At Large  July 14, 2021  Anna Claire Mauney

The Global Battle for the San José—The Holy Grail of Shipwrecks

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Samuel Scott, Wager's Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708, before 1772. Oil on canvas 33.9 x 8.9 in. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Repatriation, particularly of items stolen and plundered during the colonial period, has become a theme of late in the art historical and archaeological worlds. For example, the list of western institutions returning their collections of Benin Bronzes to Africa seems to be growing at a steady pace this year.

The loss of culture experienced by the indigenous peoples of Latin America is perhaps even more poignant due to its irreversibility. Many pre-colonial artworks and objects of the Northwestern region of South America were made from gold and silver, materials once exceedingly plentiful in the area. Because these precious metals were so valuable to Europeans and Spanish colonizers in particular, countless cultural items were seized, shipped to Spain, and melted down—or sometimes lost at sea.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

The gold-laden central altar of the Spanish Cathedral Santiago de Compostela.

The Spanish Galleon San José, which sank off the coast of Colombia in 1708, was rediscovered by Colombian officials in 2015 near Cartagena. For years, the San José was called the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” believed to contain plundered items—primarily gold, silver, and emeralds—worth an estimated $17-22 billion.

Although archaeologists and historians were excited by the news, the question of ownership quickly emerged, with Spain and the United States both attempting to usurp Colombia’s claim.

The means with which the United States attempted to justify its claim date back to the 1980s when the Glocca Mora Company (GMC) began to search for ships off the Colombian coast with the country’s permission. It soon located what was then believed to be the San José.

Colombia, having limited technological and financial resources to do so alone, agreed to give GMC thirty-five percent of the shipwreck’s treasure in exchange for recovery of the site. In 1984, before recovery had begun, GMC handed its rights to the percentage over to an American salvage company, Sea Search Armada (SSA).

This decision led to a drawn-out legal battle involving attempts to foist embargos, pass new laws, and usurp authority. Eventually, Colombia hired the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) to prove the location discovered by GMC and inherited by SSA was not the actual resting site of the San José.

This resulted in the 2015 discovery of the ship's actual location made by a team of international scientists led by Chief Project Archaeologist Roger Dooley. The team worked from a Colombian Navy ship and used an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000 (provided by WHOI) to find and survey shipwreck.

In the meantime, Spain’s attempts to claim ownership of the wreck have been based on San José’s status as a military vessel and the presence of deceased Spainards within the wreckage. The former claim is supported by a United Nations treaty, of which Spain is a signatory but Colombia is not. Spanish officials are also attempting to have UNESCO officials get involved and oversee the site.

As of April 2019, an order issued by the Superior Tribunal of Barranquilla mandated that all attempts to salvage the San José cease until ownership claims have been settled. Until these disputes are resolved, the wreckage remains vulnerable to scavengers and hobbyists.

Since then, little to no progress has been made or shared with the public. These legal matters—which tend to be drawn out at the best of times—have additionally been stalled by the COVID-19 Pandemic, which hit Colombia particularly hard. And in the Spring of 2021, protests against political corruption and police brutality broke out across the country.

According to the local advocacy group Temblores and Human Rights Watch, over a thousand citizens were injured and at least thirty citizens died—more than half killed by police—during protests between April and June of 2021.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Pedro Szekely. License CC-BY-SA-2.0.

Unknown, Muisca Raft, c. 600 - 1600 AD. Gold, silver, and copper. Gold Museum, Bogotá, Colombia.

Like many places and people that were stripped down and held fast by colonization, Colombia is still struggling to emerge from the devastating theft of its resources and culture. Although many believe that this shipwreck would provide invaluable insight into the historical record, fewer feel Colombians are entitled to the ownership of this find. Even if Colombia did win the San José wreck, it would not replace the countless amount of Colombian objects stolen and lives ended by both the Spanish and United States over the centuries.

About the Author

Anna Claire Mauney

Anna Claire Mauney is Managing Editor for Art & Object. A writer and artist living in North Carolina, she is interested in illustration, the 18th-century, and viceregal South America. She is also the co-host of An Obsessive Nature, a podcast about writing and pop culture.

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