From 1566 until 1790, the Spanish Empire operated a massive system of globe-spanning sea routes which linked Spain with territorial holdings in the so-called New World. These routes carried a wide variety of cargo and trade goods to and from Seville, traveling to places as diverse and distant as Antwerp, Mozambique, India, Manila, Nagasaki, and numerous points throughout South and Central America.
Known in Spain as the Flota de Indias, this convoy system was often called the “Spanish treasure fleet,” the “West Indies Fleet,” of simply the “silver fleet,” due to the large amount of gold, silver, and jewels that were ferried from South America to Spanish coffers. Between 1701 and 1715, this series of sea routes was an important element of the War of Spanish Succession, which gripped the empire following the death of the childless Charles II, the last Habsburg ruler of Spain.
With no clear line of descent, Philip of Anjou and Charles of Austria, both relatively distant relations, declared themselves King of Spain upon his demise, kicking off a war that lasted more than a decade. Philip was technically on the throne at the time, backed by his grandfather, Louis XIV of France, but many throughout Europe backed Charles’ claim, in part because they feared what it would mean for the rest of Europe if France and Spain were to unify.
This is why, when the San José headed to the port of Cartagena off the coast of present-day Colombia in 1708, it was attacked by a squadron of British ships, led by Charles Wager. The San José was part of a fleet of 18 ships, most of which were merchant vessels. Of the three galleons, all were loaded with treasure from South America, bound for the coffers of King Philip, to help with the Franco-Spanish war effort, which the British forces opposed.
Though they were outnumbered nearly four to one, the British squadron was made up of ships of the line, while the Spanish fleet was mostly smaller merchant vessels. As such, the Brits managed to win the day, though they only captured one of the three Spanish galleons. While the Santa Cruz was taken, the San Joaquin escaped and made it safely to Cartagena. The San José was not so lucky.
Thought to be the most heavily laden of the three treasure ships, the San José was very nearly boarded by the British sailors. After more than an hour of fierce combat, with less than 60 meters left to close between the two ships, the powder magazine of the San José blew up. The resulting explosion sank the ship and took most of her crew along to a watery grave. Of more than 600 sailors on board, only 11 survived.
The cargo of the San José when it sank was an indeterminate number of gold and silver coins, emeralds, and jewelry taken from South America and bound for the coffers of Spain. The estimates of how much money may have gone down with the ship range from $4 billion in today’s dollars to as much as $17 billion. Regardless, the vast quantity of treasure carried to the bottom by the flaming wreck has made the San José known as the “Holy Grail of Shipwrecks.”
At least, it was until 1981, when a group of investors operating under the name Sea Search Armada claimed to have found the wreck off the Colombian coast. When the group had gained permission from the Colombian government to search the continental shelf for shipwrecks, they had agreed to a split in which Colombia would own 65% of any treasure recovered, and SSA would get 35%. However, once SSA announced that they had found the San José, things quickly entered a deadlock.
The specifics of the legal wrangling that followed are foggy, but by around 1984, the Colombian parliament had passed a new law giving the state the right to any treasure found in its waters, leaving Sea Search Armada with a mere 5% finder’s fee—which they proposed to tax at 45%.
While even 5% of the wealth supposedly contained in the wreck of the San José would still be a princely sum to many of us, deep sea salvage is an expensive business, and it certainly wasn’t what Sea Search Armada had in mind. They sued in Colombian courts, and the law was struck down as unconstitutional in 1994. However, in 2023, there has still been no full salvage operation on the wreck of the San José, and the current status of Sea Search Armada and their claims against the Colombian government are unclear.
In fact, it’s not even known for certain whether SSA ever actually located the wreck of the San José or not. In 2015, the Colombian Navy confirmed it had located the wreck, and the first photographs of it were taken by a REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle. The Colombian government has declared the wreck a “national treasure,” and its precise location is considered a state secret. However, organizations like SSA aren’t the only ones who want in on the loot.
Because the San José was part of the Spanish armada, Spain considers the undersea shipwreck to be Spanish property. Meanwhile, the treasure on board was taken from nations across South America, many of whom also want to be involved in its dispensation, if any is ever recovered. And rights to the loot once carried by the San José aren’t the only impediments to a salvage operation.
With more than 500 dead sailors amid the treasure, “It makes it very touchy,” according to Justin Leidwanger, a professor who specializes in maritime archaeology, “because one is not supposed to intervene in war graves. Can you pluck treasure off the seabed without disturbing a war grave? I doubt you can. But these are the sort of discussions that will be had.”
Regardless of who reaps the benefit or how it is handled, the discovery of the San José is of historic importance for the world—and punctures the dreams of many an amateur treasure hunter, who hoped to one day be the one to find the “Holy Grail of Shipwrecks.”