Back in July of 2020, word got out there was a shipwreck off the coast of Colombia with a staggering $18 billion in booty aboard. The ship, a 310-year old Spanish Navy galleon named the San Jose, had been discovered in 2015, but it took until 2020 to positively identify its signature bronze canons, which thereby confirmed that below deck probably lay a mammoth pile of gold, silver, and jewels. As one might expect, this led to a rather serious game of "that's mine!" being played between the governments of Colombia, Spain, and several salvage companies who had been searching for her since the 80's.
The government of Colombia pulled the most recent grabby-grab in 2020, effectively halting any further salvage efforts and angling themselves for the prize. Since then, the ship has stayed underwater while the courts have been tied up.
As it stands, the Qhara Qhara Indigenous group in Bolivia claim it should get the treasure since Spanish colonizers forced their ancestors to mine the precious metals that comprise her treasure. There's also the U.S outfit Sea Search Armada (SSA), who laid a claim in the 1980's when they first found the San Jose. A 2007 Colombian Supreme Court ruling even upheld that notion, stating that Sea Search Armada was entitled to 50% of any treasure uncovered. However, unsurprisingly, the Colombian government claims that SSA had the location wrong, and that the actual location was discovered by the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution in 2015. In other words, it's a mess on the poop deck.
As for the San Jose itself, it has a fascinating story befitting it's mysterious booty. 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.
So, did the San Jose go BOOM, and go down with a hefty treasure aboard? The plot thickens.
According to Reuters, on June 6th Columbian president Ivan Duque announced that naval officials conducting underwater monitoring of the San Jose also discovered two other shipwrecks nearby.
The other two wrecks are in 900m of water (2950 ft) and include a schooner and a colonial boat from roughly the same time period.
"We now have two other discoveries in the same area, that show other options for archaeological exploration," navy commander Admiral Gabriel Perez told Reuters. "So the work is just beginning."
The images released by the Columbian government show the best footage yet of San Jose and her treasure -- including gold ingots and coins, her unique bronze cannons made in Seville in 1655, and an intact Chinese dinner service.
"The idea is to recover it and to have sustainable financing mechanisms for future extractions," President Ivan Duque said. "In this way we protect the treasure, the patrimony of the San Jose galleon."
We'll see what Spain and several salvage companies who found her have to say about that.
You can watch video footage of the underwater exploration below.