Confrontations near Cartagena in 1708. Image: Samuel Scott
Get your plundering gear together, because the colonial galleon San Jose, known to many as “the holy grail of shipwrecks,” has been discovered off Colombia’s Baru peninsula at a depth of 1,000 feet.
As part of the Spanish treasure fleet, the galleon was packed to the gills with gold, silver, and gems when British warships sank it on June 8, 1708. By some estimates, the treasure-laden vessel may be worth as much as $17 billion today.
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos officially announced the discovery on Twitter, and held a press conference in Cartagena revealing further details on Saturday.
Gran noticia: ¡Encontramos el Galeon San José! Mañana daré los detalles en rueda de prensa desde Cartagena.
— Juan Manuel Santos (@JuanManSantos) December 4, 2015
“At dawn on Friday, November 27, feast of Our Lady of the Miraculous, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, with the assistance of the Navy and of international scientists, found an archaeological site which corresponds to the [...] galleon San Jose,” Santos said. "This constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind.”
The exact location of the lost ship remains a state secret, but the Colombian government did release footage of the wreckage procured by robotic submarines.
Press conference and shipwreck images. Video: YouTube/Haaretz הארץ
The San Jose was lost in a legendary naval confrontation between the British and Spanish fleets, known as Wager’s Action. The ship was one of three treasure ships loaded up with riches gathered from South America, and was heading back to Spain to deliver the goods to help fund the War of Spanish Succession.
But a nearby British squadron, commanded by Charles Wager, was not about to let them through without a fight. Some of the fleet escaped, but the British warship Expedition relentlessly attacked the San Jose until it exploded in flames. Only 11 of the roughly 600 passengers survived the blast and the sinking of the galleon, according to naval historian Peter T Bradley.
Treasure hunters have been searching for this motherlode of a shipwreck ever since, and indeed, there is already a longstanding legal battle over what entities have the right to salvage it. The American maritime salvage firm Sea Search Armada (SSA) claimed that it had discovered the area in which the San Jose sank in 1981, and has been pushing to split 50 percent of any recovered loot with the Colombian government according to the nation’s maritime laws at the time.
President Santos didn’t mention the protracted fight with SSA in the press conference but he did stress that the ship was found in a location that had never been referenced by any previous teams. SSA representative Danilo Devis confirmed the Colombian government discovered the wreck itself to the Associated Press, but added that “this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982.”
Regardless of how the legal issues are settled, it’s exciting that one of the most valuable and sought-after shipwrecks in history has finally been located. In addition to its huge monetary value, the San Jose’s treasure will offer a wealth of insights into the histories of people who lived and died on Spain’s lost treasure ship.