History of the San Jose
Sketch of the town of Potosi at the foot of Cerro Rico - “The Rich Hill” from Pedro Cieza de Leónʼs Chronicles of Peru.
The San José was a ship of the South Seas fleet. When she sank in 1631, her holds were stuffed with almost unimaginable wealth, tons of it, and largely in the form of silver mined from high in the Andes Mountains. In 1545, a mountain of silver ore was discovered in the south central Andes Mountains, still the largest known silver deposit in the world.
In 1545, a mountain of silver ore was discovered in the south central Andes Mountains, still the largest known silver deposit in the world. This mountain came to be known as Cerro Rico de Potosi – the Rich Hill of Potosi. In Potosi, crude silver ore was processed, cast into ingots, and struck into coins. South Seas fleet ships like the San José would collect this treasure at the port of Callao, Peru, and transport it to the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama. From there it would be packed overland to the Caribbean side, and here resume its sea journey on Tierra Firme fleet ships, stopping at Cartagena and Havana before ultimately departing for Europe.
The trip from Lima's port of Callao to the Pacific island of Perico off Panama is about 1300 nautical miles, and normally took the galleons about two and a half to three weeks. The 1631 South Seas fleet ships set sail from Callao on 31 May, consisting of the Capitana (flagship) Nuestra Senora de Loreto, the Almiranta (vice-flagship) San José and a patache, (a launch or smaller vessel, often used for communication between ships).
According to historic documentation, on 17 June, 1631, at about 9:00 pm, while maneuvering to anchor close to the Capitana for the night, the Almiranta San José struck a shallow rock outcropping - now known as Trollope Rock in the Banco San José - about twelve miles west of Punta Garachine, Panama. Captain General Don Bernadino de Mendoza, who witnessed the event from aboard the Loreto, provided testimony of the incident, and the subsequent rescue of all the people, except for one man—Alonso Palma, the Tithe Keeper— who drowned trying to save a sack of eight reales coins.
Excessive full moon tides and currents caused the San José to separate at the bottom deck. The currents then drove the floating upper three decks toward Panama. The Spanish feared the upper decks would drift into the mainland where the bottom is muddy, making salvage almost impossible, so they used two smaller ships to row the decks close to the island of Contadora in the Pearl Islands where the water is clear, a journey of some 40 miles. They arrived on 20 July, 1631.
Documents unearthed in the Spanish archives detail reports that the military force guarding the hull at Contadora was under strict orders not to let anyone touch or salvage the treasure within the upper decks until the President of Panama arrived on site. In the meantime, the upper decks began to break apart. Merchant Andres de Avila testified that he received notice in the City of Panama that some coin boxes had been salvaged and were now on shore, so he traveled to Contadora to determine the situation “as regards these things” and to see if any of the recovered coin boxes were his. “Upon arriving at Isla de Contadora I saw that nothing in fact had been salvaged,” he testified.
With the anchors dragging and the upper decks breaking apart, ultimately the hands-off orders were amended and a company set out on Tuesday, July 1, 1631, to examine the decks and attempt to salvage the boxes of reales from the compartments in the bow section where they were reported to have been loaded in Callao. “Arriving at the cuarteles this testifier saw that not all the bow castles or bow sprint section were there. The bottom was clear but we saw nothing of the boxes in that place nor at any other place in the vicinity of the hull.”
Research indicates that the bulk of the coin boxes that were recovered by the Spanish fell out of the shipʼs third deck shortly after the bottom of the ship separated from the hull—within 200 yards of the shipʼs bottom. The multi-million dollar question is at what point in the 40-mile journey from Trollope Rock to Isla Contadora did the remaining 203 chests fall away from the bow section. Some of the Spanish were of the opinion that the coin boxes were still on board when the upper decks floated past Isla Del Rey, a close neighbor of Isla Contadora (approximately 12 miles distant) because of the depth of water the bow displaced.
Haskinsʼ extensive archival research, conducted over a span of many years, concludes that as of one year after the sinking of the San José, when salvage efforts were ultimately abandoned, the value of registered treasure still remaining at-large equaled 600,000 pesos. Subsequent archival research to ten years beyond the sinking showed no further salvage efforts by the Spanish.