Climbing up a vertical mineshaft with 60 kilos of tin and silver ore in a cloth bag on my back was the rst and last time I laboured in a mine – albeit briefly – as part of a tourist challenge in Cerro Rico, the Potosí silver mountain of Bolivia.
The game was to match Bolivian teenage miners who scrabble for precious metals in this crumbling centuries-old labyrinth of tunnels that once provided more than half the silver in the Spanish empire.
Of course none of us could beat the youngsters in their ore-carrying contest. But the test stays sharp in my memory, along with the suffocating smell of dust and dynamite and the little carved niches lit by flickering candlelight where miners still worship a small statue of El Tío, a devil of the underworld who for generations has guarded this hellish depth.
Spain’s colonial riches came at huge human costs. Historians estimate that more than 8 million slaves died in the colonial process of mining, extract- ing and transporting the precious metals of Potosí, seen by many as a diabolical machine that consumed humans and belched out shiny ingots for the insatiable European superpower.
The silver bars and coins stamped with ́PTSI’ would have been trans- ported up the Pacific coast, and carried on mule across the narrow Central America isthmus to the Atlantic port of Portobelo, to be loaded again on the mighty treasure fleets.
Some boats never made it, such as the Galeón San José, which was blown up and sunk by a British warship a few miles short of Cartagena’s fortified harbour in 1708. The sinking was a disaster for the Spanish Crown eagerly awaiting its first treasure in six years, but also a human tragedy as 600 crew drowned when the laden ship foundered “in less time than you can say a prayer”.
The precious cargo went to the seabed. But what exactly? No-one knows for sure. Some say colonial taxes of 11 million gold doubloons each weighing 8 grams. Other historians talk of nine million Reales de Ocho – “pieces of eight”. It is estimated that 200 tonnes of gold and silver bars, pearls, emeralds and jewellery, much of it packed in the private chests that belonged to the 300 wealthy passengers also ended up in the sands of the Archipelago of the Rosary Islands.
So over the years, the San José has become a kind of underwater Potosí, tainted by tragedy and fortune. And there the story might have ended. Except that in 1979 a US company Sea Search Armada agreed with the Colombian government to nd and ex- cavate coastal wrecks for a 50% ownership of contents.
Recovering sunken cargo is nothing new. But the boom in diving technology, sonar and commercial submarines in the 1970s made deep-sea recovery more practical, though still a dangerous, expensive and frequently fruitless endeavour.
During the next three years SSA spent US$10 million of investors’ money in archive searches and sending a boat and submarine to search for the San José off the coast of Colombia. It seems like a lot of money, but by then the estimated value of the cargo was set at a fabulous US$10 billion. Who wouldn’t buy in?
And then it seems SSA hit the jackpot. In 1982 they led a report to their Colombian counterparts. In this were coordinates giving the ‘immediate vicinity’ of a wreck they claimed to be the San José in Colombian territorial waters at a depth of 300 metres, along with details of ‘piles of timber and debris consistent with objects’. The SSA team immediately started making plans for the salvage.
Instead, the US company got locked out of Cartagena harbour and locked in to three decades of court wrangling over the rights to the wreck. Immediately after being advised of the ship’s location, the government of Colombia “changed the rules of its agreement with SSA […] offering only a 5% finder’s fee”, claims the entity that turned to the courts to fight for its original 50% stake.
Somewhere in the Colombian government – perhaps at presidential level – a lightbulb came on as someone realized that giving up 50% of US$10 billion dollars to a foreign company was not clever. The Colombian hierarchy had caught the same treasure fever infecting SSA and its investors. Officials were scrambled to thwart SSA by creating new laws, then trying to apply them retroactively to cut their partner out of the deal.
But nothing good comes from something taken. Somewhere in the dark depths of Cerro Rico ‘El Tío’ was smiling. Over three decades the Colombian courts consistently backed SSA’s claims and rejected their own government’s, much to the fury of successive administrations who had to ignore their own courts and, instead, threatened any salvage attempts in Colombian waters with naval action.
For the frustrated SSA it seemed the gold they were chasing was that pot at the end of the rainbow: the closer you got, the further it went astray. Then, in 2015, their pot disappeared when Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos ordered another search for the wreck and tweeted to the world: “Great news. We have found the San José galleon.” And guess what: the Colombian-lead search team found the wreck nowhere near the SSA’s coordinates of 1982, and in deeper water (600 metres down, according to some).
