Colombia may have lost coordinates of San José Galleon shipwreck

Detail of San José galleon/ICAHN

Colombia’s Oversight Committee for the Social Control of Submerged Cultural Heritage has raised concerns over the apparent misplacement of the coordinates for the historic San José Galleon. In a statement published in El Tiempo, the committee has expressed concerns that exact location of the shipwreck is no longer in the National Archives.

“It is absolutely unbelievable and infuriating that the coordinates for the location of the Galeón San José, entrusted to the National Archives by the Juan Manuel Santos government, have been ‘misplaced’ since the beginning of the (Iván) Duque administration. What’s even more infuriating is that we are only learning about this now,” reads the official statement.

Armando Martínez, President of the Colombian Academy of History, during an August 2023 hearing before the Council of State, affirmed under oath that the top-secret coordinates were returned by him to the Ministry of Culture approximately three months after the start of Iván Duque’s government.

Martínez served as the Director of the National Archives during the Santos administration, and safeguarded the sealed envelope containing the coordinates within the security department of the National Archives.

The Galeón San José is a cultural treasure of Colombia with a remarkable history. This Spanish galleon, laden with riches, was lost to the depths of the Caribbean Sea during a fierce naval battle near Cartagena in the early 18th century.

In November 1708, during the War of Spanish Succession, the San José Galleon was part of a Spanish fleet attempting to transport a vast treasure, including gold, silver, precious gemstones, and artifacts, from the South American colonies to Spain. The English privateer ship, the “HMS Expedition,” under the command of Captain Charles Wager, along with other British ships, engaged the Spanish fleet in a fierce battle.

The naval engagement northwest of Cartagena proved devastating for the San José Galleon, as it was struck by several enemy cannonballs and exploded, sending its priceless cargo to the bottom of the sea. The exact location of the shipwreck and its treasure remained a mystery for centuries until its rediscovery in 2015.

The discovery of the San José galleon was announced on December 4, 2015, after oceanographers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts confirmed the existence of a giant hull, 800 meters deep, and approximately 15 kilometers from Colombia’s Barú Peninsula. The exact location of the galleon has remained a state secret.

The treasure aboard the San José Galleon has been estimated to be worth up to US$17 billion, making its preservation and study of immense historical and cultural significance. However, a proposed salvage operation came to a halt when President Juan Manuel Santos announced the suspension of a Public-Private Partnership (APP), established between the government and private contractors. This decision marked one of his final policy decisions before concluding a second term in office. Under the terms of the APP, Colombia would share in equal parts the cost of the operation, as well as revenue from the sale of some of San José’s loot.

The galleon’s discovery was the focus of legal disputes between Colombia, Spain, and the United States. For Spain, the shipwreck is a mass burial site as some 600 sailors died during the naval battle.

The Oversight Committee has called on the Petro government to conduct a comprehensive investigation regarding the whereabouts of the galleon’s coordinates given the importance of the submerged cultural heritage, and one, that due to misplaced paperwork could result in a multi-million-dollar mistake.