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San José galleon: Recovery mission for sunken treasure worth billions begins

A screenshot from footage by the Colombian army of the San José Shipwreck, first shared in 2022.
A screenshot from footage by the Colombian army of the San José Shipwreck, first shared in 2022. Copyright Colombian army
Copyright Colombian army
By Amber Louise Bryce
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The 'holy grail of shipwrecks' has remained underwater for over 300 years due to ownership disputes.

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Despite being buried in the dark depths of the Caribbean Sea for the past 300 years, the San José galleon has still managed to bring international tensions to the surface.

First found in 2015 by the Colombian government, its exact location has remained a state secret to prevent looting.

"This is the most valuable treasure that has been found in the history of humanity," former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement following the wreck's discovery.

It's thought to be filled with an estimated €18 billion-worth of treasure, including glass, porcelain, emeralds, and gold and silver coins.

What is the San José galleon?

An oil on canvas of the San José during Wager's Action, by Samuel Scott.
An oil on canvas of the San José during Wager's Action, by Samuel Scott. Wikimedia

Launched in 1698, the San José galleon belonged to the Spanish Armada. It had 64 guns, three masts and three decks, and was intended to be part of the Spanish treasure fleet that traded goods across the Atlantic for riches.

It was drafted into the war in 1701, which began over the disputed succession to the Spanish throne following the childless Charles II of Spain's death.

On a warm evening in June 1708, while anchored in Colombian waters, the galleon was attacked by a squadron of British ships led by commander Charles Wager. The largest of these was called the Expedition, but as it closed in to board, the San José suddenly exploded, according to a research paper published in the Mariner's Mirror.

Only 11 crew members survived, while 600 perished.

Booty disputes

The galleon's ownership remains highly contested, which has left it languishing 600 meters (approximately 2,000 feet) under the sea.

Although the wreck was found in Colombian waters, Spain has argued that it was part of the Spanish fleet and belongs to them.

Meanwhile, US salvage company Sea Search Armada (SSA) claims it located the area in which the galleon sank 42 years ago. This has led to a particularly lengthy legal battle between the Colombian government and the SSA, which is seeking a 50 per cent split of any profits.

Bolivian Indigenous communities have also laid claim to some of the treasures, which might have been mined by their ancestors.

Now, finally, Colombian officials have begun a $4.5 million (€4.1m) recovery process, starting with a so-called "characterisation phase".

Remote sensors are being used to generate a picture of what archaeological material is on the seabed for an inventory, while deep diving robots have been taking readings to help inform academic studies, according to the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History.

Next steps will be determined by the discoveries of this initial phase, with no plans for archeological excavations yet.

“It is time to claim the heritage elements for which the remains of the galleon should be valued,” Colombia’s Minister of Culture, Juan David Correa, said in a statement earlier this year - also insisting that “history is the treasure.”

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