|Part of the War of the Spanish Succession|
Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708. Oil by Samuel Scott.
|Great Britain|| Pro-Bourbon Spain
Kingdom of France
|Commanders and leaders|
|Charles Wager|| José Fernández de Santillán
Jean du Casse
|5 ships of the line
|Casualties and losses|
|unknown||2 galleon lost
1 galleon scuttled
In the spring of 1708 Charles Wager was on an expedition in the Caribbean with a squadron of four ships :
- Expedition (70), Captain Henry Long
- Kingston (60), Captain Simon (Timothy) Bridges
- Portland (50), Captain Edward Windsor
- Vulture (8), fire ship under Cmdr. Caesar Brooks
In April the squadron took in supplies on the small island of Pequeña Barú, today called Isla El Rosario, just 30 miles away from Cartagena. Hereby the Spanish were aware of their presence, and the governor of Cartagena sent warnings to the Spanish fleet, which was anchored in Portobelo.
Nevertheless, the commander of the treasure fleet, José Fernández de Santillán, decided to sail from Portobelo to Cartagena on May 28. He couldn't wait much longer, because the hurricane season was approaching, and the rest of the fleet, plus their escort under Jean Du Casse, were waiting in Havana, and threatened to leave without him.
- San José (64) (Capitan Santillán)
- San Joaquín (64) (Capitan Villanueva)
- Santa Cruz (44) (Capitan de la Rosa)
The gold and silver was concentrated on the 3 largest vessels. The San José had 7 to 11 million pesos on board, and the San Joaquin 5 million. The Santa Cruz had the rest, only a fraction of the other two ships.
The Spanish fleet reached Isla de Baru on the evening of 7 June and anchored there. The next day there was very little wind, but around 3 p.m. they noticed Wager's squadron approaching. The Spanish took up defensive positions, but the English knew they had to attack the largest ships, because they had the most money on board.
The Kingston attacked the San Joaquin around 5 p.m. which, after two hours of battle, escaped into the night with the help of the Concepción.
The Expedition attacked the San José and approached the vessel with the clear intention of boarding the ship. Around 7 p.m., after an hour and a half of fierce fighting and with only 60 meters between the two ships, suddenly the San José blew up. The ship sank immediately, taking its precious cargo and almost the entire crew to the bottom of the sea. There were only 11 survivors out of the 600 crew and passengers on board.
By now it was dark, but there was a full moon and Wager succeeded in finding the Santa Cruz at 2 a.m. After a brief fight, which left 14 English and 90 Spanish dead, the Santa Cruz was taken; however, she had no government treasure in her - only 13 chests of pieces of eight and 14 pigs of silver which seem to have been private property.
At dawn, the English discovered the San Joaquin, and Wager ordered the Kingston and Portland to capture the ship. After a few salvos, however, the San Joaquin successfully made away towards Cartagena harbour, and the English dared not follow and face the guns of the Cartagena forts.
The rest of the Spanish fleet also reached Cartagena safely, with the exception of the Concepción which, cornered by the English, beached itself on Baru Island where the crew set the ship alight.
The English had eliminated three Spanish ships and prevented the gold and silver from crossing the sea and funding the Franco-Spanish war effort.
But Charles Wager was disappointed with the loot, which made him a rich man, but which would have been many times larger if they had captured the San Joaquin.
Captains Bridge and Windsor were expelled from the Navy for this failure.
It is claimed that the San José's location has been found, though there is current litigation against the Government of Colombia as to the rights to salvage the ship. The treasure of the San José is still on the bottom of the ocean. It is estimated to be worth between $150 and $450 million US dollars based on the speculation that it likely had seven to 10 million Spanish pesos on board at the time of its sinking, similar to its surviving sister ship, the San Joaquin. The San José is called the "Holy Grail of Shipwrecks" and is actively being pursued by treasure hunters today. A group of investors operating under the name Sea Search Armada claim to have found the ship off the coast of Colombia, but the Colombian government has not been able to verify its existence at the stated coordinates. A legal dispute over the rights to the treasure was resolved in July 2007 when the Colombian Supreme Court concluded that any treasure recovered would be split equally between the Colombian government and the explorers. Other individuals claim to have found the wreck in other places, leaving its true location a mystery. The wreck of the San José is part of the underwater cultural heritage as defined by the UNESCO in the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. All traces of human existence underwater which are one hundred years old or more are protected by the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. This convention aims at preventing the destruction or loss of historic and cultural information and looting. It helps states parties to protect their underwater cultural heritage with an international legal framework.
- Fernández Duro, Cesáreo (1898). Armada española desde la unión de los reinos de Castilla y de León, tomo VI. Est. tipográfico "Sucesores de Rivadeneyra". p. 89.
- "Sea Search Armada Seeks Rights to 1708 Shipwreck and Treasure Coins Worth $17 Billion". CoinLink.com. Retrieved 2012-10-23.
- "Seven Missing Wonders", The Wall Street Journal, 9 November 2007; Weekly Journal W1.
- UNESCO, Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage