Colombia, Spain and a Bolivian tribe dispute whose galleon and its riches sunk in the Caribbean sea
At the end of May 1708, the Spanish galleon “San Jose” set sail from Panama for the homeland. There is a huge treasure on board – the holds are filled with over 200 tons of gold, silver, coins, emeralds, etc., collected from the colonies in the Caribbean. King Philip V relied on these resources to finance the War of the Spanish Succession. However, on June 8, “San Jose” encountered enemy British ships. In the midst of the battle, a fire breaks out and after hours the ship takes its last journey – to the bottom of the sea, dragging the 600 crew and the treasure. The Spanish galleon and its countless riches became a legend that never ceases to intrigue archaeologists and treasure hunters.
The galleon had 64 cannons, the barrels of which were decorated with unique engravings of dolphins. In 2015, the government of Colombia sensationally announced that the galleon had been discovered. “This treasure is the most valuable ever discovered in human history,” exulted the then president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos. But the great depth makes exploration difficult and slow. It was only on November 27, 2018 that the REMUS 6000 robotic submarine of the US-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution approached the ship and managed to take photos of the wreckage, including the unique bronze cannons engraved with dolphins. Some of the underwater photos were shown only days ago. They show coins, ornaments, porcelain, ceramics, etc. artifacts. Also visible are the bow of the galleon and parts of its hull covered with seaweed and shells.
Authorities in Bogotá are keeping the location secret, but the San Jose is believed to be lying on the bottom about 40km from the port city of Cartagena de Indias. Its cargo is said to be worth between $1 billion and $2 billion at today’s prices. Everything is still in the research phase and estimates of the value of the treasure are quite conditional – the finds and their fate are shrouded in secrecy, and their extraction will be an extremely difficult and expensive operation.
Whose treasure is it?
This has been debated for many years. Colombia thinks it has all the rights, since the “San Jose” was discovered in its waters. But Spain also has claims – after all, the crashed ship was part of its fleet. The Indians of the Khara-Khara tribe of Bolivia also believe that part of the treasure belongs to them, since it comes from the bowels of their lands and was mined by their ancestors (Bolivia is home to the largest silver mine in the world).
The authorities in Bogotá are also arguing with private companies, who are even trying to prove in courts and arbitrations that they are entitled to a share of the valuable finds lying at the bottom. The American company Sea Search Armada (SSA) claims to have located the ship back in the early 1980s and as the first finder they are entitled to 50% percent of the assets. The SSA did have an agreement with former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to share the treasures, the Supreme Court in Bogotá confirms. But the American company fails to prove that it is the first discoverer, because the coordinates indicated by it do not match the true location of the galleon.
Another dispute arises – with Maritime Archeology Consultants (MAC), who want a 45% share, because they got a concession and participated in the successful search works. The court ruled that the 45% in question does not refer to everything discovered, but only to the unimportant assets – everything valuable in “San Jose” is part of the national cultural and historical heritage of Bolivia and is not subject to “division”. The dispute reached a state court – the private company filed a lawsuit for 17 billion dollars, insisting that Colombia owes it the colossal amount for costs of organizing the underwater expeditions and for non-fulfillment of the contract… But the claim was rejected as untenable.
Authorities in Bogotá have plans to make a museum in Cartagena to display the treasures and other exhibits from the wreck of the legendary ship. And not only from him – near “San Jose” the divers came across two more sunken ships, as well as 13 other objects that are yet to be studied. It is believed that there are hundreds of ancient and old vessels on the seabed around, which are also waiting to be discovered.