The words ‘Wager’s Action’ probably mean nothing to most people, yet they are at the heart of what is turning into an international legal battle over what is being called the world’s largest ever discovery of sunken treasure.
On the evening of 7th June 1708, a fleet of fourteen Spanish merchant ships was anchored off Isla de Barú, a small peninsular to the south of Cartagena, Columbia. The convoy was being escorted by three Spanish warships, one of which, the San Jose, is said to have been carrying between 7 and 11 million gold coins. The two other ships also carried money, but in lesser amounts.
The Spanish vessels were being hunted by a squadron of four British naval ships under the command of Rear Admiral Charles Wager – the ‘Expedition’, the ‘Kingston’, the ‘Portland’ and the ‘Vulture’.
At around three o’clock on the following afternoon, 8th June the Commander of the Spanish fleet, José Fernández de Santillán, was informed that British ships had been sited and he immediately ordered the three Spanish warships to take up defensive positions. The British were aware that the Spanish vessels were carrying gold and silver coinage, and at 5.00 pm the Expedition attacked the 64-gun San Joaquín which escaped in the fading light of the evening. Wager was aboard the Expedition, and he ordered it to attack the San José. By 7:00 pm the Spanish ship was clearly badly damaged, and Wager ordered his vessel to close on her and send in boarders to take possession. When the ships were less than 50 yards apart, the San Jose exploded and rapidly sank, taking her huge cargo of treasure to the bottom of the sea, together will almost all of the 600 people on board.
The Santa Cruz was later captured by the British, but she contained less in the way of treasure. The San Joaquin escaped.
In 1982, an American salvage company announced that it had discovered the wreck of the San Jose. The Columbian government responded by saying that the established rule of maritime law which allowed a 50% share of any sunken treasure to go to the finder would no longer apply. The Americans would only get a 5% fee.
Legal battles are ongoing, but the Colombian government has ordered a recovery to go ahead – with President Juan Manual Santos saying that the treasure is “Colombia’s national patrimony”. It is estimated that the treasure, estimated to have a value of up to 4 billion US dollars, could take two years.