The $20 Billion Treasures of the San José Wreck Will Soon Be Saved

The San José, a Spanish galleon carrying valuable treasure, has been underwater since 1708, when a naval battle led to its sinking off the coast of Colombia. Now, an effort to recover and preserve the ship's artifacts has been set in motion.

By Jack Knudson
Jun 14, 2024 6:00 PM
Spanish Galleon
(Credit: photointruder/Shutterstock)

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Of all shipwrecks throughout history, one stands out for its sought-after treasures — sitting at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, the San José galleon contains an estimated $20 billion worth of gold, silver, and emeralds and is aptly dubbed the "holy grail" of shipwrecks. For years, multiple parties have coveted its treasures, becoming embroiled in disputes over ownership of the sunken ship. 

As new developments unfold — such as a recent pledge by the Colombian government to retrieve parts of the ship and its goods — historians have taken this opportunity to revisit the galleon’s war-torn past. In doing so, they hope to learn about the stories of the San José's passengers who perished back in 1708.

Treasure in the San José

Exciting news has come to light in recent years regarding recovery of the ship’s items. In 2022, new images of the wreckage were taken by a remotely operated underwater vehicle, showing valuable items like gold ingots, coins, and pottery. 

Earlier this year, the Colombian government announced that it would officially begin a $4.5 million recovery effort. This will be achieved with a robot that will dive 2,000 feet below the surface of the ocean and attempt to salvage multiple artifacts from the wreckage.

Colombian leaders, including current President Gustavo Petro, have stressed the importance of the San José for historical and cultural purposes. Former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has even called it “the most valuable treasure that has been found in the history of humanity.”

The San José Galleon

The San José was a Spanish galleon (a ship with multiple decks used for war or trade from the 16th to 18th centuries) suited with 64 guns and three masts. It first launched in 1698 following a year of construction as part of the Spanish treasure fleet alongside its sister ship, the San Joaquín. 

The San José would soon be involved in the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict that started in 1701 between European powers vying for control of the Spanish royal throne after King Charles II of Spain died childless. Economic interests, though, drove the underlying current of the war. The Spanish Empire’s status had been gradually dwindling throughout the 17th century while Great Britain’s rise to the top as a commercial power had become imminent. 


Read More: A Billion-dollar Shipwreck Finally Comes to Light


What Happened to the San José?

On June 8, 1708, the San José encountered a squadron of four British ships near Isla de Barú, south of Cartagena (an important Spanish colonial city). A naval battle — now known as Wager’s Action after British admiral Charles Wager — ensued, going well into the night.

While the San Joaquín was able to slip away and eventually make it to Cartagena safely, the San José wasn’t so lucky; It was attacked by a formidable British ship, the Expedition, and after about an hour of fighting, the San José exploded. The galleon and its treasures quickly sank, with just 11 out of its 600 passengers surviving. 

Although it was a victory for the British squadron, they didn’t get their hands on as much treasure as expected. With the San Joaquín having fled and the San José bound for the ocean floor, the British only managed to seize a disappointing share of treasure from a third Spanish ship, the Santa Cruz. 


Read More: These 5 Ancient Treasures Were Discovered at Sea and in Sunken Shipwrecks


The Current Shipwreck Struggle

Fast-forward to today, and the San José now sits at the center of a new battle. This time, legal disputes, not cannonballs, have been launched by multiple claimants to the sunken galleon’s fortune. 

The parties involved in the struggle include the governments of Colombia, Spain, and Peru, a U.S. company now known as Sea Search Armada that claims to have initially found the wreckage, and the indigenous Qhara Qhara people of Bolivia and descendants of enslaved African workers, both of whom were forced to mine the precious metals that were on the ship. 

The most heated legal friction has occurred between Columbia and Sea Search Armada, as the two sides have become entangled in an ongoing court case set to be handled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands. Back in 1981, the company (previously known under the name of Glocca Morra) claimed it had discovered debris of the wrecked ship. After years of disagreement over the potential allocation of items from the ship, the Supreme Court of Colombia concluded in 2007 that items considered “national cultural patrimony” would be given to Colombia while all other items would be split equally between the two parties. 

The situation became even more complicated when, in 2015, Colombia declared that it had found the true location of the shipwreck, rejecting the purported discovery by Sea Search Armada from decades prior. The company, meanwhile, believes that the debris found in 1981 is still linked to the wreckage site found in 2015, and it is now suing Colombia for $10 billion. 


Read More: Shipwrecks Teem With Underwater Life, From Microbes To Sharks


Uncovering the Past

The Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History will be working with the government to study various items. Archaeologists are interested in looking beyond the treasures, using recovered items to look into the lives of those who perished on board. 

Although the value of treasure on the San José draws a lot of attention, protecting cultural items appears to be a genuine priority for the Colombian government and its partners. As the recovery effort gets underway, these long-lost artifacts may just unlock pivotal information about the 600 passengers and bring the story of the ill-fated San José back to life.


Read More: No One Knows How Many Shipwrecks Exist, So How Do We Find Them?


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Jack Knudson is an assistant editor at Discover with a strong interest in environmental science and history. Before joining Discover in 2023, he studied journalism at the Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University and previously interned at Recycling Today magazine.

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