Discovery of sunken Spanish galleon San José sparks bitter disputes

  • Explosion of San José during Wager's Action. Oil on canvas by Samuel Scott.
  • Images of the sunken San José captured by autonomous underwater vehicles. Image credit: Colombian Ministry of Culture
  • Images of the sunken San José captured by autonomous underwater vehicles. Image credit: Colombian Ministry of Culture
Date:11 December 2015 Tags:, ,

Hostilities flared afresh this week as nations and salvors disputed ownership of the wreck of the San José, the fabled Spanish galleon that went down in 1708 carrying what is believed to have been one of the most valuable cargoes ever lost at sea. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos made the announcement of the wreck’s discovery this week.

The San José was laid down in 1697, near the end of the 17th century and was built simultaneously with the San Joaquin. The San José was a 1 200-ton, 60-gun galleon with a crew of between 400 and 500 men. After its launch in 1698, the San José sailed as the flagship of the Spanish treasure fleet, alongside the San Joaquin and the Santa Cruz.

Ten years later, en route to the coastal city of Cartagena in Colombia from Panama, the treasure-laden fleet was confronted by a squadron of British warships during the War of the Spanish Succession. During the battle, the San José’s powder magazines detonated, destroying the ship. The Santa Cruz was captured by the British fleet, and the San Joaquin escaped to the port of Cartagena.

The San José was laiden with jewels, gold and silver collected in the colonies to finance the Spanish King’s war effort.

The galleon was initially discovered by a group called the Sea Search Armanda in 1981 and has been the subject of many legal battles since.

After the initial discovery, the Colombian government refused to sign a share offer in which they would have received 35 % of the recovery. They opted instead to settle the dispute in the Colombian Supreme Court. The court concluded the recovered treasure would be split equally between the Colombian government and the Sea Search Armanda. The Colombian government then passed a law that entitled the Sea Search Armada to a 5 % finders’ fee, taxable by 45 %. The group disputed the law in an American court, which subsequently ruled that the galleon was Colombian property.

The Colombian government then restarted the search for the galleon and, in the early hours of 27 November, a sunken ship was discovered in Colombian Caribbean waters, off the island of Baru. The ship was identified as the San José by the dolphin-stamped bronze cannons found.

Although the Colombian government announced that it would now move forward with the beginning stages of an archaeological expedition to the San José, the legal battles might not be over.

Spain has now staked its claim on the galleon, writes to the BBC. The report comes after Spanish foreign minister José Garcia-Margallo’s initial hopes that an “amicable” agreement could be met between the two countries. The minister added that in terms of a UNESCO convention the wreck belonged to Spain as it was a result of war and not a private vessel.

Video of the San José discovery (in Spanish)

Further reading about the San José:

Read more about the San José’s final hours as compiled by the Managing Director of the Sea Search Armada, Jack Harbeston, here.

For more about the history of the galleon, check out The treasure of the San José written by Dr. Carla Rahn Phillips, by clicking here. A short version of its history is published on the Treasure Exhibitions blog, here.

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