The history of the San José galleon, the 300-year-old sunken ship behind a $10 billion legal battle, known as the 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

  • The San José galleon sank off the coast of Colombia in 1708 during a battle with British forces.

  • It contained billions of dollars of treasures, by today's estimates.

  • A legal battle over the rights to the riches has been ongoing.

The San José galleon, the sunken Spanish warship at the center of a $10 billion legal battle over who has the rights to its treasures, entered its watery grave during a battle with the British in 1708.

The ship took 600 passengers down with it, along with gold coins, pesos, and emeralds worth billions in today's estimates, earning it the nickname the "Holy Grail of Shipwrecks."

The San José was part of a convoy of ships known as the "Spanish treasure fleet," the "West Indies Fleet," or the "silver fleet," which traversed Spain's territories in the so-called New World at the beginning of the 18th century — gathering riches to bring home to Spain's contested ruler, King Philip of Anjou, according to The Archive.

Many of the treasures on board the San José were taken from Colombian and Peruvian mines using slave labor, Insider previously reported.

Gold coins found in the San Jose shipwreck.
Gold coins found in the San Jose shipwreck.MARMADA DE COLOMBIA

In 1708, the year the San José met its tragic fate, Spain was in the midst of the War of Spanish Succession. The conflict began when two outsiders declared themselves the rightful ruler of Spain: Charles of Austria and Philip of Anjou, a native of France backed by King Louis XIV, according to The Archive. But, Philip technically held the throne, which worried neighboring European countries, who feared the unification of Spain and France, The Archive reported.

It was because of this conflict that a British squadron of ships decided to attack the Spanish fleet containing the San José, whose riches would help fund Philip's war effort, which the British opposed, according to The Archive.

A cannon found in the San Jose shipwreck.
A cannon found in the San Jose shipwreck.ARMADA DE COLOMBIA

On the night of June 8, 1708, British commander Charles Wager attacked the Spanish fleet near Cartagena, Colombia. His largest warship, the Expedition, went head-to-head with the San José in a fierce battle of cannon fire that lasted for over an hour, according to a research paper in the academic journal Mariner's Mirror.

But just as the Expedition was nearing the San José to board its decks by force, something happened that set the Spanish ship aflame, Big Think reported. Some survivors reported hearing an explosion, according to the article in Mariner's Mirror, but it's unclear exactly what caused the San José to catch fire and sink so quickly that it took about 600 crew members down with it. Only 11 are believed to have survived, according to The Archive.

The British were able to successfully capture the Santa Cruz, another galleon in Spain's fleet, but it contained very few treasures, far less than those aboard the San José, according to Mariner's Mirror.

Colombia's National Legal Defense Agency said in an October court document reviewed by Insider that the San José may contain between $4 billion and $17 billion of riches.

However, all of that wealth still rests at the bottom of the sea, while the battle over who can claim the spoils continues.

Colombia has argued that it has sole salvage rights, while an American company that claims to have first discovered the wreck in 1981 says it deserves a significant portion.

To further complicate matters, Spain has also claimed a right to the shipwreck, and the Qhara Qhara, an indigenous people native to present-day Bolivia, have also demanded a share, arguing that their enslaved ancestors first mined the metals, the Washington Post reported.

And so, the fate of "the biggest treasure in the history of humanity," as an October legal filing from the Colombian government describes it, remains a wreck.

Read the original article on Business Insider