(Bloomberg) — In 1708, the Spanish flagship San Jose was sunk by a British squadron near the port of Cartagena, in what is modern-day Colombia, taking down with it about 600 souls and a treasure that a U.S. salvage group says may be worth as much as $17 billion.
More than three centuries after the broadside from a Royal Navy ship sent the San Jose to the bottom of the Caribbean, Colombia’s announcement this month of the discovery of the vessel has sparked a battle for the spoils, pitting Spain against its former colony and the bounty-hunting salvage company.
Spain is pressing its claims to the gold after the Colombian government said it meant to hold on to the treasure. The fight has implications for Spain beyond this case. At stake are its potential rights to the spoils in hundreds of shipwrecks on ocean floors dating from the days of its colonial empire.
“The legend that has grown up around San Jose and its treasure means it has become one of the most famous of all shipwrecks,” said Miguel San Claudio, the director of Archeonauta SL, a firm of underwater archaeologists based in La Coruna, Spain. “Spain is one of the countries with one of the greatest underwater historical legacies and it does have rights.”
Spain’s Foreign Affairs Minister Jose Manuel Garcia- Margallo has said he hopes any dispute with Colombia over the San Jose could be resolved in a friendly way with both governments respecting each other’s right to defend their interests.
Still, the galleon “belonged to the state, was the result of war and was not a private boat,” he told reporters on Dec. 7. Spain’s Navy archivists have documented about 1,600 wrecks with more than a third traced to the Americas and a quarter, like the San Jose, dating from the 18th century.
Sea Search Armada, a Bellevue, Washington-based marine salvage group, says the galleon was carrying coins and precious metals mined and smelted in Peru. The San Jose with its 64 guns fell prey to the British squadron led by Commodore Charles Wager as it sought the safety of the Caribbean port of Cartagena , according to an account of the events on the Facebook page of Sea Search Armada.
The galleon’s gunpowder exploded before the British could board it, causing a wall of water that swamped the gun ports of the Wager’s ship, the Expedition. The San Jose quickly sank, taking down with it a cargo of bullion, coins, jewels and trade goods that may have exceeded Spain’s annual national income from all sources at the time, according to the account.
“Spain does not need or have an interest in getting the treasure for its monetary value but it does have rights in the case,” said Archeonauta’s San Claudio. “There were many Spaniards from both Spanish and American shores on board.”
Spain is a signatory to a 2001 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization convention aimed at protecting underwater archaeological sites that are coming under increased threat as improving diving technology means more wrecks surface. There may be more than 3 million undiscovered shipwrecks spread across ocean floors around the planet, according to Unesco.
The convention prevents the commercial exploitation and dispersion of underwater cultural heritage and in the San Jose’s case would mean its treasures could not be sold off for profit, said San Claudio.
Colombia, however, still hasn’t signed the convention.
Spain scored a notable victory in defense of its sunken galleons in 2012 when it won the return of 594,000 silver coins after a U.S. Federal Court tussle with Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc., a deep-sea treasure-hunting company based in Florida.
The Spanish government said Odyssey had taken the coins, as well as some artifacts, from the remains of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a 34-gun frigate that was attacked and sunk by the British navy off the coast of Portugal in 1804. Spain repatriated 17 tons of the coins, which could be worth up to $500 million, packed into 551 white plastic buckets on board two Hercules military transport planes.
It may be harder for Spain to win the San Jose case, said Henry Kamen, a Barcelona-based historian who examined the episode as part of his studies of the War of the Spanish Succession. In addition to the fact that the Colombian navy found the wreck in their own territorial waters, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Spanish government of the day was the actual owner of the cargo, he said.
“For political reasons, the Spanish government automatically lays claim to all Spanish wrecks anywhere in the world,” Kamen said. “In the end the decision of who has rights to the cargo will be political.”
Spain doesn’t have much of a case, Rodolfo Segovia, a former Colombian public works minister and historian, said in an interview with the country’s Caracol radio. “The position of Spain is weak,” he said.
Another claimant to San Jose’s treasures is Sea Search Armada, which says it discovered the wreck site after mounting a salvage operation with the permission and participation of the Colombian government. It alleges the Colombian government then reneged on an agreement to share the proceeds of any recovered treasure.
For now, Colombia is laying claim to the spoils. President Juan Manuel Santos said artifacts from the galleon will be housed in a new museum to be built in Cartagena. While Colombia is willing to share the historic treasure with the rest of the world, there’s no question who its rightful owner is, the president said on Dec. 8.
“Many owners are now appearing,” Santos said. “No sir — this is the patrimony of Colombians.”
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