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stepping stones of maritime history


The San José was a 64 gun, galleon of the Spanish Armada de la Guardia de la Carrera de las Indias. In 1697 two ships where built simultaneously. The sister ships named San José and San Joaquín.

In 1708 San José sailed as the flagship of part of Spanish treasure fleet composed of three warships and 14 merchant vessels from Portobelo, Panama, to Cartagena (Colombia). Before going to Havana meeting the ships from Mexico and sail in convoy to Spain.

Wager's Action
On 8 June 1708, the fleet encountered a British squadron near Barú, leading to a battle known as Wager's Action. During the battle, the powder magazines of San José detonated, destroying and sinking the ship with most of her crew and the gold, silver, emeralds and jewelry. Of the 600 people aboard, only 11 survived.


Built: Shipyard in Mapil (Euskadia) Construction started in 1697 and ended in 1698. Twin ships where built simultaneously. Named San José and San Joaquín.

MasterJosé Fernández de Santillán


The enormous value of the cargo (estimated at about $1 billion U.S.) has led to San José being called the Holy Grail of Shipwrecks.

Salvage controverse
In 1981 a group of investors from the USA; the Glocca Mora Co. . Later operating unter the name 'Sea Search Armada' (SSA), claimed to have found the shipwreck off the coast of Colombia. They offered the Colombian authorities to sign a salvage contract at a 65% - 35% share. The government refused and did not give SSA permission to conduct salvage operations.
The Colombian parliament then passed a law giving the state the right to all of the treasure, leaving SSA with a 5% finder's fee (which was to be taxed at 45%) In turn SSA sued Colombia in court in 1989. The controverse dragged for years and years. In July 2007 (!), the Supreme Court of Colombia concluded that any treasure recovered would be split equally between the Colombian government and the explorers.

Sea Search Armada subsequently sued in United States courts, but the case was dismissed twice, in 2011 and 2015 on technical grounds. The galleon was declared the property of the Colombian state. At this point The Colombian government declined to verify that the galleon was at the coordinates stated by the SSA.

Colombian Ministry of Culture

In November 2015, the Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC) survey team and WHOI researchers returned to Colombian waters for a second search effort. Side scan sonar images gave the crew the first indications of the find from of the wreck. To confirm the wreck’s identity, REMUS descended to just 30 feet above the wreck where it was able to capture photos of a key distinguishing feature of the San José—its cannons. 

Found again
And then on 27 November 2015, the galleon San José was claimed found in a different location by the Colombian Navy. The discovery was made using a REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle. From the dive photographs, Colombian marine archaeologists have identified San José.

Whose wreck?
Colombia has claimed the galleon as part of its submerged patrimony; thus, it is constitutionally obliged to protect and preserve the ship and all of its sunken contents.

But there are more contesters in the claim. As we saw the SSA investing group was rebucked. But also Spain is involved. Courts interpreting international law have ruled in the past that warships lost at sea, as the San Jose was, remain the property of the nation whose flag they were flying. Such a ship may not be disturbed without the consent of the nation that owned it when it sank.

The wealth aboard the San Jose resulted from the “conquest of the Americas,” All this precious cargo was taken away from the indigenous people. The silver was mined in Potosi Bolivia. Indigenous groups and local descendants of Afro-Caribbean communities argue they are entitled to reparations because their ancestors mined the treasure.

Colombian Ministry of Culture

The opinion of some marine archaeologists is different. Instead of moving the vessel, Ricardo Borrero, a nautical archaeologist in Bogotásaid argues, the San José should be left intact on the seafloor, where it presents an opportunity for researchers to examine a prime example of globalization.


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