Galleon San Jose and the hunt for undersea treasure

Galleon San Jose

By Cecilia Rodriguez - Forbes

I was amazed to discover recently that a Dickensian legal battle over one of the richest undersea bounties, a battle I first covered years ago in my native Colombia, is still in the courts.

I hate to date myself, but we’re talking, uh, decades.

I’m speaking of the Galleon San Jose.  

The latest chapter came when a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of Colombia’s government against the American company Sea Search Armada (SSA), which was claiming billions of dollars for breach of contract after a tortuous war of contracts, lawsuits and counter-suits over the right to rescue the San Jose from the seabed where it allegedly still rests full of treasures.

Current estimates set the value at more than $10 billion.

What SSA Managing Director Jack Harbeston probably wishes most is to be compensated for more than 25 years of frustration, deception, bad faith, mistrust, betrayal, internal squabbles and personal tragedy as many partners and investors lost their fortunes and others died without seeing their dream fulfilled.

The list of people involved in the treasure hunt included famous American actors, congressmen, business moguls and government officials to whom SSA had offered 40% profit in return for their investment or support.

“He died from disappointment,” the wife of Jim Banigan, one of the founders who lost his fortune in the search for the galleon, told me.

“At the end, he was convinced that if we had found the treasure we would have lost our souls.”

Full of gold, silver, gems and jewelry collected in the South American colonies to be shipped to Spain’s king to help finance his war with the British, the San Jose was sunk in flames in June, 1708 by a British warship, just outside the Port of Cartagena, Colombia.

As it supposedly lay in the dark depths, its fate has been argued over for 300 years by people whose greed, rapacity and ambition have driven them to distraction.

First, the Spanish king who anxiously awaited the bounty to help him win the war, then the British military that had planned to capture the ship, not sink it, and make off with its riches.

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