For over three centuries, a Spanish galleon known as the “holy grail” of shipwrecks for its cache of spectacular treasure rested untraced at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. Then in 2014, the Colombian government announced it had found the San José under roughly 2,000 feet of water with assistance from British experts and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). By March 2024, the government announced a plan to begin lifting the treasures and what remains of the wreck from the seafloor

While the San José has become the focus of international wrangling over ownership of its cache of gold, silver and emeralds worth almost $20 billion, historians are interested to learn more about the early 18th-century battle that sunk the ship—and the 600 souls who perished on board.

Drafted Into the War of the Spanish Succession

The San José was a 64-gun, three-masted, three-decked galleon, about 128 feet in length and 40 feet across the beam, built and launched in San Sebastián in the Basque Country in 1698. According to Ann Coats, associate professor of maritime history at the University of Portsmouth in England, the second deck would have been devoted to armaments, testament to the fact that, at that time, the lines between merchant ships and naval vessels were blurred.

“Because they were carrying such valuable cargo, they would be carrying a lot of ordnance as well,” says Coats.  “They would often be accompanied by naval escorts, but they themselves were well-armed.”

Within two years of being launched, the San José became drafted into conflict during the War of the Spanish Succession, which was sparked when King Charles II of Spain died childless in 1700. The vacuum resulted in two competing claimants to the throne: Philip of Anjou, a grandson of Louis XIV of France who was backed by France; and Archduke Charles of Austria, who was supported by an alliance including the Holy Roman Empire, the Dutch Republic and Great Britain.

While nominally about who should sit on the Spanish throne, the conflict was more about control of shipping routes, explains Coats.

“Britain and her allies wanted to curb the power of the French and Bourbons,” she says. “Britain's Royal Navy needed to control the Atlantic to protect its merchant trade coming back from the Americas.”

The war ended in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht, but the San José did not survive to see its conclusion. On the afternoon of June 8, 1708, it was anchored off Isla de Barú, Colombia, part of a treasure fleet that had traded for vast amounts of riches that it was preparing to bring home to Spain, when a squadron of four British ships closed in. Fighting began between one of the British ships, the Kingston, and the San José’s sister ship, the San Joaquín, but after two hours, the San Joaquín was able to escape without surrendering its bounty.

the San José
public domain
A Samuel Scott painting, “Wager’s Action Off Cartagena,” shows an attack on the San José.

Explosion Sends Treasure to Sea Bottom

The San José then came under fire from the largest of the British ships, the Expedition; after an hour of engagement, the Expedition was closing in and preparing to board when an explosion suddenly ripped through the Spanish vessel.

Within minutes, the San José had perished, taking all but 11 of its passengers and crew to a watery grave.

If the engagement was a disaster for the Spanish, it wasn’t exactly an overwhelming victory for Britain, either. The goal had been to not just deny the treasure to Philip and Spain, but to bring it home to England and Queen Anne. Instead, the only booty the British fleet seized was a nominal amount on board a third Spanish ship, the Santa Cruz. The captains of the Kingston and another British ship, the Portland, were later court-martialed for allowing the San Joaquín to escape.

Multiple Claims to the San José's Treasure

The wreck and its treasures have for years been at the center of a multi-pronged legal dispute between Colombia, a private company that claims to have discovered the wreckage first, the governments of Spain and Peru, and the descendants of the indigenous Bolivian Qhara Qhara people and enslaved African workers in New Granada, who were forced to mine the precious metals on board the ship.

The dispute is driven by the immense value of the treasure the San José was carrying. But for historians such as Coats, who is a part of a research project called Unpath’d Waters that aims to connect maritime collections around the world digitally “to involve new audiences in the richness of shipwreck stories,” the true value of the wreck is in the light it may be able to shed on those who built the San José and sailed on it.

“By just looking at the hull, you can tell how the ship has been built,” she explained. "Obviously, lots of internal timber would have survived. And there would have been personal objects belonging to the passengers, which reveal their social status:  things like their crockery, their jewelry, their clothing.”

Colombia’s own Minister of Culture has declared that “the history is the treasure,” and although there are 20 billion reasons to feel otherwise, it is a sentiment that Coats endorses.

“The importance of the San Jose is not about financial wealth, it’s about cultural wealth,” she stresses—and the light it can shine on those who met their doom on a sunny evening more than 300 years ago.

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