June 8, 1708 the rely of Casa Alegre knew a squadron of English warships was lurking within the space, however he thought he might keep away from it. As captain of the Spanish galleon San José, he was charged with main the Tierra Firma fleet from the Caribbean again to Spain, 17 ships in all, loaded with a number of years’ value of treasure from the New World, sufficient maybe to show the tide of struggle in Europe. Casa Alegre had little question the English could be after the valuable cargo. If he might attain the harbor of Cartagena de Indias, on the coast of what’s now Colombia, the fleet could be secure.
Then they appeared on the horizon to the north. 4 English sails. To offer the fleet’s service provider ships an opportunity to achieve the harbor, Casa Alegre had no alternative however to show and combat. He hoisted the purple battle flag up the mainmast and sailed towards the enemy, accompanied by two armed galleons.
As in a bar brawl, the 2 most fearsome combatants sought one another out. At sundown, the 70-gun HMS Expedition, helmed by Commodore Charles Wager, took on the 62-gun San José. For greater than an hour, they traded broadsides, crusing previous one another whereas firing their cannons at shut vary, pulverizing wooden and bone.
What occurred subsequent is unclear. Night time had fallen, and the air was thick with smoke and the scent of gunpowder. Bellowed instructions, screams of agony, and bursts of cannon fireplace resonated throughout the water. The English heard a strong explosion from deep inside the San José and felt the warmth of the blast. A hearth broke out on the ship, and shortly the Spanish facet went silent. By the point the smoke cleared, the galleon was gone. All that was left was a area of flotsam onto which fewer than a dozen younger sailors clung for all times.
It had sunk in a matter of minutes. Wager didn’t think about the battle a victory however a devastating failure. Because the flagship, the San José carried much more silver, gold, emeralds, and pearls than any of the service provider vessels. Wager’s prize had slipped his grasp, and its treasure now gilded the seabed at unknowable depths, together with the our bodies of Casa Alegre and virtually 600 of his males.
Within the three centuries since, the San José has develop into a delusion. Its legend is constructed upon gold, which doesn’t oxidize. A gold coin will shine as brightly after 500 years on the ocean flooring because the day it was minted. So too within the creativeness. The luster of gold from the New World entranced explorers from Columbus to Hernán Cortés, who is claimed to have advised Montezuma’s messenger, “I and my companions endure from a illness of the center which might solely be cured with gold.” That craving didn’t abate with time. In Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love within the Time of Cholera, the lovelorn protagonist, Florentino Ariza, is stricken with “an amazing need to salvage the sunken treasure [of the San José] in order that Fermina Daza”—his beloved—“might bathe in showers of gold.” Colombia’s most celebrated creator, García Márquez valued the treasure at “5 hundred billion pesos within the forex of the day,” a magical realist embellishment.
Since no full manifest exists, historians can solely guess on the quantity of silver and gold cash the galleon carried on its last voyage, together with contraband: maybe 7 million to 12 million pesos, believed by many to be value greater than $10 billion in at present’s cash.
Frequently known as the Holy Grail of shipwrecks, the San José had been the item of a number of in depth searches over the a long time, changing into solely extra legendary the longer it remained undiscovered. After which, on December 4, 2015, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos despatched the next tweet:
Nice information: We discovered the galleon San José! Tomorrow I’ll give the small print at a press convention from Cartagena.
The following day, on the naval base in Cartagena, an exultant Santos touted the invention as one of the crucial essential “within the historical past of humanity” and promised to construct “a fantastic museum” to deal with the contents of the galleon. He mentioned the search was a joint effort between the federal government of Colombia and a world workforce of scientists “of the best degree.” However he provided no specifics. All the pieces having to do with the San José, he mentioned, was categorised, together with the coordinates of the wreck.
Elected in 2010, Santos had two grand aims as president, say individuals accustomed to his pondering. One was to finish the struggle with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerrilla group that had terrorized the Colombian countryside because the Nineteen Sixties. The opposite was to search out and excavate the fabled San José. Santos gained the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for securing the FARC’s give up. Success with the San José would show extra elusive. If he had hoped the invention could be an unadulterated legacy-cementing triumph, the passions unleashed within the wake of the announcement would rapidly disabuse him of the notion.
Greater than 300 years after its sinking, the San José has develop into embroiled in a battle of a special sort, no much less vicious, involving worldwide excessive finance, treasure hunters, archaeologists, accusations of corruption, and elaborate conspiracy theories. At stake is not only a nation’s ransom in riches, however an archaeological godsend: So long as it’s excavated with an eye fixed towards science reasonably than lucre, the wreck can deepen our understanding of a interval of colonial historical past that helped form the Western Hemisphere.
In a radio interview shortly after his announcement, Santos provided tantalizing clues in regards to the particular person behind the invention of the San José. “I’ll let you know the story,” he teased. Throughout a consular occasion outdoors the nation, he recalled, Santos had been accosted by “a person who regarded like Hemingway…with white hair and a white beard.” The person had requested the president for 2 minutes of his time and provided him a framed copy of a giant vintage map. “He advised me, ‘This map is just not identified to anybody,’ ” mentioned Santos. “ ‘This web site’—he confirmed me the location—‘doesn’t seem on another map and that web site virtually ensures that I do know the place the galleon is.’ ”
Santos, who had been a sailor in his youth and made no secret of his love for the ocean, clearly relished the swashbuckling high quality of the story. However when the interviewer pressed for extra particulars, Santos allowed solely that the thriller man “is just not a treasure hunter. He’s not after cash and he genuinely has an anthropological, historic, and cultural vocation.”
Questions abounded within the weeks that adopted. Whoever “Hemingway” was, he had decided the search space, discovered the financing, and gotten into the president’s head. However who was bankrolling his operation? How a lot did it price? Who stood to learn? Was Colombia promoting off its cultural patrimony? Was it even Colombia’s to promote?
For the reason that wreck had reportedly been discovered west of Cartagena in Colombian waters, Santos believed his authorities had the strongest declare to the galleon and its contents. Inside days of Santos’s announcement, Spain’s minister of tradition provided his nation’s cooperation in salvaging the wreck whereas additionally invoking the precept of sovereign immunity, based on which a warship crusing underneath a nation’s flag stays that nation’s property even after it has sunk, no matter how a lot time has handed. The Spanish overseas minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, issued a blunter warning: “If this can’t be resolved on pleasant phrases,” he advised the press, Colombia “should perceive that we’ll declare it and defend our rights.”
Santos didn’t again down. “There are a number of homeowners who are actually popping up,” he mentioned on the time. “No sir, that is the Colombian individuals’s cultural heritage.” Rattling the ghost of the Spanish Empire has lengthy been a successful political technique in Latin America, so there was little incentive for Santos to offer in. However what of different claims from Spain’s former colonies? Many of the gold and silver on board was loaded onto the San José in Panama and had been mined in what’s now Peru and Bolivia. Peru had sued for its proper to sunken Spanish gold earlier than, arguing that colonists had stolen it from the land’s earlier occupants. What was to cease it from doing so once more?