The ‘rich’ history of the San José galleon

Wager's Action
Wager's Action

It’s a discovery right out of an adventure movie.

The San José, a sunken Spanish galleon built in Cadiz and loaded to the rafters with so much treasure it’s a miracle the ship could stay afloat has been some 45 nautical miles northeast of Cartagena.

“I am very pleased, as the head of state, to inform you that, without a doubt, we have found, 307 years after it was sunk, the galleon San José,” said President Juan Manuel Santos in a statement Saturday.

The discovery culminates a decades-long search that has embroiled Colombia in foreign legal battles and helped produce strong national laws to protect valuable cultural patrimony. The San Jose’s cargo is thought to be among the most valuable ever lost at sea.

“This scientific event reminds us that the history of Colombia is constituted of events from very different eras, led by thousands of people who make up part of our national memory,” said Santos.

The discovery was confirmed on Nov. 27, when an international team led by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH) and accompanied by the national Navy found a ship that matched structural details described in historical accounts of the San José.

“Today, we pay homage to the 600 seafarers who lost their lives when the San Jose sank.”

But who were those sailors and what were they doing?

The San Juan story

British Admiral Charles Wager sailed to the coast of Colombia in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession, which was fought to determine who would become ruler of Spain after the death of King Charles II, who had left no heir.

France’s King Louis XIV declared his grandson Philip king of Spain after Charles’ death in 1700. But the British obviously saw a union of the French and Spanish as a tremendous threat, and war broke out by the next year.

At the time, the Spanish had a dedicated fleet of galleon ships to sail to the Americas, load up with gold, silver, emeralds and other precious stones and metals and then return to Europe. The British sought to exploit those vulnerable ships as a way to cut off Spain’s supply of wealth.

Admiral Wager, with four ships, attacked a Spanish treasure fleet while they were anchored off of the island of Barú.

Wager’s strategy was to attack the largest ship – the San José – to take control of the treasure it was carrying. But just as the San Jose was about to be captured, it blew up and sank.

Almost all of the 600 crew and passengers on board died, and a treasure containing millions of pesos sank to the bottom of the Caribbean, just off the coast of Cartagena. There the ship remained until late last month.

Searching for sunken history

President Santos has made the recovery and protection of what he referred to as “submerged cultural patrimony” a priority for government research and anthropological agencies, helping pass a law in 2013 that better ensures that important Colombian discoveries remain in the country.

“Since 2013, we have made every necessary effort to recognize this patrimony, for the benefit of all Colombians and all of humanity,” said Santos.

Minister of Culture Mariana Garcés also credited that law and subsequent government action as key in finding the San José, noting that the discovery was not an accident but rather the result of the hard work of dozens of people.

“This has been a planned effort, an enormous effort which, as [President Santos] has noted, involves diverse people, all of whom are very dedicated,” said Garcés during a Saturday press conference.

Protecting the San José has already proven a challenge.

The Colombian government has fought for decades with the United States-based Sea Search Armada, a salvage company that claims it first discovered the wreck’s whereabouts in 1981.

Protecting Colombian patrimony

Sea Search and the government collaborated on the search, initially agreeing to split the value of recovered treasure.

No one knows for sure, but legend has it that the Spanish galleon was carrying treasure worth as much as $17 billion USD in today’s money.

When a Colombian law reduced the maximum amount private treasure hunters could earn from 50 percent to 5 percent, Sea Search sued.

In 2011, a U.S. court ruled the San Jose was Colombian property, but Sea Search has filed subsequent legal actions as recently as 2013.

On Saturday, researchers with ICAHN reminded that they are still in the earliest phases of revealing the shipwreck’s mysteries. Scientists will have to conduct multiple additional expeditions before actually recovering any materials from the San Jose, according to ICAHN Director Ernesto Montenegro.

Santos remarked that the government would build a museum in Cartagena to house the findings from the ship.

Colombia estimates that some 1,200 other Spanish galleons may still be resting beneath Caribbean waters.


Watch the discovery of the San José (in Spanish)


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