Fresh probe to explore shipwreck treasure worth billions

Source: X/Anthony Amore

Colombia has launched a new research project that will explore a multi-billion dollar shipwreck that has been sitting at the bottom of the ocean for three centuries.

The new “non-invasive” expedition was announced this week and promised to be both a “scientific and cultural investigation into the discovery of the San José galleon”.

The first phase will include photographing the wreckage and in the future some archaeological materials from the wreckage may be recovered.

The San José wreck is the subject of a multi-billion dollar legal dispute.

While announcing the first phase of the research project, Colombia’s Culture Ministry declared the wreck site to be protected.

The ill-fated San José, dubbed the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” was used during the War of the Spanish Succession as part of Spain’s treasure fleet.

In 1708, the ship was destroyed in the Battle of Barú and the treasure, apparently worth billions, sank to the bottom of the ocean.

In 2015, Colombia claimed it had discovered the site of the shipwreck, which has been kept a secret. This week, it declared the surrounding area to be protected.

The declaration of the San José Galleon Protected Area is a historical milestone for the management of the country’s submerged cultural heritage, being the first protected archaeological area in maritime environments and one of the few in the world in waters 600 metres deep,” a press release said.

The government announced a scientific and cultural research project so the shipwreck can be studied. Earlier this year came news that a robot would be sent to the wreckage to recover some of the bounty.

Contested claims

The claim that Colombia discovered the location of the shipwreck has been contested by Sea Search-Armada (SSA), a US-based salvaging company, which was formally known as Glocca Morra.

SSA claims Glocca Morra first discovered the site back in the 1980s, which Colombian officials reject.

According to Associate Professor in Maritime History at the University of Portsmouth, Ann Coats, in 1979, SSA and Colombia agreed the two parties would divide the San José’s treasure equally.

In 2007, the US Supreme Court ruled Colombia could have anything that is considered to be “national cultural patrimony” and the rest could be divided between the country and the company, Coats said in a piece for The Conversation.

But in 2015, Colombia’s then-president Juan Manuel Santos challenged the location where SSA claimed the wreckage was and said the “true location” was found by the Colombian navy that year.

In December 2022, SSA launched a legal battle against the Colombian government. The salvaging company claimed it is entitled to $10 billion of San José’s treasure, something Colombia has denied.

Contents ‘not treasure’

Court documents suggest the treasure onboard San José includes “over 7 million pesos, 116 steel chests full of emeralds, and 30 million gold coins” and that the total value of the treasure is worth $US20 billion.

But it’s not just Colombia and SSA making claims to the treasure on San José.

“Spain and Peru have also claimed ownership, since the San José was a Spanish ship carrying wealth created by enslaved Indigenous Peruvian workers,” Coat said.

“The descendants of the Indigenous Bolivian Qhara Qhara people and enslaved African workers in New Granada, who were forced to mine precious metals, have also made a claim.”

According to CBS, when Colombia’s Culture Minister announced the designation this week, Spanish and Qhara Qhara delegations were present.

“This is not a treasure, we do not treat it as such,” Culture Minister Juan David Correa reportedly said on Wednesday.

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