A metaphorical wreck over an actual wreck

On Friday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that searchers had found the wreckage of the Spanish galleon San José, which was sunk in battle off the coast of Cartagena in 1708. This is a really cool find. The San José was one of the flagships of the “Spanish Treasure Fleet,” which was responsible for conveying vast quantities of exotic luxuries and precious raw materials from Spain’s colonies back to Spain itself. During the War of the Spanish Succession, a small British fleet intercepted San José and her fleet on the way back to Spain. In the course of the battle, known as “Wager’s Action,” it’s believed that the ship’s powder stores exploded–although, interestingly, people who’ve now seen the wreckage say it doesn’t look like that’s what really happened. Anyway, the point is that she sank, along with everything and almost everyone aboard–only 11 of the 600 people on board survived.

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b9/Samuel_Scott_3.jpg?resize=404%2C285&ssl=1
San José after her supposed explosion, by 18th century British painter Samuel Scott (Wikimedia)

Thanks to the war, when she sank San José was packed with gold, silver, and gems to take back home to help finance the military effort. Her wreck has been called the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks” because of the value of the treasure that’s estimated to be down there. Obviously there’s no way to know for sure until it’s all hauled up out of the ocean, but there could be as much as $17 billion in valuables in the wreck. So naturally everybody is taking the discovery in stride and with a lot of good humor hahahaha let’s be serious:

The discovery of the “holy grail of shipwrecks” off the coast of Colombia this week has provoked a three-cornered fight over ownership of the gold, emeralds and other treasures on the ocean floor.

In a tale that mixes 18th-century buccaneering with 21st-century courtroom drama, the San José, a Spanish galleon carrying one of the richest cargos in naval history, was sunk by British warships in 1708 and is now once again at the heart of a conflict.

Colombia, Spain and a US salvage company have lodged competing claims to the chests of pieces of eight, silver coins and jewels, which are estimated to be worth between US$1bn (£662m) and US$17bn.

The salvage company, Sea Search Armada, used to head up the search for San José back in the 1980s. It wants 35% of the loot because it claims it signed a contract with the Colombian government for rights to explore the waters where the wreck was found. The Colombian parliament rejected that deal but it’s been in legal limbo ever since. Spain wants the wreck because it was their property, a claim that stretches credulity a little but does have some legal precedent behind it. Colombia is claiming it because, well, they (specifically the Colombian navy) found it, in their territorial waters.

It seems like there’s more than enough here to make a nice, tidy three-way split and save everybody a lot of hassle, particularly if, as they’re both saying, Colombia and Spain are interested in the wreck primarily for its historical display value (both nations have promised to build museums to display the material recovered from the wreck). But that would be too easy, I guess, so I expect this will be a long and ugly fight.

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Author: DWD

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