia’s territorial waters, so they have the upper hand here,” said Indiana University’s Beeker, who has advised Colombian officials on their handling of the San José. Colombia is not a signatory to the UNESCO convention, and its own domestic law considers the wreck part of its own cultural patrimony.
And while few would dispute that the ship was and continues to be Spanish, the claim that it has continuing ownership of the cargo it was bringing out of South America during a brutal and exploitative era of colonialism is more controversial. As Grid’s Nikhil Kumar has reported, in recent years several former colonies of European powers have been fighting to recover objects removed without their consent over the centuries and taken to foreign museums.
“If you look at Spanish colonization of the Americas — going into all the Indigenous sites and bringing all these gold and silver objects out to be remelted — why does the [Spanish] state think they have ownership over them?” Beeker asked.
This is where a Bolivian Indigenous group, the Qhara Qhara, comes in. The Qhara Qhara have also staked a claim on the site, arguing that much of the loot was taken from its lands. Experts say this argument will be tougher to make in court, where the case is likely to be decided on the basis of maritime law and sovereign immunity. Nation-states have the upper hand in disputes of this nature. Beeker suggested that Colombia should consider lending out objects to their countries of origin.
There is one more claimant to the 300-year-old prize. An American salvage company, Sea Search Armada (SSA), says that the San José was actually discovered years earlier and that it is entitled to a share of the proceeds based on contracts signed with the Colombian government. Indeed, Colombia’s supreme court ruled in 2007 that SSA was entitled to 50 percent of whatever is ultimately raised from the wreckage of the San José.
However, the Colombian government argues that the original discovery was not in fact the San José — thus invalidating the court ruling. This didn’t convince Sea Search Armada, which alleges foul play and has continued to press its case in U.S. and Colombian courts.
A Colombian court order has put excavation on hold until the various legal claims are worked out. Given that Colombian courts have been hearing cases related to the San José since the 1980s, it could take a while.
Meanwhile, the wreck sits underwater, as it has for centuries, at a location that is a closely guarded state secret and guarded by the Colombian navy to prevent treasure hunters from reaching the site.
Bringing up the past
This month’s photo release, along with the announcement of the discovery of two additional wrecks nearby, seems like an attempt by the Colombian government to bolster its claim of ownership.
However the legal disputes are resolved, experts agree the priority should be ensuring that objects taken from the San José are preserved, studied and displayed to the public rather than sold to the highest bidder.
“Shipwrecks like the San José are irreplaceable and precious time capsules and should be preserved for the benefit of the shared cultural heritage of Spain and countries like Colombia,” said Goold.
Beeker advised that Colombia needs to “work on making sure that there’s academics involved, that it is exhibited to the public, and that it does not come out later that there was some treasure-hunting group that got to keep things.”
Terry Garcia, a former executive vice president and chief science and exploration officer at the National Geographic Society, has been involved in multiple high-profile shipwreck hunts. He told Grid that the next step for the exploration of the San José will be “to study this wreck and to excavate it in a way that is consistent with archaeological standards so that the context is preserved. What you don’t want to have happen is a rush to salvage and remove the cargo from the floor where it is now sitting and bring it to the surface without having first mapped the wreck.”
Garcia added, “The significance of wrecks like this is that every one is a sort of a time capsule. My friend Bob Ballard, [discoverer of the Titanic and numerous other high-profile wrecks] always likes to say that there’s more human history on the bottom of the ocean than in all the museums on land. It’s a moment in history that has been preserved.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.