Art And Culture

Colombian Treasure Find Could Shed Light on Spain’s Colonial Past

Colombian Treasure Find Could Shed Light on Spain’s Colonial Past Colombian Treasure Find Could Shed Light on Spain’s Colonial Past

Colombia’s discovery of the 300-year-old, shipwrecked galleon San Jose, thought to be loaded with some $10 billion in gold and precious stones, could shed light on an important period in Spanish colonial history but also spawn legal battles over the valuable cargo.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said his country spent two years studying historical maps, meteorology and used the latest sea-searching technology to locate the Spanish vessel, which sank during a battle in 1708 in the country’s temperate Caribbean waters, international news outlets reported at the weekend.

The San Jose was long considered by many historians and treasure-seekers as the Holy Grail of shipwrecks.

“We have made every effort to recognize this national heritage for the benefit of all Colombians and for humanity,” Santos said, adding that the country will build a museum in the coastal city of Cartagena to showcase the recovered artifacts.

The San Jose sank to its watery grave after setting sail from Cartagena toward Panama, loaded with an estimated 11 million gold coins and 600 people. It was attacked by British boats as Britain battled Spain in the War of Succession and went down in flames near the small Rosario Islands archipelago.

Justin Leidwanger, an assistant professor at Stanford University’s Archaeology Center and an expert in historic maritime networks, said: “This is not only about raising a bunch of shiny gold coins,” he said. “It’s a discovery of extraordinary cultural and historical importance.”

But while Colombia celebrated and made plans for the historic find, shipwreck and legal experts said a discovery of such cultural and monetary value was likely to lead to legal battles. “Ownership of shipwrecks is never as simple as it seems,” said Frederick Hanselmann, chief underwater archaeologist at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University.

Sonar images of the San Jose have shown ceramics, bronze cannons and other weaponry. The 800-foot depth of the waters where the wreck had settled could have been cold enough to preserve large parts of the wooden ship and cargo—such as fabric or human remains. Items like gold, silver and precious stones typically don’t break down very much underwater, but their stamps and dates could wear off.

The shipwreck is being heavily guarded by the Colombian Navy.