Shipwreck Debris

(P1) The discovery of the “HOLY GRAIL of SHIPWRECKS” off the coast of Colombia has provoked a three-way fight over ownership of the gold, emeralds, and other treasures on the OCEAN FLOOR.

(P2) In a tale that mixes 18th-century BUCCANEERING with 21st-century COURTROOM DRAMA, the San José, a Spanish GALLEON carrying one of the richest CARGOS in NAVAL history, was sunk by British war-ships in 1708 and is now once again at the heart of a conflict.

(P3) Colombia, Spain, and a US SALVAGE company have made competing claims to the chests of PIECES OF EIGHT, silver coins, and jewels, which are estimated to be worth between US$1bn (£662m) and US$17bn.

San Jose

(P4) The San José was the FLAGSHIP of an ARMADA carrying treasure from Spain’s colonies in South America to the court of King Philip V. On 8 June 1708, it was attacked off the coast of Cartagena by a British SQUADRON led by Admiral Charles Wager, who wanted to steal the gold. But before the San José could be boarded, it exploded and sank with the loss of all but 11 of its 600 crew and passengers.

(P5) Ever since, finding the ship has been the fantasy of treasure hunters, adventurers, and novelists.

(P6) In the 1980s, the hunt was led by Sea Search Armada – a US-based salvage company – which described the galleons as being filled with gold from the mines of Potosi, Peru, PEARLS from Panama, and EMERALDS, AMETHYSTS, and DIAMONDS from the ANDES.

(P7) The discovery – 16 miles off Cartagena at a depth of about 300m – was confirmed on 27 November by an international team.

(P8) Announcing the find last week, the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, said this is “one of the greatest findings of underwater HERITAGE in the history of humanity”. He promised to build a museum in Cartagena to exhibit the treasure, which also includes CERAMICS, BRASS CANNON, and the personal wealth of the VICEROY of Peru.

(P9) But Colombia’s ownership is CONTESTED on two fronts. Sea Search Armada claims it first located the area of the wreck in 1981 and signed a deal with the Colombian government in which it was promised a 35% share of the treasure. After this was OVERTURNED by the country’s PARLIAMENT, the company fought a battle in US and Colombian courts ASSERTING its claim.

(P10) Colombia’s minister of culture, Mariana Garcés Córdoba, claimed last week that his government had won all legal challenges. But Sea Search Armada insist the issue remains UNRESOLVED.

(P11) The Spanish government is considering whether to STAKE A CLAIM. The Spanish culture secretary, José María Lasalle, speaking in Havana on Saturday, reminded Colombia of Spain’s “clear position” in defence of its “sunken wealth”. He said Spain was examining the information provided by Colombia before deciding “what action to take in defence of what we consider to be our sunken wealth”.

(P12) As a PRECEDENT, he reminded Colombia of the case of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, which was sunk by the British off the Algarve in southern Portugal in 1804. In 2007, the wreck was discovered by a salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration, which recovered more than 500,000 silver and gold coins, about 17 tonnes in total. There then began a three-sided DISPUTE between Odyssey, Spain, and Peru, the latter claiming the treasure had been PLUNDERED from the Incas.

(P13) In 2012, a US court ruled that, as the Mercedes was a warship on a STATE-SPONSORED mission and Peru was then just a colony, Spain was the RIGHTFUL owner of the treasure, which was put on display in Madrid in 2014 in an exhibition titled the Last Voyage of the Frigate Mercedes.

(P14) Given the far greater LOOT on the San José, an even more PROTRACTED legal WRANGLE may be LOOMING.

WORDS: 624



If you found the passage difficult to read or had problems understanding specific words or idiomatic expressions, please discuss them with your tutor. The following discussion questions should be answered in your own words and with your own arguments.

  1. Briefly summarize the content of the article in your own words.
  2. Which of the three CLAIMANTS do you think will win this treasure?
  3. Which of the three claimants do you think deserves to win this treasure?
  4. Do you enjoy reading books or seeing films about history?
  5. Does your country have a great SEAFARING tradition?


What do the following expressions mean? Practice using each expression in a sentence; extra points if you can use it in conversation.

  • Holy grail
  • Ocean floor
  • Courtroom drama
  • Stake a claim
  • State-sponsored

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