Photograph by Holger Bennewitz, Reuters, Corbis
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The discovery of the infamous pirate Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, off the coast of North Carolina grabbed worldwide interest in 2011. In this photo, a one-ton cannon from the Queen Anne’s Revenge is hauled out of the water.

Photograph by Holger Bennewitz, Reuters, Corbis

Battle Begins Over World's Richest Shipwreck

A fight over the San Jose's treasure involves Colombia, a U.S. company, and the history of Spanish colonialism.

The discovery of the San Jose shipwreck has all the elements of a great drama: international political intrigue, a treasure of gold and emeralds worth up to $17 billion, and now, accusations of lies and treachery.

The Colombian government announced in early December that they had found the San Jose, an 18th-century Spanish galleon that may be the most valuable shipwreck ever discovered. A U.S.-based salvage company, Sea Search Armada, immediately staked a claim, saying they had found the ship and registered its location in 1982. Now, Colombia has offered to allow the company to verify whether the San Jose is where the company said it was 33 years ago.

But Sea Search Armada (SSA) officials think the offer is a scheme, meant to provide Colombian officials an excuse to dismiss their longstanding claim to share the immense wealth of the San Jose, which sank just off the Colombian coast three centuries ago.

In a letter Wednesday, Colombia’s Minister of Culture Mariana Garces-Cordoba said that the San Jose is not where the company claimed to have found it in 1982. SSA managing director Jack Harbeston provided an English translation of the letter to National Geographic.

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Coins such as these Spanish 8-reales coins—better known as “pieces of eight"—have been brought up from shipwrecks and sold by salvagers. But some think that the days of treasure hunting are past, and that shipwrecks should be left undisturbed as cultural heritage sites.

In it, the minister invites the salvage company, accompanied by Colombian officials, to go to the 1982 coordinates to see if the San Jose is there. If the galleon is found at the exact coordinates registered in 1982, Garces-Cordoba writes, the Colombian government will recognize SSA’s claim to a portion of the San Jose’s treasure.

“In the absence of any shipwreck within the aforementioned coordinates, we will end this matter,” concludes the English translation of Garces-Cordoba’s letter, which was sent to SSA’s attorney in Colombia, Danilo Devis Pereira.

But here's the catch: The 1980s technology used to record the wreck's longitude and latitude was less precise than today's global positioning systems. Harbeston said SSA’s predecessor, the Glocca Morra Company, spent $10 million (more than $24 million in 2015 dollars) to find the San Jose.

David Moore, Curator of Nautical Archaeology at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, said landmarks plotted by modern GPS may be as much as one-eighth of a mile from where they were plotted with earlier technology. Moore said other factors such as the depth of water and ocean currents can affect where an underwater landmark is plotted.

In her letter, Garces-Cordoba says that the San Jose is not where SSA said it was in 1982. But to protect the site, no one is disclosing its coordinates.

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This gold bar was found aboard the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank during a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. It was sold at auction in New York earlier this year.

Harbeston said he thinks that Colombian officials couldn’t have determined that the San Jose was not at the 1982 coordinates without violating an order from their own courts not to visit the wreck site until the ownership dispute is resolved.

Harbeston said the salvage company has “no intention of lending credence to the Government of Colombia’s mendacity by accepting such terms.” SSA will not send an expedition unless Colombian officials also allow them to search the area immediately adjacent to the 1982 coordinates, he said.

Treasure Ships

The international squabble over the riches of the San Jose is only one episode in humankind’s ceaseless effort to possess the earth’s riches.

For the past few hundred years, many quests to find and raise treasure have focused on Spanish-built ships that hauled the immense wealth of the New World across the Atlantic Ocean, where it often was used to finance European wars.

Hurricanes and naval battles sank many treasure-laden Spanish ships to the ocean floor.

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Treasure hunter Mel Fisher, left, hoists a glass as his son Kane Fisher lifts a bar of silver above his head on July 21, 1985. Fisher found a sunken treasure near the Florida Keys and fought to keep it. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor.

In 1622, a storm sank the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita near the present-day Florida Keys. In 1985, treasure hunter Mel Fisher found the ships, sparking a long legal battle for salvage rights that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fisher’s attorney, David Paul Horan of Key West, convinced the justices that Fisher was entitled to his discovery.

Fisher’s Supreme Court victory prompted the U.S. Congress to enact the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, which gave states ownership of sunken ships found in their waters.

Another hurricane in 1715 scattered a Spanish treasure fleet for miles along the Florida coast near present-day Fort Pierce. Today, beachcombers still occasionally find a Spanish coin in the sand.

Tale of the San Jose

A British warship sank the San Jose in 1708 as the galleon tried to reach the safety of the harbor of Cartagena. The San Jose had been loaded with gold and emeralds at Portobelo, in present-day Panama.

The treasure was intended for France, which was allied with Spain in the War of Spanish Succession. King Louis IV of France intended to use the wealth to help his grandson, King Philip V of Spain, in his fight against Great Britain.

The San Jose carried the wealth of several present South American nations, including Peru and Bolivia. Harbeston thinks the governments of those nations, and possibly others, will make claims to the treasure. Spanish officials also are discussing the wreck with Colombian officials.

The long debate about who has rights to the San Jose also pits traditional beliefs and customs about discovery and salvage against contemporary attitudes. Charles Beeker, Director of Underwater Science at Indiana University, thinks claims of ownership by right of discovery are outdated.

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Exploration by underwater robots capable of diving to great depths have sparked a debate about whether shipwrecks should be left undisturbed. This photo, made by a robot, shows the interior of a first class cabin in the shipwrecked R.M.S. Titanic

Such sites represent the colonization of the New World, and the wealth should go back to the nations from which it came, Beeker said.

“They’re underwater cultural heritage sites of world importance,” he said.

Horan, the Key West attorney, said he thinks the San Jose dispute eventually will reach a negotiated settlement. “When you’ve got $16 billion, why don’t you just go ahead and settle?” Horan said.

But Horan and others know that common sense often disappears when treasure is found on the ocean floor.

Horan said he’s seen sober, sophisticated business people “just lose their minds” when they get a whiff of treasure.

EXCLUSIVE: Did This Shipwreck Change the Course of History?

WATCH: Another well-preserved shipwreck discovered earlier this year near Cartagena, Colombia, could be from the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741.

People who are friends at the start of a salvage project sometimes undergo profound changes, said the North Carolina Maritime Museum’s Moore.

“The first time a gold bar or coin comes up, people start talking behind other people’s backs, doors are closed, there are secret meetings,” Moore said. “It’s amazing how treasure fever works.”

North Carolina author Willie Drye’s new book, For Sale-American Paradise, was published by Lyons Press.