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One Shipwrecked Spanish Galleon — Two Countries and One Company After the Gold

The Colombian government says it has found a famous sunken Spanish galleon, just off its Caribbean coast, but its claim to the treasure within faces competition from a US marine salvage company and potentially Spain as well.
December 7, 2015, 10:30pm
Batailles près de Carthagène en 1708. Image : Samuel Scott

Colombia has announced the discovery of what could be the world's largest sunken treasure somewhere off its Caribbean coast, but it faces competition for keeping the caskets of gold believed to be strewn around the wreckage.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said this weekend that he is sure he knows exactly where the Spanish galleon San José sank 300 years ago with its hold said to be full of 11 million gold coins and almost 200 tons of other valuables. The hoard, he said, was part of Colombia's "submerged cultural patrimony."

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The announcement — complete with a government video of the team that found the site off the coast near the city of Cartagena led by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History and the navy — has rebooted a long standing legal dispute over who owns the treasure that is already also claimed by an American maritime salvage firm. The Spanish government may also soon make its own bid to at least some of the bounty reportedly worth between $1.5 and $17 billion.

Related: UN Experts Discredit Underwater Explorer's Pirate 'Treasure' Discovery

Sea Search Armada (SSA), a US-based marine salvage company, says it found the site in 1981 and consequently has a right to up to half the recovered loot under international law, though Colombia says it has won cases in the US and Colombia that rule this out.

Jack Harbeston, Managing Director of SSA, accused the Colombian government of lying over the result of the court battles, and trying to steal the company's property. He also said Colombia had threatened the firm with military force.

"It's the same mentality as the conquistadors," Harbeston told CNN.

The dispute stems from two conflicting claims. SSA claim that the wreckage is in the area they identified in 1981, though Colombia maintains that the discovery announced this month is in a different location. The exact whereabouts are a secret.

Colombian media, meanwhile, was in full voice over the discovery that was plastered over the front pages. The respected weekly Semana ran an editorial with the headline: "We must defend San José!"

Photo via MinCultura

The ship was sunk by a British warship on 8 June 1708, during the Spanish War of Succession that engulfed Europe's empires after the childless King Charles II of Spain died. The British attacked a fleet of Spanish galleons carrying treasure to fund the war, sinking the San José with 600 people on board.

And it is the history that the Spanish government believes means it also has a claim to the ship's reputed cargo of chests full of of pieces of eight, emeralds, pearls and other precious stones, as well as ingots of gold and silver from the famed mine of Potosí in Peru.

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Spanish Culture Minister José María Lassalle told the Spanish news agency EFE that Spain would be requesting more information about the discovery of the San José from Colombia. Lassalle said Spain would then analyze "what action to take in defense of what we consider to be our sunken wealth."

Lassalle cited 2001 agreements within UNESCO which define ownership of a shipwreck according to the flag under which the vessel was sailing. And while the San José may have been carrying treasure plundered from colonial territories and found off the coast of what is now Colombia, it was undoubtedly a Spanish ship at the time it went down. The problem for the Spanish is that Colombia has not signed the UNESCO agreements.

A similar legal dispute erupted over the discovery of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a Spanish naval frigate carrying treasure which was found off the Atlantic coast of Portugal in 2007. Claims emerged from Odyssey Marine Exploration, the salvage company that found the wreck, and Spain and Peru. The plunder went to Spain after a US federal court case.

In the meantime some experts are not entirely convinced that the treasure actually exists.

"I'm not saying they didn't find this thing, but I want a little more proof than just a picture of bronze cannons and Spanish ceramics," Robert Marx, a historian and marine exploration expert based in Florida, told VICE News. He stressed that over 1,000 Spanish galleons were lost off the Cartagena coast. "Show me the chest, let me see the coins, then I'll believe it."

Marx said that if this is a boat full of treasure, the cost of the salvage effort would probably be about $200,000 per day and last a couple of years working everyday in all weathers. In the mean time, Marx stressed, the legal battles will continue. "The only people that are gonna get rich off this are the goddamn lawyers," he said.

Related: Two Guys Claim They've Found a Lost Nazi Train Filled with Treasure

Follow Joe Parkin Daniels on Twitter: @joeparkdan