After 300 years of hunting, the wreck of the Spanish galleon San José has finally been discovered, according to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The shipwreck—which could contain as much as $17 billion in gold, silver and jewels—might be the richest in the world, but it is also the subject of a decades-long legal battle.
As sunlight waned over the coast of Colombia on June 8, 1708, José Fernández de Santillán cursed the listless wind. The Spanish admiral knew the safe refuge of Cartagena was only 16 miles away, but the absence of any breeze had turned his sprint for safety into an interminable slog. With Santillán’s lookouts reporting that the pursuing British warships were closing in on his lumbering galleon, San José, the admiral had no choice but to order his men to prepare for battle.
In addition to the 600 men aboard San José, the vessel contained a cache of gold, silver and jewels so bounteous that its value exceeded Spain’s annual income. The riches promised a badly needed monetary infusion for Spain and its French allies who for seven years had been embroiled in war with a coalition of British, German, Austrian, Portuguese and Dutch forces following the anointing of French King Louis XIV’s grandson as Spanish monarch. Knowing that the safe transport of the treasure mined by slave labor in Spain’s South American colonies could alter the course of the War of the Spanish Succession, British Commodore Charles Wager chased down San José and its 17-vessel treasure fleet in spite of having only four ships himself.
For more than three centuries, the riches resting on the floor of the Caribbean Sea have tantalized treasure hunters, and on Saturday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the wreck of San José had finally been found.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Spanish Culture Secretary José María Lasalle said his country was waiting to examine information from Colombia before deciding “what action to take in defense of what we consider to be our sunken wealth and in accordance with UNESCO agreements that our country signed up to years ago.”
Santos made no mention of competing claims in his news conference on Saturday, and, to protect the wreck from looting, he did not disclose its location. The Colombian president said that a museum will be built in Cartagena to house relics recovered from the wreck, but that process will likely take years.