Treasure-laden ship’s discovery sparks three-way legal battle

‘San Jose’ wreck, with up to $17bn in cargo, claimed by Colombia, Spain and salvage firm

A handout picture released  by the Colombian culture ministry shows the remains of the Spanish galleon San Jose, sunk off the Caribbean coast of Cartagena. The ship was sunk by British warships in 1708. Photograph: AFP/Culture ministry

A handout picture released by the Colombian culture ministry shows the remains of the Spanish galleon San Jose, sunk off the Caribbean coast of Cartagena. The ship was sunk by British warships in 1708. Photograph: AFP/Culture ministry


The discovery of the “holy grail of shipwrecks” off the coast of Colombia this week has provoked a three-cornered fight over ownership of the gold, emeralds and other treasures on the ocean floor.

In a tale that mixes 18th-century buccaneering with 21st-century courtroom drama, the San Jose, a Spanish galleon carrying one of the richest cargos in naval history, was sunk by British warships in 1708 and is now once again at the heart of a conflict.

Colombia, Spain and a US salvage company have lodged competing claims to the chests of pieces of eight, silver coins and jewels, which are estimated to be worth between US$1 billion (€920 million) and $17 billion.

The San Jose was the flagship of an armada carrying treasure from Spain’s colonies in South America to the court of King Philip V to fund battles against the British in the War of Succession. On June 8th, 1708 it was attacked off the coast of Cartagena by a British squadron led by Admiral Charles Wager, who wanted to steal the gold. But before the San Jose could be boarded, it exploded and sank with the loss of all but 11 of its 600 crew and passengers.

Ever since, finding the ship has been the fantasy of treasure hunters, adventurers and novelists. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, the unrequited lover, Florentino Ariza, dreams of recovering the sunken hoard for his love Fermina Daza.

In the 1980s, the hunt was led by Sea Search Armada – a US-based salvage company – which described the galleons as “lumbering bank vaults” filled with gold from the mines of Potosi, Peru, pearls from Panama and emeralds, amethysts and diamonds from the Andes.

“In the armada of 1708, the value of the cargo on the flagship alone exceeded Spain’s annual national income from all sources. When the bullion and coins on all the galleons of the armada were [added together], it was two or three times Spain’s annual income. In addition, there were trade goods of cocoa, indigo, leather, cochineal, precious woods and many other items,” the company noted on its website.

Discovery confirmed

Announcing the find last week the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, said this “constitutes one of the greatest – if not the biggest, as some say – findings and identification of underwater heritage in the history of humanity”. He promised to build a museum in Cartagena to exhibit the treasure, which also includes ceramics, brass cannon and the personal wealth of the viceroy of Peru.

But Colombia’s ownership is contested on two fronts. Sea Search Armada claims it first located the area of the wreck in 1981 and later signed a deal with the Colombian government in which it was promised a 35 per cent share of the treasure. After this was overturned by the country’s parliament, the company fought a battle in US and Colombian courts asserting its claim.

Colombia’s minister of culture, Mariana Garces Cordoba, claimed last week that his government had won all legal challenges. But Sea Search Armada insists the issue remains unresolved.

The government of Colombia “keeps repeating the Big Lie [which is unfortunately repeated by the press] that the GOC ‘won the case’ in federal district court and SSA had lost its rights to the treasure. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Jack Harbeston, the managing director of Sea Search Armada, told CNN.

The Spanish government is also considering whether to stake a claim. The Spanish culture secretary, Jose Maria Lasalle, speaking in Havana on Saturday, reminded Colombia of Spain’s “clear position” in defence of its “sunken wealth”. He said Spain was examining the information provided by Colombia before deciding “what action to take in defence of what we consider to be our sunken wealth and in accordance with Unesco agreements that our country signed up to years ago”.


Nuestra Senora de las MercedesPortugal

In 2012 a US court ruled that, as the Mercedes was a warship on a state-sponsored mission and Peru was then just a colony, Spain was the rightful owner of the treasure, which was put on display in Madrid in 2014 in an exhibition titled the Last Voyage of the Frigate Mercedes.

Given the far greater loot on the San Jose, an even more protracted legal wrangle may be looming.

In an earlier lawsuit by Sea Search Armada against the Colombian government, the judge wrote in his ruling: “The complaint in this case reads like the marriage between a Patrick O’Brian glorious-age-of-sail novel and a John Buchan potboiler of international intrigue.”

This is also unlikely to be the last story of ancient mariners and sunken treasure to re-emerge in the Caribbean. It is estimated that there are about 1,200 wrecks off the coast of Colombia alone.

Guardian service