Colombia has taken a step towards recovering a long-lost Spanish shipwreck and its legendary riches, but it may be difficult as Spain and native Bolivians have also claimed the spoils. Marine experts examine the wreck of the San JoseSpanish colonial shipwrecks.
Long the daydream of treasure hunters around the world, the wreck of the San Jose Galleon was first located off the coast of Colombia in 2015, but has remained untouched as the government determines the rules for its recovery.
Colombia was a colony of Spain when the San Jose was sunk, and gold from all over South America, especially today’s Peru and Bolivia, was stored in the fort of its coastal city, Cartagena, before being shipped back to Europe.
The Colombian government considers the loot a “national treasure” and wants it to be displayed in a future museum to be built in Cartagena.
According to a presidential decree issued Thursday, companies or individuals interested in excavating the ship will be required to sign a “contract” with the state and submit to the government a detailed inventory of their finds as well as cargo handling plans.
The loot, which experts say includes at least 200 tons of gold, silver and emeralds, will be a source of pride for Colombia, Vice President and diplomat Marta Lucia Ramirez said in a statement. The treasure could be worth billions of dollars if found.
“The sums of wealth are priceless, and the responsibility of the protected has already been extracted, contributing to the history of Colombia, the Caribbean and the world,” she said.
Long the daydream of treasure hunters around the world, the galleon San Jose was sunk by the British Navy on the night of June 7, 1708, off the coast of Cartagena de Indias.
The San Jose at the time carried gold, silver and precious stones that were to be delivered from the Spanish colonies in Latin America to the court of King Philip V.
Only a few of San Jose’s 600 crew survived the sinking.
“It makes it very tricky because you’re not supposed to go into war graves,” said Justin Leidwanger, a Stanford University archaeologist who studies ancient shipwrecks.in 2015. “Can you snatch treasure from the bottom of the sea without disturbing a war grave? I doubt you can. But that’s the kind of talks that will happen.”
In late 2015, then Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced the discovery of the exact location of the wreck, which was confirmed by the ship’s unique bronze cannons with dolphin engravings.
Colombia said it would cost around $70 million to carry out a full salvage operation on the wreckage, which lies at a depth of between 2,000 and 3,200 feet.
Spain says the wreck is its own, as a ship of state; and an indigenous group from Bolivia, the Qhara Qhara, claim the treasure is theirs, since their ancestors were forced to extract it from what was in the 1500s the largest silver mine in the world.