6 Dec 2015

Treasure-laden ship found after 300 years

3:16 pm on 6 December 2015

Colombia's government has announced it will build a museum to showcase artefacts found in the wreckage of a Spanish galleon near the Caribbean port of Cartagena.

A painting in the National Maritime Museum, London, depicts the San Jose exploding before it sank off Cartagena in 1708.

A painting in the National Maritime Museum, London, depicts the San Jose exploding before it sank off Cartagena in 1708. Photo: Wikicommons

The San Jose, thought by historians to be laden with emeralds and precious coins, sank in 1708. Its cargo was to be shipped to Spain's king to help finance the war against the British when it was sunk in June 1708.

Described as the holy grail of shipwrecks, it is thought to have been carrying the largest amount of treasure ever lost at sea: gold, silver, gems and jewellery collected in Spain's South American colonies. Their current value is estimated at between $NZ6 and $25 billion.

"Without a doubt, without room for any doubt, we have found, 307 years after it sank, the San Jose galleon," Colombia's president Juan Manuel Santos announced on national television.

The vessel exploded when it was attacked by a British warship 25 kilometres off Cartagena, Colombia, killing up to 600 people on board.

Colombian officials would not reveal the exact whereabouts of the wreck, but Mr Santos said the find "constitutes one of the greatest - if not the biggest, as some say - discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind".

A team of international experts, the Colombian navy and the country's archaeology institute discovered the wreck last week near the island of Baru, the president said.

Sonar images have so far revealed bronze cannons made specifically for the ship, arms, ceramics and other artefacts.

Ceramics found in the wreck of the Spanish galleon San Jose off Colombia's Caribbean coast.

Ceramics found in the wreck of the galleon off Colombia's Caribbean coast. Photo: AFP PHOTO/Culture Ministry

Archaeological excavation and scientific tests on the wreck would continue to ensure it could be properly preserved, Mr Santos said.

Ownership of the galleon and its treasure has been the subject of a long-running legal row between Colombia and Sea Search Armada, a United States-based salvage company which, in 1981, said it had located the area where it sank.

The company and the Colombian government agreed to split any proceeds from the wreckage, but the government later said all treasure would belong to Colombia, a view that was backed by a US court in 2011.

The wreck is reported to fall within the United Nations' definition of an underwater cultural heritage site.

It was unclear how much of the main part of the ship remained, and whether it would be brought to dry land.

The San Jose is one of an estimated over 1000 galleons and merchant ships that sank along Colombia's coral reefs during more than three centuries of colonial rule.

General location of where the San Jose wreckage was found.

General location of where the San Jose wreckage was found. Photo: Google maps

- Reuters / BBC

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