For Colombia, a high stakes battle over high seas treasure

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Naval warfare
Naval warfare

The first shot was fired on Twitter rather than from a naval cannon, but the discovery of the treasure-laden San José galleon has already sparked a multi-front battle between Colombia, Spain and a United States salvage company.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced excitedly on Friday the discovery of the galleon San José off of Cartagena. But an international struggle bubbled up almost immediately after he tweeted its discovery.

Spain’s Minister of Spanish Culture, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo quickly asserted that the ship belonged to Spain, and other Spanish ministers followed suit.

A timeline of the fight over the San José.
The battle for the San José has been waged in one way or another for more than three centuries. (Ed Buckley)

“This is Colombian heritage,” responded President Santos on Tuesday. “The galleon is the patrimony of Colombians, for Colombians.”

He tempered the statement adding that it was also an important discovery for all of humanity.

On Monday, Spain and Colombia agreed to meet for a summit in Cartagena where both countries’ ministers of culture will discuss the ship’s fate. Spain has asserted that it would like the issue resolved “in a friendly way.”

The San José sailed as a Spanish treasure ship before sinking in 1708 in a battle with the British during the War of Spanish Succession, killing almost 600 people on board.

Experts believe the galleon could hold the largest sunken treasure ever discovered, totaling somewhere between $1 billion and $14 billion USD.

That fact virtually ensures that the fight for its ownership will be intense.

It’s also not the first time that Spain has fought to reclaim one of its sunken ships. And the last battle left international adversaries on the rocks.

New ship, old battles

The Odyssey Marine Exploration salvage company found a sunken Spanish frigate off of Portugal in May of 2007. Just weeks after filing a claim of ownership in U.S. courts, Odyssey airlifted an astonishing 17 tons of coins from the wreck to Florida.

Spain was not pleased. Neither was Peru, where many of the coins were minted.

The $500 million USD treasure, which came from a ship called Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, was one of the largest troves ever discovered at that time.

The Spanish government filed its own claim arguing that the country has ownership of its lost patrimony regardless of who makes the discovery. Peru asserted that gold and silver taken from its territory should be returned.

After five years of legal battles, the treasure was reportedly returned to Spain to be housed in an archaeological museum.

But Spain isn’t Colombia’s only challenger for ownership of the San José.

Gold divers and gold diggers

Decades ago, the Sea Search Armada salvage company claimed it had pinpointed the location where the San José sank.

At the time, Sea Search and the Colombian government had been working hand-in-hand to find the lost galleon. But after the alleged discovery, Colombia changed the terms of the agreement with Sea Search to give the salvage company only a small percentage of any treasure discovered.

Sea Search sued, and the legal battle has been winding in and out of courts for years.

In 2011, a United States district court ruled that the San José’s treasure belonged to Colombia, although Sea Search has apparently still not given up its claim to ownership.

Now, they argue that Colombia never “won” the legal fight in the first place.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Sea Search Managing Director Jack Harbeston in a written statement to CNN. “It’s the same mentality as the conquistadors.”

Further complicating the matter is a UNESCO convention, of which Spain is a part, to protect underwater cultural heritage. Colombia is not a signer of the convention, but has a similar law passed in 2013.

Laying down the law

And there could be a new law on the way.

On Wednesday, Colombian Senator Andrés García proposed the Galleon San José Law. The legislation would reserve cultural patrimony of historical value found submerged in Colombian waters for educational, cultural and academic use.

Other stipulations guarantee that cultural patrimony not leave Colombia except for academic purposes or expositions.

To cap it off, the ley Galeón San José would designate Dec. 4 as National Historic Patrimony and Maritime Treasures Day, and give public employees half the day off.

That last provision won’t likely generate much controversy.

But given that one of the greatest maritime discoveries of all time is at stake, no law Colombian or otherwise is likely to end the fight for the San José anytime soon.

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