Colombia's Going After 'Holy Grail' of Shipwrecks

It will spend millions to raise treasure-filled Spanish galleon San Jose, put it in a museum
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 22, 2024 5:20 PM CDT
Colombia Has Ambitious Plan for 'Holy Grail' of Shipwrecks
Sunken remains from the Spanish galleon San Jose on the sea floor off Cartagena, Colombia.   (Colombia's Anthropology and History Institute via AP Photo, File)

After years of controversy, Colombia says it will begin raising the "holy grail of shipwrecks" within days. The Spanish galleon, San Jose, was sunk by the British off the coast of Cartagena in 1708 while transporting treasure from Spain's colonies in South America to Europe, killing 600 sailors and sending upwards of $17 billion worth of gold, silver, and emeralds to the depths. The treasure has been claimed variously by Spain; indigenous groups in Bolivia whose ancestors mined the precious metals; US company Sea Search Armada, which claims to have found the ship decades ago; and Colombia, which purports to have found the San Jose in an uncharted location in 2015. Regardless, Colombia said Tuesday it would begin raising the ship and its treasure next month, per CBS News.

The government said it would invest more than $4.5 million in the recovery, which is to involve the use of underwater robots, per USA Today. But "we aren't thinking about treasure," says Alhena Caicedo, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, per the Guardian. "We're thinking about how to access the historical and archeological information at the site." Less headline-grabbing than its treasure, the ship's other artifacts could give historians a better understanding of the global trade networks of the 18th century, Spain's colonial hierarchy, and the lives of the lost sailors, the Guardian reports. Caicedo says the hope is to eventually house the artifacts and the wreck itself in a custom-built museum, as England did with the Mary Rose, the flagship of King Henry VIII's fleet.

Such a move would be unprecedented. "Few ships like the San Jose have ever been recovered—and none has ever been salvaged from warm tropical waters," the Guardian reports. "We don't even know if it is possible to raise something out of the water," says Caicedo. "In a way, we are pioneers." It's unclear to what extent the venture might be challenged. In 2011, a US court declared the San Jose property of the Colombian state. Bolivia's indigenous communities have since requested the return of only a few artifacts, per CBS News. Sea Search Armada, however, is demanding $10 billion from Colombia in a case before the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration, per Bloomberg and CBS. (More shipwreck stories.)

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