By: Scott Way
When the 310-year old Spanish Navy galleon San Jose was discovered in 2015 a wave of excitement ran through global media. Not only had a historically significant ship with deep cultural value been found, it was supposedly brimming with $18 billion in booty. Dubbed the 'Holy Grail of shipwrecks,' the San Jose was found resting at the bottom of the Colombian Sea off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia in roughly 2000 feet of water. It's signature bronze cannons inscribed with images of dolphins were the telltale sign it was her. Discovered by Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute with the help of a robotic submarine dubbed the Remus 6000, the San Jose was believed to be full of gold, silver, and jewels. Emeralds, specifically.
In November 2015, Jeff Kaeli, a research engineer with Woods Hole confirmed the San Jose had been found thanks in part to her signature cannons. Speaking to the media about the discovery, Kaeli said: "I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled. I'm not a marine archaeologist but I know what a cannon looks like. So at that moment, I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we'd found the shipwreck.”
The Remus 6000 submarine, capable of diving up to 4 miles deep, scanned the seafloor using long-range sonar then went back and photographed any objects deemed out of the ordinary. Working with the assurances of the Colombian government, the team found artefacts including teacups, ceramic jugs, and what appear to be coins resting on the ocean floor. Kaeli added: "You can take bigger risks with your technology and go to places where it wouldn't be safe or feasible to put a human being. Everyone is focused on the treasure aspect, the whole thing is a cultural treasure. It's a piece of history that's sitting on the seafloor that tells a story.”
Unsurprisingly, legal battles surfaced shortly after the discovery between several countries- and private businesses- regarding who is the rightful owner of the treasure. Researchers at Woods Hole claim they are explorers, not salvagers, and are not involved in the ownership disputes.
To understand how things got so murky, one must first go back to 1985. An American salvage company named Sea Search Armada (SSA) first claimed the ship and 50% of its contents, which SSA claims was done with the support of the Colombian government. In 2007, a Supreme Court of Colombia ruling upheld that position. However, former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos didn’t credit SSA when he announced the ship had been found in 2015. Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez said in a statement that “Sea Search Armada has no right over the San Jose galleon or its contents” because the coordinates where they claim to have found the vessel don’t match its actual location. The case is still in a Colombian superior court. What's more, during all the legal drama, the Colombian government surreptitiously changed the standard 50% finders fee for maritime salvagers to just 5% (with a 45% tax rate on the finders fee). The reduction in the finders fee only instigated more legal battles with those already asserting a claim to the San Jose and her contents.
Then in 2019, the Colombian government held off signing a new contract with another private company to raise the San Jose. At the time, Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), who also participated in the 2015 search, were the only contenders. This new partnership would once again divide the contents of the San Jose and reward MAC up to 45% of its contents – that is, those not classified under 'cultural heritage,' whose ambiguity would be determined by the Colombian government.
Now things are heating up once more. The Colombian government recently stopped the recovery process with MAC after new legal questions arose regarding using the treasure's value to pay for recovery costs. Given the estimated value onboard, determining what percentage of the funds can go to recovery efforts - especially with a percentage already allocated to heritage efforts, not to mention the unfinished legal issues with existing contracts- could mean hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. The existing court cases from SSA, another salvage company named GMC, and the country of Spain, are all seeking various portions of the boat's contents from 35% to 100%.
Until the courts allocate the funds, or Colombia is able to raise the vessel without prying eyes, the San Jose will stay hidden with $18 billion sitting in the silt.
As for what originally happened to the galleon, the San Jose was sunk in a strange twist of events befitting a good nautical mystery. It left Panama’s port city of Portobelo in late May 1708 with its cargo destined for King Philip V of Spain, who relied on it to finance the War of the Spanish Succession (and thus laying the groundwork for Spain's claim as being the rightful owners its contents). As a 62-gun three-masted galleon with a crew of 600, it was an impressive vessel for it's time.
The boat's captain, Jose Fernandez de Santillan, knew that the British – who were involved in the war – might have ships waiting to attack in Cartagena.
Gonzalo Zuniga, a curator at the Naval Museum of the Caribbean in Cartagena believes the captain pushed on despite the risk, and by the evening of June 8, the British Navy – armed with swords, knives, and pistols – tried to board the San Jose and take it as their own.
He told the BBC in 2019: “The San Jose was winning the battle. But, we don’t know what condition [it] was in during its last [moments].” The leading theory is that instead of surrendering the boat and returning to Spain empty-handed, its captain ignited the gunpowder onboard and exploded the galleon himself. According to Zuñiga, the galleon could also have lost a sail, or the passengers could have revolted against the captain – since most were civilians and weren’t under military orders.
Whatever the truth, there won't be answers until the Colombian government can raise the San Jose while collecting a percentage of the profits they deem acceptable.