Or so they claim. The problem is that the government will not reveal the new coordinates so no-one knows how close the wreck is to the SSA site, given the margin of error for less accurate mapping in 1982.
What is clear from the Colombian navy and scientists who searched the new wreck site is that, in fact, the San José was found. Also clear, is that Colombia wants the Spanish warship for itself, and a sentiment echoed across government lines. “The galleon was found in our territory. It’s ours,” said Culture Minister Mariana Garcés Cordoba, recently.
Spain may not agree. In July, the Spanish foreign minister reminded Colombia that the San José was a “ship of the state with sovereign immunity and classified as an undersea grave.” The Colombian foreign minister María Angela Holguín shot back: “Everything found in Colombian territory is Colombian.”
This position reflects Colombian laws pushed through in recent years that shipwrecks and their cargos found on the Colombian coast are the property of Colombia, based on the UN’s Law of the Sea. This makes sense from the point of view of a country whose coastline is full of foreign wrecks. But, UNESCO conventions on Underwater Cultural Heritage – which Colombia has not signed up to – gives some weight to the original flag owners – in this case Spain – particularly in the case of warships.
Even outside UNESCO rules there are many legal precedents of nations retaining rights to their sunken vessels in foreign waters. In fact, Spain has successfully won cases against U.S.-based treasure-hunting companies forced by U.S. courts to return artefacts to Spain.
But would Spain contest the San José wreck in international courts? Seems not, judging from a recent editorial in El País that recommends “giving up” the San José to Colombia. Behind the stricken galleon, the newspaper argues, is the “disappeared political structure of Catholic monarchs whose reign included Cartagena as much as Cadiz.” Colombians have as much right to the wreck as Spain.
Spain’s action, or inaction, on a claim to the San José might depend on what future plans Colombia has for the wreck and cargo. Soon after his 2015 tweet, President Santos, declared the wreck “patrimony for all Colombians.” He went on to announce plans for an international dream team of archaeologists to supervise the excavation, cataloguing and preservation of the remains ,and the construction of a museum to house the artefacts in Cartagena.
This overlooks the likelihood that many artefacts originated in countries like Peru, Bolivia and even China (whose ceramics formed part of the cargo), but rather than suggesting, for example, that Inca artefacts might go back to Peru, the Colombian government has so far stated that “all goes to Colombia” and the country has a team of lawyers in the U.S ready to “defend against all possible scenarios”.
Another issue is which parts of the ship and cargo are considered “heritage” and which constitute “treasure”? The treasure would be uncut emeralds and gold ingots, for example, and man-made items such as jewellery would be cultural patrimony to be preserved by the nation. But will minted coins from Potosí be declared as treasure or heritage’?
It is a key question, particularly because Colombia has semi-privatised the wreck salvage and preservation by inviting companies to bid. This is because Colombia lacks the expertise for such technical work at 600 metres depths and which, according the Garcés Cordoba is “like going to the moon.”
But a private partner also means private investors can reclaim “up to 50%” of the treasure. Yet, despite costly extraction work, and depending on the size of the treasure, any small percentage could amount to huge profits for equity investors. This sets the stage for some serious international wrangles. Peru and Bolivia will be rightly furious if coins minted in their former colonial mines are sold off for profit. Somewhere deep in Potosí, El Tío is rubbing his hands.
The Colombian government has refused to say which company will form part of the APP partnership, as it is called, nor who the private investors could be. But, the billion-dollar question is what items will be declared “treasure” – such an emerald encrusted monstrance? a solid silver Inca mask?
President Santos may have the best intentions for his country, and playing patrimony card lures in the approval ratings. But in the wake of recent scandals involving the sale of Isagen, Oderbrecht bribes and Reficar pillaging, many Colombians doubt that the money raised from the San José excavation will ever benefit the economy.
Possibly, the Galeón will do more harm than good. Colombia’s uncompromising stance plays badly on the world stage when the country needs post-conflict friends and neighbours. And the 600 souls lost at sea seem largely forgotten. As their last physical connection to the realm of the living, the San José wreck is a grave with all the sacredness this implies, a fact that too quickly has been forgotten in this rush for riches.