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Colombia continues salvage efforts on San José wreck

Work to recover what experts call potentially the most valuable shipwreck ever continues in Colombia.

Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, announced July 5 that the national government has been in cooperation with salvage specialists to recover the San José, which sank June 8, 1708, in 800 feet of water off the island of Baru near Cartagena, the nation’s capital. 

Current recovery efforts require a public-private partnership, in a mission that is scientifically minded, the president said.

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The San José was part of the fleet of King Philip V, who fought the English during the War of Spanish Succession. A reported 600 people died in the shipwreck, which happened when British ships under the command of Adm. Charles Wager attacked the three warships leading the 17-ship fleet. The San José sinking was the only success attributed to the British in the event, historically named Wager’s Action.

The British were able to board another warship, the Santa Cruz, but little treasure was found. The other warship, the San Joaquín, successfully evaded capture, and it and the other 14 ships reached the safety of Cartagena’s ports.

The Colombian Navy and others located the wreck on Nov. 27, 2015, a find that the nation’s president disclosed on Dec. 5, 2015. (This wreck should not be confused with a 1631 wreck, off of Florida, of a ship of the same name.) 

The Colombian find “is one of the biggest findings and identification of underwater heritage, if not the greatest, some say, in the history of mankind,” President Santos said in a translation of a press announcement from 2015. 

Billion dollar find?

The ship was loaded with treasures of silver, gold and possibly emeralds that would be worth at least $1 billion today, Santos said. 

According to Daniel Frank Sedwick, president of the coin firm of the same name, “the San José really would be among the most important Spanish wrecks of all time, filled with gold and silver cobs and ingots from Peru and Colombia.”

Sedwick’s firm specializes in shipwreck coins, and his auction catalogs include a list of famed wrecks in which coins were recovered. Notably missing are any wrecks in Colombian waters. 

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If this recent discovery is the San José wreck, it carried at least 5 million to 7 million pesos in gold and silver coins, according to Sedwick’s book The Practical Book of Cobs

Modern rumors suggest that 116 chests of emeralds were also on board the ship.

The San José is “potentially the richest single-ship recovery of all time,” Sedwick wrote in his book.

Recovering treasure

During the July 5 announcement, Santos said the nation had identified an investor partner that would follow the terms and conditions of recovery, would respect the historical and cultural patrimony and that would develop the technology necessary for the rescue of this shipwreck, giving that technology to the government for future use. 

A public hearing was scheduled for July 14 in Cartagena, where the terms of the agreement were to be disclosed to an audience including the public (but this was after Coin World’s press deadline). 

The contractor will assume all the risks in the wreck recovery, according to a translation of the announcement. 

President Santos said that the individual who initiated the recovery is an underwater archaeologist with a passion for shipwrecks and more than 40 years in the field.

“He found a document from Cartagena and its surroundings prepared by a Spanish spy in the service of the English, a few years after the collapse [sinking] of [the] San José,” Santos said in the announcement. 

Upon receiving the tip from the archaeologist, Santos invited the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (under the aegis of the national Ministry of Culture) to begin an investigation, bringing archaeologists, historians, engineers, Marines and oceanographers, from Colombia and all across the world.

Three-quarters of the galleon remains in the seabed where it sank, according to Santos’ announcement.

So far, sonar images revealed bronze cannons, arms, ceramics and other artifacts in the wreckage.

Treasure on display

The wreck and its contents will help “tell the world about the economic, social and cultural history of its time,” Santos said. “The questions we make about navigation, about world trade, about the costs of colonialism, will find a response after this investigation.”

Colombia’s Ministry of Culture will control a museum housing the artifacts found in the wreck, the museum to be funded by the investors. 

President Santos added that “Here in Cartagena will live forever the history of the galleon San Jose, of what happened and what will happen. It will be enjoyed by Colombians and all tourists, scholars, students and lovers of what was once just a legend.” 

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