The 21st Century Battle for the Treasure of the San José
310 years ago, a 62-gun Spanish galleon, the San José, was sunk by the British Navy in the Caribbean Sea during the War of Spanish Succession. With a heavy cargo of gold, silver and emeralds historians have estimated her treasure to be worth 17 billion dollars. Now, claimants to the treasure are getting really angry with each other. Like, military angry!
The San José’s whereabouts became an obsession of marine historians, sub-sea archaeologists, governmental cultural departments and treasure hunters, until November 2015 when an international team of scientists and engineers aboard a Colombian Navy research ship discovered the long-lost wreck off the coast of Cartagena, on Colombia’s Barú Peninsula.
A newly released gridded mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 shows the complete wreck site. (Mosaic by Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Now, what has been called the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks” has been officially identified after its distinctive bronze cannons were recognized by experts, according to an article in Live Science. When it was first discovered in 2015 it wasn’t immediately clear whether the wreck was actually the San José, or not, as it was located 2,000 feet (600 m) underwater. An approved search by the Colombian Ministry of Culture employed the services of The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), for their expansive expertise in deep water exploration. WHOI sent in the robot submarine REMUS 6000, “since it's capable of conducting long-duration missions over wide areas," WHOI’s engineer and expedition leader Mike Purcell, said in a statement.
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REMUS 6000 being deployed off the Colombian Navy research ship ARC Malpelo. (Image: Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
This time, REMUS took photographs of the San José’s cannons from about 30 feet away and “the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carvings,” said Purcell. Roger Dooley is the lead marine archaeologist at Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), who interpreted the photographs, and confirmed with reporters that the San José had finally been found.”
Cannons with dolphins engraved on them are the key distinguishing feature of the wreck. Source: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The San José’s treasure laden hulk contains unimaginable tonnages of gold, silver and emeralds, but its historical and cultural artifacts will be priceless for the Colombian government and people. As such, the Colombian Government plans to preserve and publicly exhibit the wreck’s contents, including ceramics, cannons and other oceanic artifacts, reported WHOI. Supporting these actions, Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos recently said “the country would build a great museum displaying the treasures,” hailing it as “one of the greatest - if not the biggest - discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind”, as reported by the Daily Mail.
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The wreck was partially sediment-covered, but with the camera images from the lower altitude REMUS missions, the crew was able to see new details, such as ceramics and other artifacts. (REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
But who really deserves the treasure of the San José?
Washington-based salvage firm Sea Search Armada (SSA) and the Colombian government are engaged in a long running battle as to who actually owns this multi-billion-dollar treasure hoard. The SSA claims it discovered the wreck in 1982 and shared the ship’s location with the Colombian government in 1984, but the Colombian government last December announced it had found the wreckage at a different location.
This claim is being contested fiercely by the SSA who claim that the older technology they used to record the wreck’s initial longitude and latitude coordinates was less accurate than today's mapping and advanced satellite based cartographic systems. Speaking about this argument National Geographic reported that David Moore, Curator of Nautical Archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, said “landmarks plotted by modern GPS may be as much as one-eighth of a mile from where they were plotted with earlier technology.” What’s more, Moore postulated that several other natural variables such as the water depth and currents all affect the accuracy of plotted underwater landmarks.
Standing on a string of scientific arguments supporting their claim to having discovered the locations of the ship and its treasure, the SSA recently told the Sunday Times that it is going to recover the treasure by the end of 2018, even if it means risking “a deep-sea battle." Jack Harbeston, managing director of SSA, claims it was sent a letter from the Colombian government in 2010, warning:
'The National Armed Forces will prevent the realization of unauthorized activities in jurisdictional maritime areas.’
In response to the threat of military action Harbeston told National Geographic reporters that they will be “in a US-flagged vessel, so if they fire on that vessel it's an act of war against the United States.”
The long-standing debate about who has the rights to the San Jose’s treasure was recently discussed by Charles Beeker, Director of Underwater Science at Indiana University, who thinks ownership by “right of discovery” is an outdated idea. Speaking of shipwrecks in a National Geographic article Beaker said “They’re underwater cultural heritage sites of world importance,” and they “represent the colonization of the New World.” Beeker concluded saying “the wealth should go back to the nations from which it came.”
As the indigenous communities scream for financial aid and the Colombian government prepares its war ships to meet the US Navy, somewhere off Cartagena later this year, the argument as to who actually owns the treasure of the San Jose might end in tears, lots of them. It would appear that once again common sense disappeared the millisecond the treasure was found on the sea bed in 1984, and since, gold fevered business people who have invested heavily in the search and fund hungry politicians, have practically lost the plot.
Hard core military action over a shipwreck is just going too far. Give it back to the indigenous peoples from whence it came, for goodness sake. “Finders keepers, losers weepers” is surely not applicable here?
Top image: Battle of the sinking of the San Jose. Action off Cartagena, May 28, 1708. Source: Public Domain
By Ashley Cowie