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Explained: The San Jose treasure and why everyone wants a share of the 'Holy Grail' of shipwrecks

The "Holy Grail of shipwrecks," the San Jose, a 62-gun galleon that sank in 1708 off the port of Cartagena, is set to be recovered from the ocean floor. The ship is believed to hold treasures valued at up to $20 billion.

Explained The San Jose treasure and why evenone wants a share of the 'Holy Grail' of shipwrecks
First Published Nov 8, 2023, 1:29 PM IST

The 'Holy Grail' of shipwrecks, the San Jose, is poised for recovery from the ocean's depths, along with its potentially astonishing treasures valued at up to $20 billion or over Rs 16.65 lakh crore in today's currency. The Colombian government has declared its intent of an urgent retrieval of the San Jose, which met its demise in 1708 when it was sunk by the British navy off the port of Cartagena.

The Sinking of The San Jose

The San Jose, a 62-gun, three-masted galleon, foundered during a confrontation with a British squadron on June 8, 1708, near Cartagena, in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession. 

This historic ship is believed to have been laden with a staggering 200 tons of treasure, including precious metals like gold and silver, as well as the green allure of emeralds, all collectively valued at $20 billion. The vessel was part of King Philip V's fleet, and when the San Jose went down, only a handful of the 600-strong crew survived.

Images obtained last year shed light on the sunken ship's condition, showing part of the bow covered in algae and encrusted with shellfish. These images revealed the remarkably well-preserved frame of the hull, along with glimpses of San Jose's treasure, including gold ingots, coins, and well-preserved Seville-made cannons from 1655, as well as an intact Chinese dinner service. Porcelain crockery, pottery, and glass bottles also lay in the depths.

Wreck Recovery in November 2015

The momentous discovery of the shipwreck took place in November 2015, and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos proclaimed it to be "the most valuable that has been found in the history of humanity." 

Located by a team of navy divers, the San Jose lay at a depth of nearly 3,100 feet beneath the ocean's surface. Pictures taken by navy divers last year depicted the wreck's astonishing state of preservation, despite spending over three centuries on the ocean floor.

The Colombian government has revealed its intention to raise the ship from the depths before President Gustavo Petro concludes his term in 2026.

Ownership Dispute for the Treasure

The retrieval of the shipwreck has already sparked a contentious ownership dispute over the incredible wealth it contains. A US salvage consortium known as Glocca Morra claimed to have discovered the San Jose in 1981, a claim challenged by the Colombian government. Colombia asserts that it independently found the galleon in 2015, at a different undisclosed location.

Glocca Morra has demanded $10 billion from the Colombian government, stating that it shared the coordinates of the shipwreck. They are currently pursuing legal action against Colombia for half of the treasure in a case being heard in London.

Meanwhile, Spain and Bolivia's indigenous Qhara Qhara nation have also asserted ownership claims due to historical circumstances, as they maintain that the Spanish coerced their people to mine the metals used in the treasure. Spain invoked a UNESCO convention to substantiate its claim since the ship belonged to the Spanish navy, and the wreckage harbours the remains of hundreds of Spanish sailors. The battle over the 'Holy Grail' of treasures is poised to be a complex and protracted affair, involving multiple parties with historical stakes in this incredible discovery.

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