The galleon San José returns to navigate | Culture

The galleon San José returns to navigate | Culture


General Bernardino Hurtado de Mendoza, on board the nao capitana Our Lady of Loreto, he heard the huge rumble coming from the nearby galleon Saint Joseph and he knew right away that it was his end. The almiranta ship, loaded with gold and silver, had collided with the seabed of the Archipelago of Pearls (Panama). It would take him a few hours to literally split in half and his riches would slide into the depths before the astonished eyes of the soldier. It was eleven o'clock on the night of June 17, 1631. Now, almost four centuries later, a team of experts captained by the underwater archaeologist Carlos León Amores will reconstruct the sinking of Saint Joseph to determine where your remains are. It has taken almost a decade to collect all the information, including the testimonies of the survivors and the orders that came from Madrid to recover everything possible.

On May 31, 1631, both galleons departed from the port of Callao (Peru) loaded with riches. Their mission was to transport them to Panama and from there to Spain, where a Crown, always in need of money, awaited them. On June 17, just one day before the end of their journey, Puerto Perico (Panama), both ships were working on approaching the coast. In front of them, the islands of the Pearls, an archipelago well known by the Spaniards that hardly offered danger. First the captain crossed the keys, Our Lady of Loreto. Once the pass was completed, Hurtado de Mendoza ordered a cannon shot that would indicate that the road was clear to the admiralty.

Place where the San José ran aground in 1631.
Place where the San José ran aground in 1631.

The Saint Joseph He undertook the same route, but he deviated confidently a few meters from the established course. The rumble that caused its stranding reached the other galleon. Hurtado de Mendoza saw it clearly from the beginning: the crew had to be saved, the ship would sink shortly. With boats, they hurried to the rescue. They saved 61 of their 62 men.

Water, meanwhile, entered the Saint Joseph and the hull began to heel towards port. Two hours later, it literally broke in half and the cargo slipped into the depths. "The gold and the silver of the King spilled without remedy towards the bottom, while the helmet began to sail without course following the strong marine currents", indicates Carlos Leon Amores. After touring several islets, the galleon ended at Contadora Island where ship divers and local pearl hunters rescued part of the cargo.

San José Canyon that is conserved in the National Institute of Culture of Panama.
San José Canyon that is conserved in the National Institute of Culture of Panama.

The Saint Joseph (not to be confused with the homonymous ship that sank in Colombia in 1708) it was news in 2016 cWhen the Panamanian newspaper The star made known the plunder committed in this shipwreck from 2003 to 2014 by the company of treasure hunters Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo, says Carlos León. More than 8,000 gold and silver coins were looted. However, the plunder failed partially because one of the partners of the company tried to take the shipment from Panama to the States and was stopped by the Central American Government.

For ten years, the San José Project 1631 It is underway and has the support of the Government of Panama and the School of Engineering of Naval Studies (Polytechnic University of Madrid). Its purpose is to determine informatically the course followed by the remains of the ship to recover them.

Engraving of the port of Callao from which departed San Jose and Loreto.
Engraving of the port of Callao from which departed San Jose and Loreto.

To achieve this, the historian Genoveva Enríquez and the archaeologist Beatriz Domingo have dived in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville and in the Naval Museum of Madrid. There they have found the testimonies of more than 20 survivors of the shipwreck, a letter from the viceroy of Peru to the Count Duque de Olivares detailing what happened, the report of Hurtado de Mendoza, a list of unregistered cargo (these ships carried a lot of contraband), the order to burn the remains of the ship (the nails were of incalculable value in America) and the daily parts of what the pearl seekers hired to recover the load were finding.

But in addition, Carlos León and his team have for a few months with a new source of information in which the keys to this collapse may be: The true and true relationship of all that there is in this South Sea and in the government district of the east Kingdom of Tierra Firme, a precise route conserved in the National Library of Madrid that details how it was navigated in the Panamanian waters at that time, written by Captain Diego Ruiz de Campos in 1631.

These documents, together with a powerful navigation simulation computer tool, will allow, 387 years later, to reconstruct exactly how the galleon collided, how its hull was split and what trajectory it followed among the islets of the Perlas archipelago.

The treasure hunters did not take everything. And there it continues to be studied, not to sell it.

A treasure in the trunk of a car

Alberto Vásquez and a companion were arrested by the ServiNational Customs of Panama in 2016 after visiting a branch of the National Bank and withdrawing three thousand silver coins from the company Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), of which he was one of its partners, according to the newspaper Star of Panama.

The booty, found in the trunk of his car, came from what was extracted by the treasure hunters of San José between 2013 and 2014, 75% for IMDI ​​and the rest for the Central American Government.

But why were they arrested if there was a contract in force? A report by UNESCO denounced that the treasure hunts had carried out "a simple operation of extraction of objects masked in a supposedly archaeological project, and with the intention of commercially exploiting the precious objects extracted from the bottom of the Archipelago of Las Perlas".

The sunken ship transported 1,417 silver bars, coins, jewelry and pieces of ceramics and UNESCO warned, according to the aforementioned Panamanian newspaper, that "the treasure hunters operated with impunity, without supervision of the National Institute of Culture (INAC)", so his performance "does not conform to the norms of the annex to the 2001 UNESCO convention (of which Panama is a signatory), but ensures that the activities carried out by IMDI ​​could have affected more than one sunken wreck in the area of ​​the archipelago of the Pearls, as well as their archaeological and natural contexts ".

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