It’s called the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks.”
The San José — a 62-gun, three-masted Spanish galleon — sank off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, on June 8, 1708, with 600 crew members and anywhere between $4 and $20 billion worth of gold, silver, and emeralds onboard.
British ships in the War of the Spanish Succession sent the San José to its watery grave. Now, before his term is up in 2026, Colombian President Gustavo Petro wants it exhumed.
“This is one of the priorities for the Petro administration,” Columbia’s Minister of Culture Juan David Correa told Bloomberg on Wednesday. “The president has told us to pick up the pace.”
But President Petro is going to have to deal with a group of U.S. treasure hunters who say they are owed half of the staggering haul.
Glocca Morra, a U.S. company, said it discovered the San José in 1981 and turned the coordinates over to Colombia with the agreement that they would receive half the legendary treasure.
“In 2015, then President Juan Manuel Santos said the Colombian Navy, working with a company called MAC, had found the shipwreck at a different location,” Bloomberg reports. “Those coordinates are a state secret, but Glocca Morra’s successor, Sea Search Armada, believes the 2015 expedition found part of the same debris field.”
Glocca Morra responded by taking the case to arbitration in London under the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement. It is seeking $10 billion, which it calculated was the value of its 50-percent share.
Correa dismissed the case, claiming it had no merit, but he did say Colombia would abide by the ruling.
After the government visited the coordinates Glocca Morra gave, the country “concluded that there is no shipwreck there,” Correa said.
“The battle that sank the San José took place on the first leg of its return home as the flagship of the Tierra Firme Fleet, carrying royal revenues and other treasure from Portobelo in Panama to Cartagena de Indias in Columbia,” historian Carla Rahn Phillips writes in her book, “The Treasure of the San José. “Had all gone well, the Tierra Firme Fleet would then have sailed to Havana to meet the New Spain Fleet, coming from Veracruz, Mexico.”
But all did not go well for the San José, one of the last of the distinguished Spanish galleons.
According to Heritage Daily, “The fleet encountered a British squadron near Barú, leading to a battle known as Wager’s Action. During the battle, the powder magazines onboard the San José detonated, destroying and sinking the ship” with its crew and the precious cargo aboard.
The dispute over the treasure goes beyond Glocca Morra.
DailyMail.com reports that “ownership is disputed by Spain, Colombia and Bolivia’s indigenous Qhara Qhara nation who say the Spanish forced the community’s people to mine the precious metals, so the treasures should belong to them.”
According to Correa, Colombia would ultimately “like to create an archaeological lab where the San Jose’s haul can be cleaned, studied and inventoried before going on display in a national museum,” Bloomberg reports.