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Colombia to Recover $20B Treasure: The ‘Holy Grail of shipwrecks’


San Jose ship treasure, holy grail of shipwreck in colombia
The wreck was found and photographed some 2000 feet underwater in 2015. Credit: Colombian Presidency

In the azure depths of the Caribbean Sea in Colombia lies a legend, the San José galleon gold treasure, often hailed as the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks.” Laden with a treasure trove that modern estimates value at a staggering $20 billion, the Spanish galleon’s story is one of history, mystery, and a modern-day national mission that could unearth a fortune lost to the sea over three centuries ago.

A Sunken Time Capsule

The San José, a 62-cannon, three-masted Spanish galleon, met its watery grave on June 8, 1708, during a fierce battle against the British in the War of Spanish Succession. With approximately 600 souls aboard, the ship sank near the Colombian port of Cartagena, taking down with it an estimated 200 tons of gold, silver, and emeralds from the mines of the Viceroyalty of Peru.

For years, the San José was the subject of lore and speculation until a team of Colombian navy divers, under the auspices of the government, discovered the wreck in 2015, lying at about 3,100 feet deep. This discovery was not without contention; Sea Search Armada, formerly known as Glocca Morra, a U.S. company, claimed they had located the wreck back in 1981 and provided coordinates to the Colombian government, expecting a share of the treasure.

A Multinational Dispute Over Sunken Treasure

The story of the San José is not just a tale of lost treasure; it’s a complex web of legal and diplomatic disputes involving several nations and entities. Spain asserts a claim to the wreck, citing its origin and the nationality of the majority of the crew. The indigenous Qhara Qhara nation of Bolivia argues that the treasure was mined by their ancestors under duress, and thus they deserve a portion of the bounty. Meanwhile, Sea Search Armada has taken its claim for half of the treasure’s value to international arbitration.

Colombia’s National Mission for the Treasure Hunt

Amidst the legal battles, Colombia stands firm on its claim to the San José. President Gustavo Petro has made it a national priority to recover the shipwreck before his term ends in 2026. The Colombian government envisions a public-private partnership to facilitate the recovery, a project that not only promises to boost national pride but also has the potential to provide significant economic benefits.

Culture Minister Juan David Correa has been vocal about the administration’s commitment to the project, stating, “This is one of the priorities for the Petro administration. The president has told us to pick up the pace.”

The Colombian government has not disclosed the precise location of the wreck, nor a timeline for the recovery operation. However, the commitment to bring the San José’s treasure to the surface is clear. The project is poised to be a delicate operation, balancing the preservation of historical artifacts with the extraction of valuable commodities.

Implications and Challenges of San Jose Treasure

The recovery of the San José’s treasure is not just a matter of financial gain. It presents numerous challenges and considerations, from the technical aspects of deep-sea salvage to the ethical implications of treasure hunting. The operation will need to navigate the murky waters of international law, conservation concerns, and the preservation of cultural heritage.

The endeavor has ignited a broader conversation about the ownership of historical artifacts and the legacy of colonialism. As nations and groups lay claim to the San José’s riches, questions arise about the restitution of cultural property and the rights of indigenous communities affected by historical exploitation.

The saga of the San José is a captivating narrative that intertwines the past with the present. As Colombia embarks on this ambitious quest, the world anticipates, not only the potential discovery of a vast underwater fortune, but also the unfolding of a historical event that may redefine the value and ownership of sunken treasures.

The story of the San José is far from over. It continues to evolve, carrying with it the echoes of a bygone era and the hopes of a nation eager to reclaim a piece of its submerged history.

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