When it comes to finding famous shipwrecks, 2022 may go down (no pun intended) in history as a banner year for locating, confirming and getting close looks at ancient wrecks and their cargos. Earlier this year, Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance ship was found in Antarctic waters whose severe cold left it looking pretty good for being 107 years after it was caught in the ice, crushed and capsized. This week, the $14 billion cargo of a famous treasure-laden Spanish galleon which sank in 1708 was viewed via remote camera off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, and, in the process, two more shipwrecks were discovered nearby and their cargos are estimated to total $17 billion in today’s dollars. Are these crews interested in a side gig searching for lost keys and remotes?
“Under the guidelines of the Presidency of the Republic during the last two years, the Colombian Navy and the General Maritime Directorate, in a non-intrusive observation work carried out at the site where the Galleon San José rests, has verified that it has not suffered intervention or alterations by human action.”
The Colombian Navy released stunning videos and photos (see them here) of the Galleon San José, a 64-gun, three-masted galleon of the Spanish Navy that was launched in 1698 and sank in 1708 in a battle off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, while transporting gold, silver and emeralds to help fund the War of the Spanish Succession. Its estimated $14 billion shipment of jewels and gold doubloons was searched for ever since – a search which ended in November 2015 when the San José was found by the Colombian Navy. Since then, groups such as the Shipwrecked Antiquities Commission, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History and the Ministry of Culture have worked with the Colombian Navy to develop and conduct the four recent observation excursions with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to confirm the find while protecting the volatile structure of the centuries-old shipwrecked San José.
“(The galleon was untouched by) human intervention.”
While not revealing the ship’s secret location, Colombia's President Ivan Duque announced this week that an ROV dove to almost 3,100 feet (950 meter) to view the wreckage – the first human eyes, onsite or remote – to view the San José since it sank. The videos (see a portion here) and photos (see a collection here) show weapons, such as the many cannons, ship utensils, like porcelain crockery, pottery and glass bottles, high class cargo, such as an intact Chinese dinner service, and treasures -- gold ingots and coins. However, perhaps the greatest treasures were not in the shipwreck but close by.
"We have already found two additional vessels: one vessel that is from the colonial period and another that, from the point of view of preliminary analysis, corresponds to the Republican period of our history."
Duque revealed that two previously unknown shipwrecks were located near the San José and are suspected to be part of the fleet of a treasure ships made up of three Spanish warships and 14 merchant vessels that sailed the area during the battle with British ships known as Wager's Action in which the powder magazines of San José detonated, sinking the ship, its treasures and all but 11 of its estimated 600-person crew. The Colombian Navy suspects this is not just the site of the wreck of the San José but a graveyard – one with additional treasures whose total will far exceed that of the San José.
While the initial goal will be to identify the ships and determine the value of their cargos, the ultimate target is the safe retrieval of the artifacts and the treasure. That’s where the excursion become less aquatic and more political – while Colombia claims the ships and their bounty because they lie in its territorial waters today, Spain lays claim because it owned the ships when they sank in 1708, and while Bolivia's indigenous Qhara Qhara nation says the Spanish enslaved its people to mine the gold and silver from their land and believe it still belongs to them.
When the treasures weigh hundreds of tons and are worth together possibly $100 billion in today’s dollars, this is a fight that will play out in politics, courts and potentially in the waters where they lay.