Treasure of the San José galleon creates confusion in Colombia
Galeon San Jose
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British warships sank the San José galleon more than 300 years ago when it was loaded with around 200 tons of gold, silver, and jewelry – a treasure estimated at around $17 billion today – destined for France, which was then an ally. with the Spanish royal court. The naval battle resulted in the sinking of the galleon – and its treasure – somewhere near the Barú Peninsula, south of Cartagena, Colombia.

The shipwreck hunt

canhoes do galeao San Jose

The San José cannons. Image, Ministry of Culture of Colombia.

According to, the Colombian government has launched a legal offensive with a presidential decree asking salvage companies to register to recover it. The legal issue is against rival claimants, given the immense treasure of the Spanish galleon.

No wonder, after all, $17 billion is at stake! And there are many applicants. Spain says the San José was a Spanish state ship when she was sunk. Therefore, according to international conventions, Spain would still own everything on board.

But livescience reports that an indigenous Bolivian group, the Qhara Qhara nation, also claims the treasure, saying the Spaniards forced their ancestors to mine most of it in the 16th century.

The San Jose located in 2015


In 2015, the Colombian government announced that its navy had located the San José wreck in a different location. According to the BBC, Colombia passed a law in 2013 proclaiming that all shipwrecks in its waters are part of the country’s national heritage. The government estimates that there are as many as 1,200 of these shipwrecks.

The Colombian navy discovered the wreck in part thanks to a search of the seabed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), a Massachusetts-based private nonprofit research and education organization.

But it’s not that simple…According to livescience, Rob Munier, vice-president of the WHOI, said that the institution was hired to search for a British company of maritime archeology. Scientists and engineers from the institute made more than two trips to the region over the course of several months, researching the REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle.

The San José is at a depth of about 600 meters. According to the WHOI vice president, very little marine life had grown on the wreck during its 300 years underwater, in part because of its depth, and so its cannons and other artifacts were still clearly visible.

While the legal imbroglio is being discussed, San José rests at the bottom of the sea with its billionaire cargo. Livescience says that, if it is up to Colombia, the government wants to put it on display in a museum to be built in Cartagena.

The legal confusion

According to National Geographic, an early 18th-century Spanish ship that could contain treasures of gold, silver and jewelry is becoming an object of contention as Colombia, Spain and a US-based salvage company try to find out who it is the owner of the immense wealth of the ship. The San José is hailed as perhaps the most valuable shipwreck find of all time.

According to NG, Charles Beeker, director of the Center for Underwater Science at Indiana University, worked with Colombian officials to develop their plans and regulations for managing shipwrecks in their territorial waters. Beeker says the treasure must not leave Colombia.

But, NG confirms the legal issue raised by the great value stored in the galleon’s holds. According to the magazine, James A. Goold, a Washington attorney who has represented the Spanish government in similar legal disputes over sunken treasures, noted that international law may lead to a different resolution.

Goold said that while he cannot predict the outcome of this case, courts interpreting international law have ruled in the past that warships lost at sea, such as the San José, remain the property of the nation whose flag they were flying. Such a ship cannot be disturbed without the consent of the nation that owned it when it sank, he said.

National Geographic also listened to Charles Beeker who stated, “there are a lot of opinions out there” about who is truly entitled to the riches of San José. “But I think the Colombian authorities are astute enough to handle this properly.”

San José Shipwreck the “Holy Grail” of Spanish Colonial Shipwrecks

The ‘Holy Grail’ of shipwrecks, as CBS news refers to the San José. It is not by chance that the dispute over ownership has become a legal imbroglio. ‘Long the dream of treasure hunters around the world, the San Jose galleon wreck was first located off the coast of Colombia in 2015 but remains untouched as the government sets rules for its recovery.

He explains: ‘Colombia was a colony of Spain when the San Jose was sunk, and gold from all over South America, especially modern Peru and Bolivia, was stored in the fort of its coastal city, Cartagena, before being sent back to Europe’.


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