HERITAGE

Colombia finds wreck of legendary Spanish galleon sunk in 1708

The ‘San José’ could contain an underwater treasure hoard worth billions Spain says it will “defend its cultural heritage”

Ceramics belonging to the ‘San José’ at the bottom of the sea.
Ceramics belonging to the ‘San José’ at the bottom of the sea.EFE / MINISTERIO DE CULTURA DE COLOMBIA

Spain is to ask Colombia for additional information concerning the discovery of a Spanish galleon that was sunk off the Caribbean coast more than 300 years ago before deciding whether to claim ownership of its reported billion-dollar underwater treasure, a top Cultural Ministry official has said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Saturday that his government, along with a team of international experts, had located the Spanish galleon San José somewhere off the coast of Cartagena.

Colombian President Santos declined to reveal details about the find, saying that it was a state secret

The ship may contain one of the world’s largest hoard of sunken treasure, according to many experts.

Santos declined to reveal details about the find, saying its precise location was a state secret. But he noted that, under a 2013 law, the treasure is considered part of Colombia’s cultural heritage and that a selection of objects would go on display at a museum once they were salvaged.

The San José was sunk on June 8, 1708 with 600 people aboard as it tried to escape a fleet of British warships. According to historical records, the ship was carrying around 11 million gold coins from the then-Spanish colonies – a treasure that could fetch billions of dollars on today’s market.

“The Spanish government is going to ask Colombia for exact information concerning the application of a law in that country that gives it the right to intervene in a Spanish treasure,” said Spain’s secretary of state for culture, José María Lassalle.

Spain will ask Colombia for exact information concerning the application of a law in that country that gives it the right to intervene in a Spanish treasure” Secretary of state for culture José María Lassalle

Lassalle said that Spain would analyze the Colombian legislation before “determining what action” it would take in “defending what we believe is underwater cultural heritage, and in respecting the UNESCO treaties to which our country committed a long time.”

In 2012, Spain won a major international victory when the US Supreme Court sided with Madrid regarding the ownership of 500,000 silver and gold coins retrieved by Florida-based treasure hunting firm Odyssey Marine Exploration from the 19th-century shipwreck of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes.

During that long legal battle, both Peru and descendants of the passengers who died aboard the frigate when it was sunk by the British off the coast of Portugal also unsuccessfully tried to get a share of the treasure. Odyssey plucked the coins from the bottom of the ocean in 2007 and secretly flew them out to the United States via Gibraltar.

In his public announcement, President Santos said that the San José was discovered by unmanned underwater vehicles on November 27.

The legend of the San José’s treasure has fascinated hunters for decades. Late Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez even made mention of it in his 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera when a young man commits to swimming to the bottom of the ocean to find the trove for his sweetheart.

The legend of the San José has fascinated people for decades, including novelist Gabriel García Márquez

As well as the coins, the San José was also said to be carrying around 200 tons of gold, silver and emeralds when it sank, although no firm proof exists.

The only evidence that proves that the find is the wreck of the San José are the photographs and videos presented at Santos’s news conference by Ernesto Montenegro, the director of Colombia’s Institute for Anthropology and History (ICANH) and head of the sea-salvaging operation.

EL PAÍS has been unable to contact Montenegro for an interview.

“We are just at the initial stage,” said Santos in justifying why he was refraining from giving out more information, including the name of the international treasure hunters that helped the Colombian government.

One company that suspects that the wreckage is the San José is Sea Search Armada, a salvage firm owned by US investors, which found the site of the sunken ship in 1982.

More information

After Sea Search Armada made the announcement, the Colombian government overturned a long-established law that gave 50 percent of any underwater treasure find to those who discover it.

But in 2007, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sea Search Armada, saying that it could receive 50 percent of the discovery if it was categorized as treasure, rather than cultural heritage

“This measure is still valid,” said Danilo Devis, Sea Search Armada’s lawyer in Colombia. “Unavoidably they are going to have to count on us regardless of what happens.”

Devis explained that Sea Search Armada would this week ask the Colombian government to take company officials to the area of the find to determine whether it is the same shipwreck. During the litigation, the firm asked for a block on any items being removed from the shipwreck site it discovered.

Néstor Humberto Martínez, a presidential advisor who is now head of a commission overlooking the salvaging effort, said the recent discovery had “nothing to do with” Sea Search Armada’s legal battle or claims made by other treasure hunters.

Sea Search Armada, a salvage firm that found the ship in 1982, has not given up its legal battle

When asked why the government had not identified the names of the international experts involved in the operation, Martínez said it was privileged information guarded by government confidentiality clauses.

At Saturday’s presentation, Montenegro said that the warship Malpelo helped capture the underwater images.

During a visit by EL PAÍS to the ACR Bolívar Naval Base in Cartagena, where the Malpelo was docked, various people were seen on board wearing uniforms from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a US-based underwater research group.

The institute has declined to comment, while the Colombian Culture Ministry has also refused to explain what the group was involved in.

English version by Martin Delfín.