When the San José made its final voyage from Seville, Spain, to the Americas in 1706, the Spanish galleon was considered to be one of the most complex machines ever built.
But in an instant, the armed cargo vessel went from a brilliant example of nautical architecture to what treasure hunters would come to consider the Holy Grail of shipwrecks. The San José was destroyed in an ambush by the British in 1708 in what is known as Wager’s Action, sinking off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, with a haul of gold, jewels and other goods that could be worth upward of $20 billion today.
Some experts say that number is extraordinarily inflated. But the myth built around the San José has prompted the Colombian government to keep its exact location a secret as a matter of national security.
Now Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, wants to accelerate a plan to bring the ship and its contents to the surface — and everyone wants a piece of it. It is the latest maneuver in a decades-long drama that has pitted treasure hunters, historians and the Colombian government against one another.
Mr. Petro has instructed the ministry of culture to create a public-private partnership to retrieve the ship, with an eye toward bringing at least part of the vessel to land by the end of his first term in 2026.
Juan David Correa, the minister of culture, said in an interview that the government planned to open a bidding process in three to four months. He said the government was also considering building a museum and a laboratory to study and display the ship’s contents. Bloomberg earlier reported the renewed urgency around the plan.
“We need to stop thinking of this as treasure. It’s not treasure in a 19th-century sense,” Mr. Correa said. “This is a submerged archaeological heritage and it is of cultural and critical importance for Colombia.”
But more than 300 years after the ship’s sinking, the plan to bring the San José to the surface is fraught with conflict.
Archaeologists and historians have condemned the effort, arguing that disturbing the ship would do more harm than good. Multiple parties, including Colombia and Spain, have laid claim to the San José and its contents. Indigenous groups and local descendants of Afro-Caribbean communities argue they are entitled to reparations because their ancestors mined the treasure.
Perhaps the largest, most enduring conflict is in the hands of an international arbiter in London.
The matter has been entangled in a legal process since 1981, when a search group called Glocca Morra claimed to have found the San José. According to court documents, the group handed over the coordinates to the Colombian government with the understanding that it was entitled to half of the treasure.
Among other discoveries were wood objects, according to court documents. Carbon dating indicated that the wood was likely 300 years old.
With shifting Colombian laws, Glocca Morra has found itself defending its right to the treasure for decades. The conflict deepened in 2015, when the Colombian government said it had found the shipwreck at a different location, one that Glocca Morra’s new owners, Sea Search Armada, argue is within a mile or two of their own coordinates.
Sea Search Armada, a group of American investors, is challenging a 2020 law change that “unilaterally converted everything on the ship to government property,” Rahim Moloo, a lawyer representing the group, said in a statement. If Colombia “wants to keep everything on the San José for itself,” he said, “it can do so, but it has to compensate our clients for having found it in the first place.”
The group is asking for what it estimates to be $10 billion worth of treasure.
What exactly lies beneath is still a bit of a mystery.
For clues, historians have looked to the San José’s sister ship, the San Joaquín, which was sailing alongside the San José when it went down. The San Joaquín left Spain with about 17 tons of coins from Peru, among other items.
“We do not know how the materials survive after three centuries of being submerged in the water,” Mr. Correa, the culture minister, said, adding that the government would assess a few pieces at first before proceeding with a full excavation.
“They are pieces of great cultural importance that can give us an account of our colonial past,” he said. “We are going to do it as quickly as possible following the president’s order, but also as professionally and technically as possible.”
Because the shipwreck is so deep, at least several hundred meters below the surface, “human life can’t get there,” Mr. Correa said. Any kind of retrieval would require underwater submersibles or robotics.
But Ricardo Borrero, a nautical archaeologist in Bogotá who has written a forthcoming paper on the San José, said any kind of disturbance would be “ill-advised” and intrusive, with more risk than reward.
“The shipwreck lies there because it has reached equilibrium with the environment,” he said. “Materials have been under these conditions for 300 years and there is no better way for them to be resting.”
Mr. Borrero said an examination of the San José’s path, estimation of its speed and barometric charts of the area point to the ship lying anywhere between 200 and 700 meters below the surface. But images taken on various government dives show life among the wreckage, including fish, suggesting that light is able to penetrate at a depth where photosynthesis can occur.
“Life is a clue that it’s not as deep as they say,” he said.
Mr. Borrero said that estimates that the treasure is worth as much as $20 billion are questionable and that its value has been “overly exaggerated.” Historical documents from the San Joaquín, for instance, show it had “significantly less” goods on board, Mr. Borrero said, somewhere in the order of about one-tenth of the estimated value for the San José.
Instead of moving the vessel, Mr. Borrero said that the San José should be left intact on the seafloor, where it presents an opportunity for researchers to examine a prime example of globalization.
“Shipwrecks are the best way to inform us in regards to the production, accumulation and distribution of goods in the past. It’s like a floating city,” he said, noting that testing can reveal how people navigated the seas right down to what cut of meat they preferred. “You’re able to reconstruct the history of global trade.”