Towards the Heart of the San José

Posted on: July 1, 2024 by

Earlier this year, I noted reports that the Colombian government planned to seek to recover artefacts from the wreck of the San José, lost in 1708 with nearly 600 souls and now lying approximately 16 miles off the city of Cartagena.

Further reports at the end of last month suggest that the Colombian government has followed through on its promise. Those reports indicate that the government’s title for the project translates as “towards the heart of the San José galleon”, which seems a fitting title for this post.

Juan David Correa, Colombia’s culture minister, has reportedly described the exploratory expedition as “unprecedented“.

Wager’s Action off Cartagena

It is a little unclear what comes next. Reports suggest that the Colombian government wants to put archaeological discovery at the fore.

Reports quote Alhena Caicedo, director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History as saying:

There has been this persistent view of the galleon as a treasure trove. We want to turn the page on that… We aren’t thinking about treasure. We’re thinking about how to access the historical and archaeological information at the site.

Raising the galleon brings the prospect of fresh understanding of the Spanish Empire at its zenith.

But it also brings challenges and (many) contested views. It is reported that Caicedo and her team hope to raise the vessel itself, and then to display it in a custom-built museum. This would be akin to the model used by the Swedish to house the wreck of the Vasa, and could be very effective.

However, few vessels such as the San José have been recovered, and I am struggling to think of any which have been salvaged from tropical waters, or at this depth.

Comparisons are inevitably made with Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose which sank off Portsmouth in 1545 during battle with the French fleet. However, she lay in approximately 12 metres of water at low tide. Similarly, the Vasa lay in the shallow waters of Stockholm harbour about 32 metres below the surface. The San José is thought to lie approximately 600 metres under the surface (some say deeper).

This is a huge challenge and it is not a project that has a lot of precedents. In a way, we are pioneers,” Caicedo has reportedly said.

The reports identified above indicate that the exploratory work will be done in stages. The first stage – the so-called “characterisation phase” – will involve the use of remote sensors to generate images of the site. This will allow an inventory to be prepared of the archaeological material on the sea floor. One imagines that this could be tricky and time-consuming.

Initial reports suggest that the Colombian government has acquired a Swedish-designed robot to “extract” the first artefacts.

Some of those reports suggest that it is the preference of the archaeological community that the wreck remain in situ (as I said in my earlier article, this is the starting point from the perspective of international cultural heritage conventions, although Colombia is not a signatory).

There now, however, appears to be little prospect of the wreck and its contents remaining in situ, unless the characterisation phase identifies insuperable obstacles. Perhaps for this reason, some in the archaeological community have raised concerns that the plan is misguided.

Piotr Bojakowski, a professor in Texas A&M University’s nautical archaeology department has been quoted as saying “Treasure makes a good headline, but it kills archaeology”, adding “if it is just about going after the gold, what will be lost is the ability to study the site”. For balance, however, reports also quote others who say that recovery could be managed properly. Michel L’Hour, a French underwater archaeologist is quoted as saying: “If the study of the San José wreck is entrusted to experienced archaeologists, I don’t see any risk in such an operation”.

Despite the line taken by the Colombian government, there are some mixed messages about the practical details of how the recovery is to happen and how it will be paid for, with some outlets reporting that overtures have been made to commercial salvors, likely to be based in the US or Europe. Once the site of the wreck is identified, how access can be controlled and treasure protected is really not clear, especially if there is no comprehensive inventory. For comparison, reports indicate that the recovery of the Mary Rose required four diving seasons from 1978 to 1982, and over 22,000 diving hours on the site.

The Mary Rose

Reports also suggest that the squabbling over the wreck continues, and that US investor group Search Sea Armada continues to press for its share of the bounty which it reportedly values at US$10 billion (though others say differently), arguing that it was the first to discover the wreck in the early 1980s.

As a footnote, and picking up on my observations earlier in the year, I would say that the reports of assistance from Swedish-made technology bear out my point that this is a good case for an international, collaborative effort. Colombia’s aspirations don’t require it to go alone, though there is a suggestion in some reports that this is being driven by the president’s desire to bring the ship to the surface before his term ends in 2026 which, if true, does not leave a lot of time. I have also yet to hear anything about how steps will be taken to respect the gravesites of the nearly 600 of those who perished.

Elsewhere, in the world of underwater cultural heritage, it is reported that Ohio tycoon and adventurer Larry Connor and Patrick Lahey, co-founder of Triton Submarines, say they want to take a sub to a depth of around 3,800m (12,467ft) to see the wreck of RMS Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean. This follows the death of five people last year when a vessel built by OceanGate imploded en route to the Titanic. There is no timeframe for the planned expedition.

Image Credits:

Samuel Scott, Wager’s Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708, pre-1772, Royal Museums Greenwich, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Andy Li, View of Mary Rose on G Floor, 2023, Mary Rose Museum, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.