A Spanish galleon sunk in the Caribbean 300 years ago with an exceptionally valuable cargo has been discovered near the port city of Cartagena, Colombia. Called the San Jose, the ship is rumored to contain gold, silver, and jewellery worth an estimated $4 to $17 billion.

President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia made the announcement this past weekend by tweeting, “Great news! We have found the San Jose Galleon.” His proclamation was followed by a press conference where more details were disclosed. Santos says the find “constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind.”

The sinking of the San Jose (Credit: National Maritime Museum/Samuel Scott).

The San Jose was attacked and sunk by a British warship in June 1708. During the fighting, the galleon was reported to have exploded, killing most of those on-board. Packed with gold, silver, and gems collected in the South American colonies, it was en route to Spain to help finance the king during the War of the Spanish Succession.

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For years, the sunken galleon has eluded treasure hunters, but it now appears the “holy grail” of shipwrecks has finally been found.

The precise location of the wreck was not disclosed, but it’s near the vicinity of Cartagena. The ship’s treasures of bullion and coins has been estimated between $4-17 billion, which at the time was worth more than Spain’s annual national income from all sources. The sinking of the San Jose was obviously a terrible military and financial disaster for Spain.

An artifact from the San Jose (Reuters).

It’s expected to take years for a recovery team to fully explore and excavate the wreck, but a legal battle over who gets the booty is already underway. The Colombian government has a long-standing disagreement with US-based salvage company Sea Search Armada (SSA) over who has the rightful claim over the treasure. A group now owned by SSA claims it located the wreck back in 1981.

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According to the BBC, the SSA has been claiming billions for breach of contract from Colombia, but four years ago a US court decided that the galleon was the property of the Colombian state. Further, the wreck is reported to fall within the UN’s definition of an underwater cultural heritage site. Nonetheless, a CNN report suggests that the SSA may demand half of the value of the ship’s sunken treasure.

In consideration of the discovery, the Colombian government is planning to build a museum in Cartagena to showcase the treasures.

[ CNN | BBC ]


Email the author at george@gizmodo.com and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image by Reuters