Cargo Recovery Won't Be About Treasure, Colombia Promises

San Jose cargo could be worth billions, but UN agency asks for scientific approach
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 21, 2023 3:55 PM CST
Cargo Recovery Won't Be About Treasure, Colombia Promises
This undated image made from a mosaic of photos taken by an autonomous underwater vehicle, released by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, shows the remains of the Spanish galleon San Jose.   (Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History via AP, File)

The Colombian government said Thursday it will try to raise objects from the 1708 shipwreck of the galleon San José, which is believed to contain a cargo worth billions of dollars. The 300-year-old wreck, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks," has been contentious, because it is both an archaeological and economic treasure. Culture Minister Juan David Correa said the first attempts will be made in April or May, depending on ocean conditions in the Caribbean. Correa pledged it would be a scientific expedition, the AP reports. The three-decked San José was reportedly 150 feet long, with a beam of 45 feet, and armed with 64 guns.

"This is an archaeological wreck, not a treasure," Correa said following a meeting with President Gustavo Petro. "This is an opportunity for us to become a country at the forefront of underwater archaeological research." But the ship is believed to hold 11 million gold and silver coins, emeralds, and other precious cargo from Spanish-controlled colonies, which could be worth billions of dollars if ever recovered. Correa said the material extracted from the wreck, probably by robotic or submersible craft, would be taken aboard a navy ship for analysis. Depending on the results, a second effort might be scheduled. The San José sank in battle with British ships. It was located in 2015 but has been mired in legal and diplomatic disputes.

In 2018, the Colombia government abandoned plans to excavate the wreck during disputes with a private firm that claims some salvage rights based on a 1980s agreement with Colombian government. In 2018, the United Nations cultural agency called on Colombia not to commercially exploit the wreck. A UNESCO experts' body protecting underwater cultural heritage sent a letter to Colombia expressing concern that recovering the treasure for sale rather than for its historical value "would cause the irretrievable loss of significant heritage." Colombia has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would subject it to international standards and require it to inform UNESCO of its plans for the wreck, whose location is a secret.

(More shipwrecks stories.)

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