You can watch the pirate invasion and parade on WFLA Now. The Invasion begins at noon and the Parade of Pirates will be broadcast on News Channel 8 at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — For more than 100 years, Tampa Bay has faced an invasion of freebooters, marauders and buccaneers. Instead of Super Bowl champions, Tampa Bay is attacked by plunderers, good old-fashioned pirates sailing in from legend itself, with Gasparilla.
To locals, the story is not a mystery, but history. The tale of pirate captain José Gaspar who, according to the stories, ravaged the west coast of Spanish Florida for 40 years is the inspiration for a bombastic plundering that continues from 1905 to present day Tampa.
The story of Gaspar is notably absent from the annals of history, fleet records and even wanted posters, but to this day the legend prevails. The first written record of Gaspar’s activities were put down in a brochure for the now-historic Gasparilla Inn on Gasparilla Island, about 100 miles south of Tampa Bay.
According to legend, as told by André-Marcel d’Ans and translated by Marie-Joèle Ingalls, Gaspar was born in Spain in 1756, and served as a naval officer until the early 1780s.
In 1783, he allegedly mutinied, stole a ship and went to the Gulf of Mexico, becoming a pirate and raiding the West Florida coast until the 1820s. There are two origin stories for why Gaspar went from Spanish Navy bootlicker to full-on bootlegger, according to d’Ans.
History and myth
In the first version, said to be more of a historical interpretation of the tale, Gaspar was a lieutenant aboard a ship, the Floridablanca.
After a narrow escape during a naval battle with the English, Gaspar lost his ambition to serve Spain and chose to become a pirate, looking for “his own wealth and fame.” Gaspar allegedly convinced his fellow crew members to join him and they killed the ship’s captain and those who refused, according to the d’Ans account.
In the second version of the legend, Gaspar had a troubled childhood and after kidnapping a young girl at the age of 12, he was given the choice to join the Navy or be put in prison. As an adult, this version of the legend says Gaspar was skilled with weapons and very intelligent, making midshipman even after he “previously seduced the niece of the academy’s commander.”
After fighting the Barbary pirates of Tripoli and becoming a captain, he went to the Caribbean to fight and capture pirates, before becoming an admiral of the Atlantic Fleet, gaining more notoriety and working more directly with King Charles III. As admiral, the king’s daughter-in-law allegedly “fell madly in love with him” but he rejected her for another. Out of spite, the daughter-in-law is said to have framed Gaspar for stealing the crown jewels, and he absconded to become a pirate and take revenge, according to the d’Ans account.
There are some details every version of Gaspar’s legend have, according to d’Ans and the translation by Ingalls.
“In 1783, having become a traitor and a pirate, José Gaspar gave the name of “Gasparilla” to himself as well as to his ship and the island in Charlotte Harbor, on the west coast of Florida near Fort Myers, where he established his den,” according to d’Ans. For the next 38 years, from 1783 to 1821, the self-named Gasparilla wreaked havoc on merchant ships and sailors, executing “without mercy all the crews” aside from some sailors who they took in to replace their own losses.
Women on the ships were taken as “slaves and concubines” to serve until they failed to please the crew or were replaced by “fresher” captures, then beheaded. They were allegedly kept on “Captiva Island,” near Gasparilla’s base on Gasparilla Island.
Final fate of Gaspar
Eventually, d’Ans said Gasparilla allegedly ended up choosing to stop being a pirate captain at the age of 65, telling his men “Gasparilla is no more,” then disbanding the crew and promising to divide his treasure among them.
While the legend says his plan had been to retire “probably somewhere in South America,” according to d’Ans, the day of sharing his treasure took a turn for the worse. That morning in 1821, Gasparilla and his crew saw what was supposedly a “rich British merchant ship” near their hide-out in Charlotte Harbor, on the west coast of Florida.
However, d’Ans said the ship was actually an American warship in disguise, the U.S.S. Enterprise. It fired upon the pirate ship “with deadly accuracy.” Gasparilla refused to surrender, climbing his ship’s bow as it sank, he allegedly wrapped himself in the ship’s anchor chain and threw himself into the sea, declaring “Gasparilla dies by his own hand not the enemy’s.” The legend says few pirates survived.
Fact or fiction
Gasparilla Island is a central point of the tale of Gaspar. On the island was a hotel, the Gasparilla Inn.
According to records, the island was developed by Albert W. Gilchrist, who was the 20th governor of Florida. He purchased land at Boca Grande, an outpost on the island, in 1897. Gilchrist’s plan was to develop the land into a town.
The legend of Gaspar was not found in writing until the year 1900, in a brochure advertising the Boca Grande Hotel, according to d’Ans. The brochures were reportedly handed out by Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company. The leaflet sets up the legend of Gaspar, saying he chose Gasparilla Island as “the best of the islands in Charlotte Harbor,” to make his base. Regardless, the legend took hold in the community up and down the west coast of Florida, all the way up to Tampa Bay.
In May 1904, Tampa held its first Gasparilla festival, beginning a tradition that continues to this day, over 100 years later. “Since 1905, pirates have invaded Tampa Bay. Every year, the unruly plunderers take over the city in honor of the mythical legendary pirate Jose Gaspar,” according to event history published by the City of Tampa.
Making a Krewe
The celebration was done a bit differently than what Tampa residents see now. In a lot of ways, the modern celebration is similar to Mardi Gras, but with some dramatic, unique differences. Just like Mardi Gras, there are “krewes” that put the celebration on, in partnership with the city and community.
Unlike Mardi Gras, while there are beads to be thrown and beers to be drank, there are also pirates.
“The original members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla stormed Tampa on horseback before becoming seaworthy in 1911,” according to the City of Tampa. “The success of those early invasions prompted planners to move the celebration to its winter time slot and encouraged the creation of additional events.”
YMKG continues to host the event each year, including what has become a communitywide, weekslong event culminating in a boat parade or “Gasparilla Pirate Fest,” where YMKG pirate krewe members hold the mayor hostage for a key to the city and fire cannons from Hillsborough Bay.