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After centuries beneath the sea, Colombia says the ‘holy grail’ of treasure ships is finally found

Colombian crews discovered the wreck of the San Jose, a ship that sank in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession. (Video: YouTube/Presidencia de la República - Colombia)

The evening of May 28, 1708 was moonless and stifling, with little in the way of wind to fill the massive sails of the Spanish treasure ship San Jose as it maneuvered in the calm waters off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia. Not far off, barely visible in the fast-fading light, a British warship streaked toward the Spanish galleon, slowly but steadily gaining ground.

The ships angled toward one another, guns at the ready, battle flags raised. Billions of dollars in jewels and precious metals and the outcome of what some consider the first modern global war hung in the balance.

The confrontation would end in a cacophony of cannon fire and a final, fatal blast that sent the Spanish ship and its costly cargo plummeting to the sea floor. Neither the British nor the Spanish and their French allies would be able to use the loot to finance their efforts in the bloody War of Spanish Succession; the fight would drag on for six more years and end inconclusively, leading to 100 years of power struggles between the European nations.

Meanwhile, the San Jose and its riches remained submerged somewhere at the bottom of the Caribbean. The “Holy Grail of shipwrecks” — thought to contain at least $1 billion and as much as $14 billion in emeralds, silver and gold — has figured in novels, histories and even an international legal battle, but proved as elusive to treasure hunters in the 21st century as it was in the 18th.

Until now.

In a statement released Saturday, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos announced that researchers with the country’s Ministry of Culture had found a wreck matching the San Jose using sonar, underwater cameras and remotely-operated robots.

It is, Santos said, “one of the biggest findings and identifications of underwater heritage in the history of humanity.”

An international team led by Colombia’s Institute of Anthropology and History and the Colombian navy made the find on Nov. 27., Santos said, nearly 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean about 16 miles from Cartagena.

A video released by Santos’s office shows research crews probing a sandy patch of sea floor near the coast. The underwater images are ambiguous to the casual observer — a black and white mess of pots and bottles, a single cannon visible among bubbles and blue murk — but officials say the bronze cannons, along with the dimensions and location of the wreck, mark it as the San Jose.

A museum will be built in Cartagena to house the new discovery, Santos said.

It will take more time to definitively identify the vessel and its contents, and years to dredge them up from their ocean grave. But if Santos’s pronouncement is borne out, it will put an end to three centuries of fascination and speculation.

The story of the San Jose begins not with the bloody sea battle in the spring of 1708, but seven years before, at the deathbed of Charles II of Spain. The ailing king had named as his successor the grandson of the famous French monarch Louis XIV — establishing a connection between France and Spain that other European powers found too close for comfort. The disputed “Spanish succession” launched a 13-year-long struggle over who would get to control the extensive Spanish colonial empire and its many riches, one that — for the first time in modern history, some say — involved every continent.

The war pitted France and Spain against a coalition of British, German, Austrian, Portuguese and Dutch forces and disrupted annual shipments of New World precious metals back to Europe. By 1708, its coffers all but empty from the prolonged fight, France was desperate for the silver and gold mined by native people enslaved in the Spanish colonies.

Finally, Louis XIV ordered a 15-boat treasure fleet to set sail for Europe, with the San Jose as its flagship. The huge vessel was 150 feet from bow to stern and three decks deep and armed with 64 cannons and a crew of 500 men, and it carried the bulk of the fleet’s shipment of coins, bullion, jewels and valuable trade goods. The majority of the treasure belonged to Peruvian and Spanish merchants — the taxes on that, along with more than half a million Spanish reals bound for royal coffers, would amply finance the French war effort.

According to a history written by Sea Search Armada, a Washington-based commercial salvage company involved in the search for the San Jose wreck (more on that shortly), the fleet’s cargo was worth as much as three times Spain’s annual income. If it arrived at port safely, the wealth could turn the tide of the war, establishing France’s dominance over Europe and the world. At least, that was likely Louis XIV’s hope.

