Friday, November 4, 2011

An Undersea Bonanza for Colombia?

A Spanish Galleon
A United States court recently ruled in Colombia's favor in a legal battle over a sunken Spanish treasure galleon, the San Jose.

It sounds like a fairy tale: billions of dollars in gold, silver and jewels just waiting on the sea floor for anybody who can grab them. Naturally, lots of people want to grab the stuff, including the U.S. company which says it found the three-century-old wreck, and the Colombian government.

Doubloons. (
And I've read that the wreck could hold between $4 and $17 billion in treasure, or around $4,600 for each Colombian man, woman and child. And the San Jose is just the start. There might be a thousand old wrecks in Colombian waters. Who cares about exporting coffee, flowers and coal when there's treasure lying around?

Of course, things aren't really so simple. Finding all those old ships isn't easy, nor is salvaging them. In fact, Colombian government government divers who checked out the San Jose's supposed resting place found only a reef. And, if they ever do manage to salvage a significant portion of the gold in the world's seas, world gold prices would plummet, eliminating the profits. On the other hand, since most of the things to be salvaged from these old ships are supposed to be historical treasures, and therefore unsellable, they could turn into a burden. What would Colombia do with a thousand ships worth of necklaces and ignots? It could go bankrupt building museums and safes to protect them.

A gold cross. (Foto:
The whole episode, in fact, is full of ironies. The San Jose was sunk by British warships within site of Cartagena in 1708 . At the time, Spain's royals were squandering the treasure they were sacking from the New World on opulence and futile wars intended to force all of Europe back to Catholicism. The riches gave Spain a short-term brilliance but gutted its economy, while Holland, Germany, France and England were busy industrializing. In the end, Britain ruled the world and Spain lost its empire to revolutions and lost wars. In fact, by sinking the San Jose, the British may have done Spain an economic favor. Of course, the sinking was a tragedy for the almost 600 people killed by the sinking, about half of them civilian passengers. But they have been forgotten by history.

Whoever finally gets the San Jose - and the U.S. salvage company is appealing the court ruling - has little relationship to who has the moral right to it. The treasures came from Peru, where they were undoubtedly ripped out of the earth and sea on the backs of enslaved African and Indigenous American laborers. So, it's hard to see how Colombia, a nation which didn't even exist at the time, can lay any moral claim to the San Jose. Perhaps any treasure should be returned to Peru's indigenous people - but I won't bet on it.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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