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Salvaging the San José galleon: outstanding tasks

Salvaging the galleon will not be an easy endeavor for anybody, in any sea of the world. The issue with archeological shipwrecks –the historical remnant of naval clashing between former naval empires and its colonies, which is yet to be resolved– continues to be controversial, with legal claims from several parties and unforeseeable results.

Although the technological expertise seems to be in place, the main issue is the legal fight with interests between governments claiming rights over the wreckage, based on several regulations and uncertainties on shipwreck applicable international and national laws.

Colombia has yet to set a state a well-based and non-confrontational position over its cultural heritage. Unfortunately, government silence and passivity only contribute to other governments to progress in strengthening their position, to the detriment of Colombia.

There are many pressures over the San José galleon which will be necessary to overcome as a condition for salvaging efforts to come to fruition.

Currently, a Washington-based salvage company Sea Search Armada (SSA) obtained Colombian authority recognized rights over half the value of the treasured wreck.

The Colombian Council of State is discussing the lawfulness of a ruling over the rights invoked by the US multinational over the exploration and salvaging of the shipwreck, who has also drawn on other judicial scenarios in the United States as well as the Inter-American System for the protection of human rights.

After 10 years of negotiations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) promoted the Convention for the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage on which Colombia and other governments have several objections.

Its concern was not specifically for this international instrument but for the creation of a sovereign immunity for “state ships” which Spain will try to leverage to its favor.

The scientific community of archeologists, anthropologists, historians and of the maritime sector, in general, could also be a deciding factor in a future decision over the fabled historical shipwreck of worldly importance.

The concerns over the future of the world cultural heritage were part of the focus during the International Congress of Classical Archaeology of 2016 held in Tokyo (Japan).

During two decades, Spain has carried out diplomacy efforts in defense of what it calls “its galleons”. Although it has never intervened in the legal controversies in Colombia of the alleged rights of SSA; recently it officially announced that in the event of a salvaging process, it would claim rights to the wreck, even in international courts, although clarifying it would seek a “friendly” agreement with Colombia, but without resigning to this “state ship”.

Spain supports its claims on universities and naval and history academies to consolidate its positions:

  • Proposes for its benefit concepts which for maritime law are disputable, such as “ship of state”.
  • It actively seeks reaffirmation from other states of the UNESCO Convention of 2001.
  • Has obtained favorable rulings in legal procedures in the galleons with Spanish flags.
  • And, as this wasn´t enough, it has successfully achieved aligning its diplomacy efforts with that the United States.

In the case of the cargo of Las Mercedes Frigate, Spain sought support from the Royal Academy of History, among other academies and universities and obtained, by ruling of a US court, refunding of a 17-ton load of gold and silver coins.

In one of the studies supported by the Spanish Royal Academy of History over the Las Mercedes Frigate, Duke of Estrada Hugo O’Donnell said that the historical reasoning documented by the Royal Academy provided a judicial victory, which he dubbed “historical justice”.

Meanwhile, Colombia has resorted to confidentiality established by law, while for some this justifies the case of the ship´s coordinates, for others, this silence has been counterproductive.

For the Colombian government, it would be more effective to commit to historical studies on the contribution of America to the Spanish wealth, part of which lies on the historical underwater shipwrecks.

It is necessary to rebuild the archeological shipwreck history of America, including native communities as well as the maritime navigation history of America and the historic role of Cartagena de Indias as the centerpiece of transportation of metals and raw material towards Spain, all of which have been excluded from the still imperial perspective of historical shipwrecks.

Spain sustains claims towards the international community regarding a highly disputed cultural heritage. Up to now, Colombia has not filed any claim. Under these conditions, it is necessary to point out, that in the event of salvaging the San José galleon this could produce new international controversies or remain in project status.

Emulating Spain in its concerted efforts and directed towards specific goals over the international scenario and on such a complex and disputed topic could have a good standing in Colombia. It is the cultural heritage of Colombia, which emerged from the entrails of America.


Consejo Editorial