But Charles Wager, commodore of a small British squadron in the Caribbean, had other plans. Alerted that the treasure fleet had set sail — and what’s more, had done so without the protection of a full French escort — he staked out just off the coast of Cartagena, waiting for the Spanish ships to arrive.

They did so on the afternoon of May 28 (Spanish accounts put the date at June 8; the a discrepancy is attributable to the fact that the Spanish calendar was 10 days ahead of the British one). Though there were 17 Spanish and French ships to Wager’s mere four, the British ships were able to outpace the San Jose, which was weighed down with cargo and suffering from a leaky hull. Resigned to a fight, the Spanish fleet turned and formed a battle line.

Wager’s Expedition took on the San Jose just after sunset. The bursts of cannon and gunfire lit the cloudy night and filled the still air with the smell of sulfur and smoke. The decks of both ships grew slippery with blood.

Suddenly, a British cannon shot hit a store of gunpowder in one of the San Jose‘s upper holds, sparking a tremendous explosion.

“The heat of the blast came very hot upon us,” wrote Wager, who witnessed the blast from the deck of the Expedition. “Several splinters of plank and timber came on board us afire. We soon threw them overboard. I believe the ship’s side blew out, for she caused a sea that came in our ports.”

The British crew rushed to deal with the shower of debris and the wall of water that sloshed on board. By the time Wager could turn his attention back to the enemy ship, it had entirely vanished. All but 11 of the 600 people on board perished, either incinerated in the explosion or drowned at sea.

But Wager was more worried about the San Jose’s valuable cargo.

“She immediately sunk with all her riches, which must have been very great,” he wrote in his diary, despondent.

Wager had denied the French access to the Spanish treasure, but he wouldn’t have access to it either. In the end, his squadron was only able to capture one of the Spanish ships, which contained far less cargo of value. Both sides were denied the riches that could have turned the tide of the war. The conflict dragged on.

The War of the Spanish Succession would end in 1714, but its conclusion did little to resolve the cross-continental struggle between European powers. Instead, it laid the groundwork for a century of bloody conflicts on both sides of the Atlantic. The upper hand would pass back and forth like a ping pong ball. Millions of people would be killed. And on an out-of-the-way stretch of the North Atlantic coast, some spunky colonists would convince the French (still battling the British) to help them with their unlikely rebellion — the one we now know as the American Revolution.

But the 1708 struggle at sea wasn’t the only battle that the San Jose would be a part of. Even before anyone was certain of its location, it was embroiled in a decades-long legal dispute between Sea Search Armada (SSA) and Colombia’s government over who would get the sunken ship’s riches once they were finally found.

SSA claimed to have pinpointed the San Jose’s location back in 1981, and negotiated with the Colombian government for 35 percent of the ship’s treasures if the wreck was indeed recovered there. But Colombia’s government has laid claim to the entirety of the wreck’s contents, except for a 5 percent finder’s fee, based on a law passed after the agreement with SSA was purportedly reached, according to CNN.

The Washington-based company filed two lawsuits in U.S. courts contending that Columbia’s move was illegal, but both were dismissed — though not without some amused commentary.

“The complaint in this case reads like the marriage between a Patrick O’Brian glorious-age-of-sail novel and a John Buchan potboiler of international intrigue,” U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg wrote in a ruling on the 2011 case, according to the Courthouse News Service.

Nevertheelss, SSA told CNN that the Supreme Court of Colombia has ruled in the company’s favor, saying that the wealth from the wreck should be split evenly between the company and the Colombia government.

Santos made no mention of the conflict with SSA in his announcement of the discovery on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Spanish Culture Secretary José María Lasalle said that his country was also interested in the recovered loot, according to the Guardian.

Speaking in Havana on Saturday, he said Spain was examining the information provided by Colombia before deciding “what action to take in defense of what we consider to be our sunken wealth and in accordance with UNESCO agreements that our country signed up to years ago.”

Three hundreds years after it was sunk by Wager, it seems the San Jose still can’t escape countries fighting over it.