Colombia’s government advances toward salvaging the treasure from the sunken Spanish galleon San Jose.
Sitting at the bottom of the ocean, just off Colombia’s coast, is one of the Western Hemisphere’s richest treasures: a Spanish galleon packed with billions of dollars worth of New World gold, silver and emeralds.
The fight over who will profit from the San Jose shipwreck and its precious cargo thought to be worth between US$4-B and US$17-B has dragged on for almost 40 years during legal challenges and allegations of back-stabbing, international espionage and unbridled greed.
On Monday, barring a last-minute court ruling or additional delays, the Colombian government will announce the name of the company or companies eligible to recover the vessel, and win the right to a significant portion of the San Jose’s riches.
And while the announcement might finally bring the storied ship to the surface after 310 years, the fight over its treasure is far from over.
The latest chapter in the San Jose saga began in Y 2015, when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that a team of international researchers and the Colombian Navy had found the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks a few miles from the coastal city of Cartagena. He said the discovery of the San Jose, sunk by the British in Y 1708, had “enormous archaeological value for Colombia and all of humanity” and said it would be preserved and protected in a specially built museum.
There was 1 cloud over the celebration.
Sea Search Armada (SSA), a salvage company from the US State of Washington, said it had discovered the wreck in Y 1982 and had, as required by law, provided the coordinates to the Colombian government at the time.
From the beginning, SSA was forced to defend its claim from multiple competing interests. And in 2007 Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that the company was entitled to half of all the treasure found at the coordinates it had provided – as long as it wasn’t considered “national patrimony,” such as religious artwork or one-of-a-kind artifacts.
For SSA, that ruling is binding and conclusive.
“We have the ownership rights par excellence,” Danilo Devis, the company’s longtime lawyer, said last week. “There is no authority higher than the Supreme Court, except God.”
The government disagrees.
The Santos administration contends that it found the shipwreck in 2015 independently of SSA’s research, working with international investigators and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In addition, it says the San Jose wasn’t at the coordinates SSA provided 36 years ago, before GPS made underwater mapping a precise science.
“The Colombian government did not use any information that it already had on hand for this new finding,” the Ministry of Culture said in an e-Mail. “We can confirm that the [new] discovery is not at the coordinates provided by SSA in 1982. Once again, the information that SSA is providing is designed to confuse the public.”
The salvage company says it’s the government trying to muddy the waters.
Because of the technological limits of the time, SSA reported the wreck was “in the immediate vicinity” of a spot 21.5 miles (34.6 kilometres) west of the Baru Peninsula.
In Y 2017, it offered to limit its legal claim to an area 36 nautical miles around the coordinates it provided and asked the government for a joint visit to the site to settle the claim.
The administration rejected the offer and said that the only verification it was willing to accept was the exact coordinates provided by SSA.
“The only thing in which the government and SSA have agreed upon, for 35 years, is that there is no shipwreck in the precise coordinates indicated in the report of 1982,” Mr. Devis wrote in a legal brief. “Therefore, it does not make sense to verify some coordinates in which with absolute certainty it is known that there is nothing.”
Adding to the intrigue is how the Colombian government says it found the San Jose.
In radio interviews shortly after the Y 2015 announcement, President Santos said the breakthrough came thanks to a white-bearded foreigner “who looked like Hemingway” and approached him at an embassy reception. The President said the man had been studying the San Jose for 38 years and had created a treasure map based on “previously unknown” information, including wind patterns.
“He’s not a treasure hunter; he’s not after the money,” President Santos said of the man. “He has an affinity for history, archaeology and culture.”
Three years later, Culture Minister Mariana Garces told local radio that the mystery man’s name was Roger Dooley, a renowned underwater archaeologist.
The revelation sent shock waves through SSA.
While SSA spent 2 years and US$11-M to find the site of the wreck in the 1980’s, the government’s team advised by Dooley “rediscovered” the site within weeks of launching their expedition, SSA said.
“How did Roger Dooley find it so fast?” said Mr. Devis, the lawyer. “Because they had our coordinates and the information they had stolen from us, so they were able to find the shipwreck in less than two months.”
In an e-Mail sent through a representative, Mr. Dooley called the allegations “absurd and irresponsible.”
Mr. Dooley said his research into the shipwreck was done in Spain and the United States before Y 2000 before he had contact with Harbeston’s team.
“Discovering the San Jose was the result of an extensive and complex investigative process that relied on multiple factors and sources of information that were exhaustively analysed,” he wrote.
And while he worked as a field archaeologist with IOTA Partners on the Mariana Islands, “SSA had absolutely nothing to do with that contract.”
While President Santos said that Mr. Dooley was “not a treasure hunter,” he very well may reap the benefit of his treasure map.
In March, the government opened bidding for companies willing to participate in a public-private partnership to salvage the vessel.
Under the deal, the contractor will bear the financial burden of the salvage and building a museum in Cartagena to preserve and display the galleon, a cost the government estimates at US$70-M. But the contractor will be entitled to 50% of the treasure not considered “national patrimony,” as determined by the National Council for Cultural Patrimony.
Some archaeologists and historians argue that the vessel and its entire cargo should be considered national heritage and belong in a museum, not broken up to pay for the salvage. But the administration maintains that the contract, which forces the winning bidder to assume the costs of the operation is the only viable way to recover the galleon.
When the San Jose went down, it was carrying 6 years’ worth of accumulated riches gathered from Spanish colonies in Latin America.
While no one is sure of the cargo’s value, a US court estimated it at US$4 to 17-B. Others have said it might be worth as much as $22-B or as little as $1-B.
The company that set the baseline for the public-private partnership, and therefore is the “originator,” or the bidder that all other companies must compete against, is Marine Archeology Consultations (MAC) where Dooley is listed as “lead researcher” and “project coordinator.”
MAC, which is registered in England, could not be reached for comment.
SSA and others complain that while MAC and Mr. Dooley had almost 3 years to fine-tune their bids working hand-in-hand with the government, others were given just 30 days. That deadline was extended multiple times and expires Monday. But by all accounts, MAC is the only company that has submitted a successful bid.
The Ministry of Culture said it could not confirm whether there were any other interested parties until after Monday’s deadline.
Have a terrific week.