The San José galleon is one of the most famous shipwrecks in history. It was a Spanish ship that sank in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict that pitted Spain and France against a coalition of European powers led by Britain.
The San José was carrying a huge cargo of gold, silver and emeralds, estimated to be worth up to $20 billion in today’s money. It was part of a fleet that was trying to reach Spain with the riches from its colonies in South America.
The San José was attacked by a British squadron near the Colombian port of Cartagena and exploded after a fierce battle. About 600 crew members perished and the treasure sank to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.
The exact location of the wreck remained a mystery for centuries, until it was claimed to have been discovered by a US company called Sea Search Armada (SSA) in 1981. SSA said it had an agreement with Colombia to share the fortune, but Colombia denied it and claimed full ownership of the ship.
The dispute escalated in 2015, when Colombia announced that its navy had found the San José at a different site, using advanced technology. Colombia did not reveal the coordinates of the wreck, citing security and cultural reasons.
It also said it planned to recover the treasure and build a museum to display it. However, SSA sued Colombia for breach of contract and demanded half of the bounty or $10 billion. The case is still pending in an arbitration court in London.
The Colombian President, Gustavo Petro, has ordered the ship to be salvaged from the floor of the Caribbean Sea as soon as possible.
Culture minister Juan David Correa told Bloomberg: “The president has told us to pick up the pace.”
Petro wants the three-masted ship to the surface before his term ends in 2026.
The raising of the San Jose comes amid an ongoing court battle over who owns the treasure.
Meanwhile, other parties have also claimed a stake in the San José’s treasure. Spain argues that the ship is a state vessel and its contents belong to its cultural heritage.
Peru and Panama say that the treasure was originally plundered from their lands by the Spanish colonizers. Bolivia’s indigenous Qhara Qhara nation says that their ancestors were forced to mine the precious metals and gems in the 16th century. They all want a share or a say in how the treasure is handled.
Among the items found on board are cannons made in Seville in 1655, gold coins from different countries, and an intact Chinese dinner service with inscriptions.
The San José is also surrounded by legends and myths. Some say that it was cursed by a witch who wanted revenge for her lover’s death at the hands of the Spanish. Others say that it was protected by dolphins who guided it to safety. Some even say that it holds the key to a secret code that reveals the location of other sunken treasures.
The San José is dubbed as the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks” because of its immense value and significance. It is also one of the most controversial and contested shipwrecks in history.