Who owns the gold of the San José shipwreck?

Spain and Colombia bicker over 'the holy grail of shipwrecks' as new images of the San José's treasures surface

Action near the coast of Cartagena, where the San José galleon was sunk by the British. Image: Samuel Scott (Wikimedia) CC-BY-SA-3.0

Gold coins, emeralds, cannons, and a Chinese dinner service: the footage published by Colombian naval officers reveals a portion of the treasures of the famous San José galleon shipwreck. Divers also found two other shipwrecks near the famous vessel, which was sunk by British warships in 1708 off the coast of Colombia. But as the images show a glimmer of what has been claimed to be the ‘holy grail of shipwrecks’, Spanish and Colombian officials are trying to claim ownership of the vessels and their treasures.

The discovery of the San José galleon in 2015 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was spectacular, to say the least. During its final voyage, the 62-gun galleon carried over 200 tons of gems and precious goods at the time, making it one of the largest amounts of valuables ever to have been lost at sea. Since the ship belonged to the Spanish navy at the time, Spain claims ownership of the wreck and its content. However, Colombia claims to have discovered the wreckage nearly 30 years before WHOI’s announcement. So who actually owns a historic shipwreck?

Clear convention

To answer the difficult question of ownership and shipwrecks, UNESCO developed a convention in 2001, security management news magazine ASIS reported. The convention should create more international cooperation when it comes to protecting and managing cultural heritage. In practice, this means that states must report discoveries and any activities at underwater cultural heritage sites by vessels under their protection. States must also notify UNESCO and the area’s secretary-general of the International Seabed Authority of these discoveries and activities. Then, states can make their interest known and work together on protecting or salvaging shipwrecks. A watertight system, in theory.

In reality, the convention is less effective. Whilst countries such as Spain have signed the decree, nations such as the United States and Colombia have refused to sign it. This makes it difficult to determine who is responsible for the security of the site, and who gets to manage it. As looting and destruction of underwater sites have increased according to UNESCO, protection, conservation and above all research need to be put first. That can only be done when all states involved are willing to cooperate closely.

One of the two newly discovered shipwrecks near the San José galleon. Image: BBC

Finders keepers?

For Spain, the answer to the question of ownership is crystal clear. It stated that the sunken wreck belongs to them and UNESCO should oversee the heritage site, the BBC reported. Since the San José was part of the Spanish navy in the 18th century, it is a so-called “ship of the state.” This means that the ship and its contents are protected and owned by the Spanish state, according to United Nations regulations. Another reason to assign the wreck to Spain is the presence of around 570 deceased crew members. These are Spanish citizens and they should be respected, Spain argues.

However, Colombia points toward the old maritime law that can best be described as “Finders Keepers.” If a man-made object is abandoned by its owner, the first finder can claim ownership. However, determining whether an object is abandoned purposefully is difficult to establish. Since Colombia has not disclosed where the shipwreck exactly is – to not attract potential looters and thieves – it is also difficult to determine whether the vessel is even in Colombian waters at all.

Heritage experts and archaeologists point out that clarity about who owns or manages a site is vital for its protection and value as a heritage site. “We’re not thinking about the treasure—the silver, gold, and emeralds”, said ASIS International Cultural Properties Council member Ricardo Sanz Marcos. “We’re thinking about the trace of our history, the trace of commerce of our people during thousands of years. This is a huge problem, and the only solution is for a team of countries with resources to work together to protect it.”

Among the wrecks coins, valuable metals and stones were found as well. Image: BBC

Cooperation needed

It’s far from the first time a shipwreck has caused such legal battles, but there are also plenty of cases where states come to an agreement fairly quickly. For example, the discovery of a 17th-century Dutch military vessel near the coast of Trinidad and Tobago in 2014 raised similar questions as the San José find. The Dutch state made arrangements with Trinidad and a local museum, de Erfgoedstem reported.

Contacts with local museums and experts are key, said a spokesperson of the Dutch State Service for Cultural Heritage at the time. “We have concluded a treaty with Australia, for example, which states that any Dutch ships in their waters will automatically fall under the management of the Australian government. So we always try to work it out together. So far it has gone well.”

Below the surface

Whether Colombia or Spain will win the legal battle, the remains of San José and two other vessels will remain objects of interest for researchers. Apart from the treasures of the San José, the footage filmed at the sites showed a colonial boat and a schooner thought to be from around the same period as Colombia’s war for independence from Spain, some 200 years ago.

“We now have two other discoveries in the same area, that show other options for archaeological exploration,” navy commander Admiral Gabriel Pérez said to the BBC. “So the work is just beginning.”

Sources: ASIS, BBC, Erfgoedstem