A shipwreck containing up to $17 billion (£11.3 billion) of treasure has been discovered off the Caribbean coast of Colombia, more than 300 years after it was sunk by a British squadron which sought to commandeer its bounty. The search for the San Jose galleon had left researchers frustrated for several decades, with efforts to locate the missing vessel having been stepped up in the 1980s. However, the Colombian government has now released a statement (in Spanish) announcing the discovery, affirming that the identity of the wreck is “beyond doubt.”
Though the precise location of the galleon remains a state secret, officials have stated that the finding occurred “in the vicinity of the Caribbean coast,” close to the port city of Cartagena, where the ship is known to have been attacked on June 8, 1708. Previous attempts to locate the wreck had focused on this region, although official government reports indicate that the San Jose was found in a spot “never before referenced in previous studies.”
This detail could be of huge importance in relation to the legal battle currently being waged in order to establish ownership of the wreck and its contents. In the early 1980s, American maritime salvage company Sea Search Armada (SSA) was awarded rights to 35 percent of the galleon’s wealth after helping to provide information about its likely location. However, the Colombian government later passed a law giving itself full ownership of the galleon, sparking a lengthy court battle which saw SSA file lawsuits against the South American nation in both Colombia and the U.S.
The official announcement of the discovery makes no mention of the contribution of SSA, instead claiming that the ship was found thanks to the efforts of “the Ministry of Culture, under the scientific guidance of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History,” along with a team of “international experts.”
Using a technique called Systemic Regional Prospection, which involves the use of sonar technology as well as the detailed analysis of maps and meteorological data, the team was able to detect a number of features that they believed belonged to the ship. This was later confirmed using an autonomous subaquatic vehicle, which took pictures of the wreck revealing “the presence of bronze cannons” bearing specific engravings which indicate that they belonged to the San Jose. Part of the galleon’s original structure, ballast, and wealth – which is thought to consist of up to 11 million gold coins – were also found.
Launched in 1696, the San Jose carried a crew of more than 500 people. In 1708 it formed part of a 15-ship convoy that traveled from Portobelo in Panama to Cartagena, yet was ambushed by a British squadron led by Captain Charles Wager, which destroyed the San Jose in an attempt to capture its treasure. However, while historical reports have suggested that the ship was blown up, the Colombian government claims that the recent discovery paints a different picture of events. “It is still too early to reach conclusions, but the evidence gathered suggests that the boat did not explode, as has been stated in the history books,” explains the report.
The excavation of the San Jose and its booty could take several years, with the team behind the finding explaining that the discovery and exploration of the wreck represents just the first step of a long-term project.