Jun 20, 2024, 06:28AM

A Sleek Banana

Salvaging an 18th-century ship from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.

Wager s action off cartagena  28 may 1708.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Isla Baru, off Cartagena, Columbia isn’t an island. It’s a peninsula, with some beautiful beaches. If you took a beach day there on June 8, 1708, (it was a Friday), you got to witness a battle called the Wager’s Action, after British Admiral Charles Wager. He brought home so much valuable capture that he was knighted, and later elected to Parliament. The four British ships in the battle were surely after the money and jewels on their opponent Spanish ships, but the fight was more about shipping lanes and England remaining the dominant force on the ocean between the Americas and Europe.

Spain’s vessel, the San Joaquin, was able to sail away from the British boats. Later that night the smaller Santa Cruz was overtaken by the Brits, but the real prize was the San Jose, which carried the most loot. The estimated cargo onboard the San Jose was about 10 million pesos, as well as jewels and ore. The San Jose had 64 guns, and engaged in battle with the Expedition, until the San Jose exploded and sank, killing 600 crew, leaving only 11 survivors. The remains of the San Jose sit at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea with treasure that’s estimated to be worth at least $10 billion.

Legal arguments about the ownership of the San Jose and its cargo heated up in 1981. An American group, doing business as Sea Search Armada, said they’d found the precise location of the ship, and three years later claimed they had an agreement with the government of Columbia for rights to the treasure, in return for salvaging the ship. Columbia changed their laws and said they owned everything, given that the wreckage was in Columbian waters. Sea Search Armada sued in 1989, holding that the new laws were unconstitutional. They won their suit in the Columbian Supreme Court, but the country still refused them access to the wreck. After the law change, the new deal said Sea Search was entitled to only five percent of the recoverable finds, and that those would be taxed at a 45 percent rate.

The lawyers continued billing and collecting. In 1994, the Circuit Court of Barranquilla ruled for a 50/50 split between Columbia and Sea Search Armada. Thirteen years later, the Columbian Supreme court upheld that decision as correct. If things weren’t convoluted enough, somewhere in that intervening time, Columbia’s said to have made another deal with Sweden to recover the treasure. Sweden?

In 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Columbia owned items of “national cultural patrimony.” In 2015, Columbia’s president challenged Sea Search’s location of the ship. He said that an expedition between his government’s navy, a British group and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution had found—and photographed—items that could be verified as the San Jose.

Woods Hole has looked underwater, all over the world, for a long time. They’re probably best known for being officially credited with finding the Titanic in 1985. They’re the pioneers and leaders of AUVs, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles. Their craft REMUS 6000 found the San Jose in November of 2015. (REMUS is Remote Environmental Monitoring Units). The craft looks like a sleek banana, painted bright yellow, about 12 feet in length. It uses side-scan sonar to search the seas. The San Jose was definitively identified when the REMUS took pictures of its cannons on the ocean floor, which were headed with dolphins, sort of a San Jose trademark.

Gustavo Petro, Columbia’s President, has ordered that the ship be salvaged, and has committed approximately $4.5 million to do so. It’s Columbia’s intention to use robots to gather items from the sea floor, and also establish a museum to show the artifacts. Spain says it has rights to the galleon, since it was theirs, to begin with. There are Bolivian people who say they should be the rightful owners, because the treasure collected by the San Jose came from Bolivia. But it also came from Peru. Then, there are the indigenous people in Columbia who insist they should be the owners, as their ancestors were enslaved to mine the gold and silver onboard the ship. That’s what happens when there’s $10 billion at stake.


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