Shipwreck Off Columbia May Hold $20B Worth Of Treasure

The “San José” was a Spanish galleon that sank more than 300 years ago—however, after the Colombian government found it in 2015, it’s been working to recover the shipwreck’s purported $20 billion in treasure. 

Buried treasure seems like a fictional concept, one only seen in pirate books. However, like many tropes, it holds a grain of truth. Recently, the Colombian government, spearheaded by President Gustavo Petro, has been speeding up efforts to recover a reported $20 billion worth of treasure from the wreckage of the “San José” galleon. The Spanish ship sank in 1708 during a fight with the British navy, along with 200 tons of gold, silver, and emeralds, reports the Daily Mail

"Wager's Action off Cartagena" by Samuel Scott (1702-1772), which depicts the battle that sank San José
“Wager’s Action off Cartagena” by Samuel Scott (1702-1772), which depicts the battle that sank San José/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The wreckage had remained missing for years until the Colombian government found it in 2015, but refused to reveal its exact whereabouts, according to Artnet News. The ship was located 700 feet below sea level, with gold ingots, pottery, and Spanish canons from the 1700s. Though the ship is far from the reach of divers, submersibles can still easily access it, which is likely why Colombia’s government wants its location to be a secret. 

Colombian authorities vowed to recover the ship from the depths by the end of President Petro’s term in 2026. As tantalizing as the idea of hidden treasure may be, a number of obstacles stand in the way—including conflicting claims on who gets the valuable bounty, should they find it. 

Pottery by the ship's wreckage
Pottery by the ship’s wreckage/Photo from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution website

READ ALSO: Headpiece Of History: Napoleon Bonaparte’s Hat Fetches $2.1 Million At Auction

Three Claims

The Colombian government claims that it found the shipwreck off the country’s coast. However, U.S. company Glocca Morra states that it actually found the ship’s coordinates way back in 1981, 34 years prior to its discovery, as per Robb Report. It then alerted Colombian authorities of its whereabouts and provided coordinates. 

The government, however, contests the information, saying that the shipwreck wasn’t in the location that Glocca Morra shared. Now, the American group’s successor, Sea Search Armada, is suing Colombia for $10 billion—laying claim to half of the treasure’s supposed value. 

Teacups by the ship's wreckage
Teacups by the ship’s wreckage/Photo from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution website

Experts, however, disagree with the move. “Colombia should split nothing,” said Charles Beaker, director of Underwater Science at Indiana University, told NCB News. “These resources should be protected for public benefit not for private gain.” Besides adding the $20 billion to government funds, Colombia intends to create a museum for the shipwreck in Cartagena, reports Artnet News

To make matters more complicated, the Spanish government is also laying claim to the treasure, as the ship itself is Spanish in origin. Meanwhile, the indigenous Qhara Qhara community of Bolivia also contested claims, stating that members of its group forcibly mined the treasure in the shipwreck, so the bounty rightfully belongs to them. 

Better Underwater

Whether or not the treasure is still somewhere in the wreck, experts are uncertain of its real value, with some even saying the ship’s remains are better off where they are. 

Canons by the shipwreck
Canons by the shipwreck/Photo from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution website

“Materials have been under these conditions for 300 years and there is no better way for them to be resting,” explained Bogotá-based nautical archaeologist Ricardo Borrero to The New York Times. He and other historians also believe that the contents might be too inflated to be of much worth today, Artnet News added. 

Banner photo by Samuel Scott (1702-1772) via Wikimedia Commons.

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