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The search for an 18th-century Spanish ship, considered the "holy grail" of shipwrecks, may start in April.

Possible rewording: The search for an 18th-century Spanish ship, considered the “holy grail” of shipwrecks, may start in April.


Ever since the Colombian navy uncovered the ultimate destination of the Spanish ship San José in 2015, the spot has been kept confidential by the government. The remains of the ship, along with its valuable cargo, have been left buried beneath the depths of the Caribbean Ocean.

Attempts to preserve the vessel and retrieve its valuable contents have become entangled in a complex web of global legal conflicts, involving Colombia, Spain, indigenous groups from Bolivia, and a US salvage corporation vying for ownership of the sunken ship and its estimated $17 billion worth of gold, silver, and emeralds.

Colombia attempted to sell a portion of the treasure in order to cover the immense expenses of salvaging the ship, but Unesco and the national courts intervened.

After eight years since its discovery, officials have announced that they are setting aside political considerations and are preparing to retrieve artifacts from the famous shipwreck known as the “holy grail”. The process is expected to start as early as April.

“We have often seen the galleon as a mere source of riches, but we are looking to change that mindset,” expressed Alhena Caicedo, the director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History. “Our focus is not on the treasure, but on uncovering the valuable historical and archaeological knowledge at the location.”

Cannon from the San José.View image in fullscreen

In 1708, a British squadron sunk the San José, a ship returning to Europe with treasures intended to finance the Spanish succession war. This happened near the Caribbean port city of Cartagena.

According to historians, the remains could provide insight into the thriving Spanish empire and the intertwined histories of Europe and Latin America.

In the future, Caicedo’s group aspires to lift the wreckage and exhibit it in a specially designed museum. Visitors will have the opportunity to uncover and discover all the mysteries of the ocean floor, according to Caicedo.

However, as the excursion progresses in examining the location, the magnitude and intricacy of the task are becoming clearer.

Only a handful of vessels, such as the San José, have been successfully retrieved, with none being salvaged from warm tropical waters before.

Caicedo acknowledged that this is a considerable undertaking, and that there is not a lot of past experience to draw from. In essence, they are trailblazers.

The best comparison would likely be to the Mary Rose, the lead ship in King Henry VIII’s fleet that went under in 1545 during a battle with the French fleet near Portsmouth.

The remains of the 16th-century ship were investigated by numerous divers, several of whom were unpaid, over a ten-year period before being meticulously raised in 1981. The portion of the ship’s hull that is still intact is currently exhibited in a museum worth £35m ($45m).

Contents of the San José shipwreck.View image in fullscreen

The Colombian navy has been researching the Mary Rose and other marine conservation initiatives to determine the best way to raise and preserve the 40-meter-long ship and its contents without causing them to deteriorate.

Ann Coats, an associate professor in maritime heritage at the University of Portsmouth, described the San José as an exceptional vessel on par with the Mary Rose due to its advanced technology and construction during its active service.

“The San José has the potential to provide answers to numerous questions!”

The cargo on the San José contains glassware, porcelain, and leather items. Historians are eager to use this treasure to gain insight into the trade networks of the 18th century, Spain’s intricate colonial system, and the experiences of the 600 individuals aboard the ship.

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Although the Mary Rose was submerged in cold ocean waters, the San José sank in warmer, deep waters that may have been damaging to the ship. As a result, retrieving it could potentially be one of the most difficult and expensive operations in history.

“I am uncertain about how the remains will respond to oxygen since the contents are quite diverse. It is not yet determined if it is feasible to retrieve an item from the water,” Caicedo stated.

The exact spot of the wreck is classified in order to safeguard it from thieves. However, Colombian officials have disclosed that it lies at a depth of 600 meters (2,000ft) below the surface of the sea, making it unreachable for divers.

The military of the nation is currently working on creating underwater robots that will initially capture photographs, videos, and map out the wreckage before cautiously attempting to recover it.

The amount that can be saved from the sunken wreck will vary greatly due to various factors. These factors include currents, water temperature, the type of sediment the wreck is buried in, the manner in which the ship’s 60 bronze cannons sank to the bottom of the sea, and the marine life that currently inhabits the area, according to Alex Hildred, who oversees the research program for the Mary Rose.

Hildred mentions that the ship was also intentionally burned. She explains that moving and converting it into a museum will be extremely tough, costly, and arduous. Additionally, there are many people who are interested in claiming a share of the ship, making it a difficult situation.

The vessel’s international connections mean that historical research has until now been halted by international litigation over who is its rightful owner.

Despite being located in the waters of Colombia, Spain maintains that the San José belonged to the Spanish fleet and was journeying back from territory that was under Spanish rule at the time.

SSA, a salvage company in the US, has been in a legal dispute with Colombia over the location of the San José, which sunk in 1981. SSA claims that Colombia had agreed to share any profits, but a US court ruled in 2011 that the galleon belonged to Colombia.

Native groups in Bolivia have expressed their right to any potential riches, stating that their predecessors are probably responsible for the mining of valuable silver and gold found in various treasures.

The government’s self-funded efforts for the initial phase of exploration in Colombia, totaling $7.3 million, have been confirmed by the country’s Ministry of Culture. In 2018, despite pleas from UNESCO, no valuable artifacts will be sold.

According to Coats, the San José’s story has always been overshadowed by money. The British’s desire to capture it was motivated by their desire to withhold money from Spain. Furthermore, the search for the wreck was largely motivated by the money on board. However, disputes have hindered proper study of the ship. Coats expresses a hope that for once, money will not be the driving force and that a collaboration focused on understanding the ship’s cultural significance can take place.

Source: theguardian.com