“Holy Grail” Was Discovered in 2015 with $17 Billion Cargo

Stock image. NOT the real shipwreck.

In 2015 a robot submarine  discovered a shipwreck in the Caribbean Sea with a cargo thought to be worth as much as $17 billion – it was the San Jose galleon

The 310-year-old wreck of a Spanish galleon is being termed the “holy grail of shipwrecks.”

The San Jose galleon was owned by the Spanish Navy. It was sunk by British warships during a battle off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia, in 1708. When it sunk, it was carrying $17 billion (£13.49 billion) of gold, silver and emeralds.

San Jose galleon. Credit: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
San Jose galleon. Credit: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Speaking in 2015. Jeff Kaeli, a research engineer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, confirmed that he had found the shipwreck in the Caribbean using the robotic submarine Remus 6000.

The Remus 6000 can dive to a depth of nearly four miles and is outfitted with sensors and cameras which allow researchers to comb the depths of the ocean for the remains of sunken ships.

They found bronze canons with engravings of dolphins which identify the ship as being Spanish in origin.

Kaeli told CBS in 2018 that he sat and smiled for 10 minutes after the discovery. At the time, he was the only person in the world aware of the find.

The ship was located nearly 2,000 feet below the surface. The exact location has been kept a secret after the team discovered the value of its cargo.

San Jose galleon. Credit: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
San Jose galleon. Credit: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The team used the robot sub to scan the sea floor with long-range sonar. They then went back and used the sub to examine anything that seemed out of the ordinary.

The team worked in conjunction with the Colombian government. In addition to the ship and its cargo, they also discovered teacups and ceramic jugs among other artifacts.

Explosion of San José during Wager’s Action. Oil on canvas by Samuel Scott
Explosion of San José during Wager’s Action. Oil on canvas by Samuel Scott

Kaeli stated that the robotic sub is a tool that allows them to search areas that may be too dangerous or difficult to send a human.

He also took issue with the focus on the value of the cargo. To him, the entire shipwreck is a cultural treasure. He considers the wreck to be a piece of history which tells a story.

San Jose galleon. Credit: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
San Jose galleon. Credit: REMUS image, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Colombia and Spain are locked in a dispute over ownership of the treasure. Both claim to be the rightful owners. The team from Woods Hole is claiming that they are explorers, not treasure seekers, and are not claiming any rights to the treasure for themselves.

At the moment, the cargo remains at the bottom of the sea.

The San Jose left the port city of Portobelo in Panama sometime in late May 1708. King Philip V of Spain was counting on that cargo to finance the War of the Spanish Succession which arose when three claimants came forward to claim the Spanish throne after the childless King Charles II died.

A treaty had been signed between England, France, and the Dutch Republic which agreed that Prince Joseph Ferdinand would take over the bulk of Spanish territory while the remainder would be divided between France and Austria. But Joseph Ferdinand died before Charles II.

When Charles II did die on November 1, 1700, Louis IV of France declared his grandson Philip V to be the King of Spain and the other nations of Europe aligned themselves to support or oppose France.

War raged until 1712 when a peace agreement was reached. Philip V retained control of Spain but England gained territory in the agreement.

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The agreement led to the rise of English power and English colonialism while weakening both France and Spain.