An American company is suing the Colombian government for the right to haul what it describes as the “biggest treasure in the history of humanity” out of the Caribbean Sea.
Their case sounds like a job for Captain Jack Sparrow but instead it will be a U.S. Federal Tribunal that will decide on bounty hunting company Sea Search Armada’s US$17 billion claim. The company are angered that they have not been able to act on a 2007 Colombian Supreme Court of Justice finding that awarded the company 50% of the treasure contained in the remains of the galleon San Jose, sunk by an English fleet in 1708 off the coast of the port of Cartagena.
Over 200 tonnes of treasure were in the bow of the ship heading for King Philip V’s Spain when it fell beneath the waves, nautical expert Claudio Bonifacio told newspaper El Espectador. The exact value of this booty is subject to great dispute but Sea Search Armada values it at US$10 billion and is claiming for additional damages and costs.
Colombia disputes the right of the company to hunt for the booty and Alvaro Uribe’s government apparently threatened the firm with military action if they were to enter Colombian waters. Colombia denies them the right to salvage the treasure on the grounds that the sunken vessel is a national cultural heritage.
The 2007 Supreme Court of Justice ruling confirmed this interpretation, although the treasure itself was to be split two ways between Sea Search Armada and the government, a view which has provoked a dispute about how much of the remains of the ship can be claimed under the heritage tag.
The case filed in Washington DC marks the latest chapter in an epic legal battle spanning decades. Sea Search Armada appeared to have agreed a deal to extract the shipwreck from the Caribbean seabed in the 1980s but this view was soon challenged. Representatives of the company may be worried to read that a government insider has now told El Espectador that a proposal has been made to President Juan Manuel Santos to look into seizing the wreck and using its riches to relieve victims currently suffering Colombia’s worst rainy season in history.
Remarkably this is not the only case of sunken treasure to have stirred Colombian opinion in the recent past. Colombian descendents of sailors sunk on the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes off the Portuguese coast in 1804 tried to claim US$500 million of gold and silver coins found by Odyssey Marine Exploration before a court in Atlanta, Georgia decided to grant ownership to the cash-strapped Spanish government, a decision which was preceded by offers of assistance from the US government according to a diplomatic cable recently published by WikiLeaks.