The world’s most valuable shipwreck is coming to the surface.
The Spanish galleon San Jose, which sank in 1708 off the coast of Colombia during a battle with the British, has an estimated $20 billion in booty in her cargo hold. When the ship went down, it was loaded with 20 tons of gold, silver, and emeralds to finance the War of Spanish Succession, a power struggle between European countries including Spain, France, and England that took place between 1701 and 1714.
The ship was positively identified by the Spanish galleon San Jose in 2015 with the help of a robotic submarine – her signature bronze cannons with dolphin inscriptions on the barrel proving her identity. The three-masted galleon is easily the world’s most valuable shipwreck.
The location of the San Jose was unknown for over 300 years despite multiple attempts to locate her, but Wood’s Hole was able to guarantee her coordinates in 2015 after finding a debris field off the coast of Cartagena. The ship’s presence had likely been masked for decades thanks to its position next to two other shipwrecks. But, even before her identity was confirmed, a legal battle was already ongoing that marks the most vicious, expensive, and dramatic in maritime history.
In a nutshell, salvage claims for the ship began in the early 80s. The most prominent company involved is Sea Search Armada (SSA), who claim they located the San Jose with permission from the Colombian government in 1985. However, SSA wasn’t acknowledged by the Colombian government when they announced the vessel’s discovery in 2015. Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez said in a statement at the time that “Sea Search Armada has no right over the San Jose galleon or its contents,” claiming that the coordinates where SSA claims the vessel resides do not match the government’s coordinates. Things got spicier when the Colombian government surreptitiously changed the standard 50% finders fee for maritime salvagers to a mere 5% (with a 45% tax rate on the finders fee).
The Colombian government’s decision to re-write maritime salvage laws also kickstarted legal proceedings with other entities involved with the San Jose. A second lawsuit emerged between the Colombian government and a company called Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), who participated in the 2015 search that ultimately led to the ship’s discovery. MAC claims the reduction in the finders fee, as well as the Colombian government’s ability to dictate what percentage of the ship’s contents qualify as ‘cultural heritage,’ unjustly diminishes their expected profit from the salvage operation. This led to the Colombian government stopping the recovery process with MAC as legal questions arose regarding using the treasure’s value to pay for recovery costs. Now a third player has entered the fray — albeit with ties to the first — and this time it may force the Colombian government to settle the matter once and for all. According to Business Insider, Sea Search Armada (SSA) was previously known as Glocca Morra, and they claim to have first found the San Jose during an exploratory search in 1981. They claim they handed over the coordinates to the Colombian government as part of an agreement to receive half the ship’s treasure (or in other words, the original 50% finders fee). Those documents were made public during an arbitration hearing in December 2022.
(It should be noted that ownership of the San Jose is also disputed by Spain and Bolivia’s indigenous Qhara Qhara nation, who claim the Spanish used slave labour to mine the metals for the treasure. Their legal challenge is also in the court system.) As for the Glocca Morra case, the Colombian government disputed those claims in their arbitration response — using the same argument that the San Jose as not actually at the coordinates handed over by Glocca Morra or SSA.
According to Business Insider, the Colombian Government claims Glocca Morra “never even explicitly reported the finding of the San Jose in its 1982 report, which makes no mention of the ship by name.”
Government attorneys said in their arbitration response: “How can it be explained that a private company finds the biggest treasure in the history of humanity and fails to report it?”
“The answer is simple: because it did not find it.”
In response to the stonewalling, Glocca Morra sued for half the estimated value of the ship’s treasure, $10 billion, in accordance with the U.S. — Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement.
Now things are heating up once again as Colombian president Gustavo Petro said he wants the ship raised before his term ends, according to Bloomberg.
The minister of culture, Juan David Correa, told Bloomberg that Petro instructed officials to arrange a new public partnership, or work with a private firm to get the ship raised immediately.
“This is one of the priorities for the Petro administration,” Minister of Culture Juan David Correa told Bloomberg. “The president has told us to pick up the pace.”
Ultimately, the Colombian government would like to study and inventory the entirety of the collection before portions go on display in a national museum, Correa told Bloomberg. But before the San Jose sees daylight again, two primary questions will have to be answered.
Who is the rightful owner of the ship, the government of Colombia or one of the salvagers?
And, if a salvager is the rightful owner, are they bound by Colombia’s ‘new’ heritage laws and salvage regulations, or will the original agreements from the 80s hold up?
You can see her epic treasure in the video above.