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‘Holy Grail’ of shipwrecks found off Colombian coast

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Ernesto Montenegro, Director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia, talks to the media while he shows a picture of remains of the Galleon San Jose, a Spanish boat eighteenth century empire that sank in the Caribbean Sea loaded with gold, during a press conference in Cartagena, Colombia, December 5, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/ Pedro Mendoza)

On Saturday, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos held a press conference to announce that a team of experts had found the San Jose, a long-lost galleon that sunk south of Cartagena. The ship was the primary transport of gold, silver, and jewels from Spain’s South American colonies at the turn of the eighteenth century and is worth an estimated three billion dollars today, with some experts placing the value even higher.

An explosion sank the “holy grail of shipwrecks,” as it has often been called, while it was attempting to outrun a fleet of British warships. The San Jose was sailing for Spain at the time of the attack in an effort to bring its contents back to King Philip V in order to help finance his war against the British. There were an estimated 600 people onboard at the time as well as roughly 11 million gold and silver coins and a number of precious jewels.

 

The rightful owner of that sunken treasure has been the subject of a lengthy court battle that has raged across the U.S., Colombia, and Spain. The Colombian and Spanish claims are easy to understand as it was originally Spanish property that sank in what is now Colombian waters. However, the U.S. portion of the claim stems from 1982 when a team from the Seattle-based Sea Search Armada announced that it had found the San Jose.

According to maritime law, the Sea Search Armada should have been entitled to half of the San Jose‘s value and the group initially had an agreement in place with the Colombian government to split the recovered treasure. However, in 1984 the Colombian parliament passed a law that reduced Sea Search’s portion to only a 5% “finder’s fee.” The Colombians now claim that the treasure is part of their cultural heritage and belongs to the nation. President Santos stated that the current plan is for a museum to be built in Cartagena to house the wreckage and the treasures trapped inside.

That has, understandably, not sat well with the salvage group that feels entitled to another 45% of the multi-billion dollar find. And while an American court ruled that the ship belonged to Colombia in 2011, in large part because Sea Search’s claim was never confirmed, the legal battle continues in the various countries as to whether or not the salvage company was compensated fairly for their part in the discovery.

President Santos failed to mention Sea Salvage’s role in his press conference, instead stating that the ship had been found in a new location by using new meteorological and underwater mapping studies. Danilo Devis, the salvage group’s legal representative in Colombia for the past few decades, questioned the president’s account saying “The government may have been the one to find it but this really just reconfirms what we told them in 1982.”

It will be interesting to see how the situation is ultimately resolved as it might set a precedent that will be of some importance in future years. The discovery of the San Jose is unlikely to be the last, even if it is the most valuable, of such finds considering it is estimated to be only one of more than a thousand galleons and merchant ships that sank along Colombia’s coral reefs during more than three centuries of colonial rule.

In one sense, it’s amazing to think that something so valuable could have gone undiscovered for so long. However, for much of the last three hundred years, the technology simply did not exist to find the ship, much less salvage its contents. And even if its location had been common knowledge, it would have been of little value considering there was nothing that could be done to act on it. Knowledge without the ability to make practical use of it is often of little value.

Our knowledge of Scripture can be much the same if it’s not submitted to the Lord’s guidance. There are quite a few Christians whose heads are swimming with facts and verses from the Bible but whose lives demonstrate little evidence that such knowledge has made a practical difference in the way that they live. That was the primary mistake made by the Pharisees throughout the Gospels, and it was the reason Jesus had less patience with them than with anyone else he encountered. As James wrote, “Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (James 4:17).

If we aren’t careful, the Pharisees’ mistake can be ours as well. It is so tempting at times to equate knowledge of God with a strong relationship with God, but those two don’t necessarily go together. So take some time to pray and ask God to help you discern the degree to which your knowledge of him and his will is making a practical difference in your life. You might be surprised at what he shows you.