Colombia finds treasure galleon, ending 300-year mystery

Remains of the Spanish galleon San Jose which sunk off the Caribbean coast of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Remains of the Spanish galleon San Jose which sunk off the Caribbean coast of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.PHOTO: AFP

CARTAGENA, Colombia (AFP) - Colombia says it has found the shipwreck of a storied Spanish galleon laden with gold and precious stones, three centuries after it was sunk by the British in the Caribbean.

"This is the most valuable treasure that has been found in the history of humanity," declared President Juan Manuel Santos on Saturday (Dec 5), speaking from the northern port city of Cartagena, close to where experts made the hugely valuable find.

Treasure hunters had searched for the ship for decades, and although they found plenty of other wrecks, the San Jose's final resting place had remained a mystery until now.

The San Jose was sunk in June 1708 near the Islas del Rosario, off Colombia's Caribbean coast, during combat with British ships attempting to take its cargo, part of the War of Spanish Succession.

The galleon was the main ship in a treasure fleet carrying gold, silver and other valuable items from Spain's American colonies to King Philip V.

Only a handful of the ship's crew of 600 survived when the San Jose sank.

A team of Colombian and foreign researchers, including a veteran of the group that discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, studied winds and currents of the Caribbean 307 years ago and delved into colonial archives in Spain and Colombia searching for clues.

Experts confirmed that they found the San Jose on Nov 27 "in a place never before referenced by previous research," Santos said.

At least five other shipwrecks were found when searching the ocean floor.

The experts confirmed that they located the San Jose, which was lying on its side, because the ship was carrying unique bronze cannons with engraved dolphins.

"The amount and type of the material leave no doubt of the identity" of the shipwreck, said Ernesto Montenegro, head of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History.

A US company, the Sea Search Armada, claimed to have earlier found the wreck, but the find was not confirmed and a legal dispute broke out with the government over ownership rights that was ultimately resolved in a US court in Colombia's favor.

There could be up to 1,000 shipwrecks off the Caribbean coast of Colombia, but of those only between six and 10 had large treasure cargos, anthropologist Fabian Sanabria told AFP.

The biggest find, and the most sought after, was the San Jose, Sanabria said.

The discovery "is an unprecedented event for the country," said Cartagena Mayor Dionisio Velez.