Colombia calls in the robots to help raise £16 billion bounty lost at sea

Robot arms picking treasure
Columbia calls in robots to help raise $20 billion treasure trove (Picture: Getty/Samuel Scott/Wikimedia Commons)

Colombia is on a hunt for treasure that’s worth $20 billion – and it’s using robots to recover the loot.

The South American country is launching a government expedition to investigate the ‘holy grail of shipwrecks’, also known as the wreck of the San José.

The San Jose was sunk by the Royal Navy during a battle off Barú Island south of Cartagena, on the country’s Caribbean coast, in 1708.

But it is the ship’s loot, not the wreck, that people are after. At the time of its sinking, the San José is thought to have been carrying around 11 million gold coins, worth in the region of £16 billion – or $20 billion – today.

The coins are thought to have come from the mines of Potosí, Bolivia, and sit in more than 100 emerald-encrusted steel chests.

The ship was launched in 1698, travelling from the New World to the court of King Philip V of Spain

The wrecked Spanish galleon the San José (Picture: Colombian Presidency/AFPAFP)

San Jose treasure
The ship is chock-full of gold coins (Picture: Colombian Presidency/AFP)

Now, the Colombian government said it is investing around $4.5 million to help surface the treasure, including deploying robots in a matter of weeks.

President Gustavo Petro has made it a ‘priority’ to raise the ship before his term ends in 2026.

Culture minister Juan David Correa said in April and May, a submersible robot will retrieve some artefacts from the surface of the galleon to test ‘how they materialise when they come out [of the water]’.

The government claims the reason for the expedition is for cultural and historical reasons.

‘History is the treasure,’ said Mr Correa.

The shipwreck lies around 600m underwater, but researchers are hoping to use new technology to explore the water around it. So far, sea depth analysis and soil studies are being used to best determine how to extract the bounty.

The English painter Samuel Scott (1702-1772) specialised in marine painting and views of London. A strong influence of the art of Willem van de Velde the Younger can be detected, particularly in his early work. This painting refers to Commodore (later Admiral) Charles Wager?s assault on a Spanish treasure fleet off Cartagena in modern-day Colombia on 28 May 1708. Wager?s vessel, the ?Expedition?, 70 guns, is shown in the centre attacking the Spanish flagship, the ?San Jos??, 60 guns. The force of the gunfire seems to blow the Spanish vessel apart in a cloud of smoke and flames, reflected on the water. The other two English ships to the right are the ?Kingston?, 60 guns, and ?Portland?, 54 guns. However, Wager was not well supported by his squadron whose captains were court martialled for not having performed their duty, and duly dismissed from their posts (Campbell and Berkenhout, ?Lives of the British Admirals??, vol.3 (London, 1785), p.210). Whilst Wager obtained enough from the supporting Spanish ships to make him rich, the ?San Jos?? and the bulk of the fleet?s gold, silver and emeralds sank several hundred feet to the seabed, earning her the unofficial title of ?holy grail of shipwrecks?. This picture may have been the original used for the design of Wager?s monument in the north transept of Westminster Abbey, completed 1747 by the Flemish-born sculptor Peter Scheemakers, who is recorded in a sale catalogue of 1756 as owning a picture by ?Mr Scot (sic)? of very nearly identical size (the present item is in fact two inches wider) entitled ?The Taking the Galeons by Sir Charles Wager?. Wager?s death (24 May 1743) and the monument?s unveiling have therefore served as earliest and latest respective dates for its production. Scott seems to have used a drawing by van de Velde as a model for this composition and the ships are probably also based on older models rather than eyewitness accounts of the event.
The San José, as painted by English painter Samuel Scott (Picture: Samuel Scott/Wikimedia Commons)

However, who the booty belongs to has sparked an international catfight.

Spain claims that the treasure is theirs, but Bolivia’s indigenous Qhara Qhara nation has said the treasure should be returned to them after their ancestors were forced to mine it in the 16th Century.

What are the laws of finding treasure?

There are two main laws to know when you find treasure from a shipwreck, and it depends if you find it or salvage it

Essentially ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’, this law says the finder of the property is entitled to the full monetary worth, so long as the property doesn’t have a declared owner

This law states that if the salvor is working to retrieve lost goods on behalf of the owner they can be compensated with a percentage of the value.

And American firm Glocca Morra, contracted to search for the ship in the 1980s, claims it located the wreck and were granted a percentage of the finds.

The company is now owned by Sea Search Armada, which has sued the Colombian government for $10 billion, or 50% of the estimated value of the wreck.

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