Mother of All Shipwrecks Found

Painting by Samuel Scott of the 1708 ship battle known as Wager’s Action

Off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, lies a shipwreck with treasure worth an estimated $17 billion—more than any ever discovered. The vessel is the San José, a three-masted Spanish galleon that was sunk in 1708 during a battle in the Caribbean with British ships known as Wager’s Action. The San José was the flagship of a Spanish fleet carrying gold, silver, and gems that originated in the Peruvian mines at Potosí. About 600 people perished as the ship sank so fast the British were unable to capture its treasure.

The 62-gun San José went down in the midst of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14). This conflict over the Spanish throne spread around the world to the colonies of the various European powers; in North America, where the British fought the French, it was known as Queen Anne’s War. The shipwreck was first found in 2015, but details of the discovery have only recently come to light. A deep-water diving vehicle was able to capture images of dolphin engravings on the ship’s cannons, thus providing a positive ID of the fabled ship.

The San José’s precise location remains under wraps, kept secret due to a complex legal saga over how to split up the ship’s booty. Ownership of the treasure is claimed by both Colombia and Spain. The eighteenth-century ship was Spain’s, but it now rests in Colombian waters. The marine archaeologists who found the ship have an interest as well, as do the private companies that will salvage the wreck. The search was enabled by the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which developed and operated the REMUS 6000. This unmanned sub had previously helped locate the wreckage of Air France Flight 447, which crashed near Brazil in 2011.

Not only is treasure involved; the shipwreck also consists of cultural and historical artifacts, such as weapons, porcelain vases, and ceramics. The Colombian government plans to house them in a museum specially built for their conservation.

Photo credit: © Christophel Fine Art/UIG/Getty Images

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