HISTORY OF GASPARILLA– The Legend
Gasparilla sounds like an exotic drink…or perhaps even a rare, tropical flower. But, as any Tampa resident can attest, “Gasparilla” means boats, pirates, parades, merriment and more. It means January is here, and the city’s illustrious festival celebration is, once again, about to begin.
Gasparilla…the pirate. The name and foundation of Tampa’s traditional Gasparilla Carnival come from legendary pirate Jose Gaspar, “last of the Buccaneers,” who terrorized the coastal waters of West Florida during the late 18th and early 19th century. Gaspar, given to calling himself “Gasparilla,” served as a lieutenant in the Royal Spanish Navy for five years until 1783 when, upon seizing command of a Spanish sloop-of-war, he with his fellow mutineers set sail for the Florida straits. And so the young Spanish aristocrat-turned-pirate began an adventurous life as outlaw of the sea.
Although few facts are known of the life and death of the famed Gasparilla, accounts from his own personal diary boast the capture and burning of 36 ships during his first 12 years as a pirate. Crews of captured ships were given the option of joining Gaspar’s ranks or walking the plank; fates of captive ladies were determined largely by his moment’s fancy.
The number of ships that fell prey to Gasparilla and his buccaneers during later years is not known, but he continued to ravage Florida waters until December 1821. Deciding it was time to retire from pirate life, Gaspar had just convinced his crew to split up their accumulated fortune, disband and live out their lives in peace and luxury. But the sight of a merchant ship sailing northwestwardly toward Orleans was all too inviting for the greedy adventure-seekers. One last thrill, and they would end their careers in grand style – Gaspar and company could not resist, and so set out to pillage the seemingly unassuming merchantman. Closing in on their prey, the pirates realized, to their chagrin, they had chosen a United States Navy warship in disguise for their final folly. And final it was. A bloody battle ensued, leaving Gasparilla’s flagship burning to ruin. As the story goes, just as the commanding officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise was boarding the defeated ship, Gasparilla seized a heavy chain, wrapped it around his waist and neck and leaped into the water, brandishing his sword in a final gesture of defiance as he sank into the sea.
Gasparilla…the man. Judging from this scant bit of history, it is clear that Jose Gaspar was well suited to his chosen occupation as pirate. Tales of his triumphs at sea prove he was certainly bloodthirsty, greedy and adventurous enough; as pirate, he fit the bill. But aside from the fact he possessed a fierce nature with some rather contemptible traits, what else is known about the character of this legendary man?
As an aristocrat by birth and officer in the Spanish Navy, Gasparilla was well educated, possessed courtly manners and had all the appearances of a fine gentleman. He was a faithful friend and expressed kindness to those he held dear. The mighty Gaspar, it is said, had a soft side, which he demonstrated on more than one known occasion. Once, when close friend and comrade-in-crime Roderigo Lopez expressed a sincere desire to leave the outlaw life and return to Spain, Gasparilla not only gave his consent, but extended his blessing, supplied a boat, and sent a number of men along to help his beloved First Mate on the long journey home.
In another instance, Gasparilla discovered the Captain of a captured ship to be a former classmate, inmate and friend from the Spanish Naval Academy. The Pirate leader was so thrilled to see Captain Menendez, he took him back to headquarters despite threats from the Captain of escaping and bringing an end to the pirate’s exploits. Gasparilla did not try to force Menendez to become a pirate, but held him as a friend and confidante, showing him every courtesy and consideration. Eventually Menendez died saving his captor-companion’s life by intercepting a disgruntled crew member about to attack the sleeping Gasparilla.
Perhaps the best example of Gasparilla’s more human side comes from the story of his love for Ann Jeffrey, a beautiful English woman captured while on her way to visit her sister in Louisiana. Gasparilla fell desperately in love with the young maiden and was intent on marrying her. But when the lovesick Gaspar proposed, Ann would not accept his offer confessing fearfully that she was in love with Batista, another one of his pirates. Despite his certain instinct to have the lovers put to death in some cruel manner, Gasparilla seized a merchant ship and agreed to set her free unharmed, cargo and crew intact, on the condition that Ann and Batista be married on board and carried safely back to England.
Gasparilla..the extravaganza. When Jose Gaspar died, he supposedly left an untold fortune in buried treasure somewhere along the Florida coast. Though that treasure has never been discovered, the story of the swashbuckling Gasparilla was unearthed and his memory revived in 1904 when Tampa’s social and civic leaders adopted the pirate as patron rogue of their city-wide celebration. Miss Louise Frances Dodge, society editor of the Tampa Tribune, was planning the city’s first May festival. At the suggestion of George W. Hardee, then with the federal government in Tampa, she decided to develop a theme for the affair based on the legend of Gasparilla.
Secret meetings gave birth to the first “Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla,” whose forty members planned to surprise the populace with a mock pirate attack on Tampa. Masked and fully-costumed, the first krewe arrived on horseback and “captured the city” during the Festival Parade.
HISTORY OF GASPARILLA TODAY
The first invasion was so successful and well-received by the people of Tampa that a city-wide demand was voiced to make the Mystic Krewe organization permanent and to replicate the carnival each year.
Tampa has upheld its tradition by celebrating Gasparilla every year with only ten exceptions since that infamous first invasion. Today, Ye Mystic Krewe numbers over 700 of the city’s most prominent men, who uphold their mascot Gaspar as a “hearty old swashbuckler with courtly manners and possibly – just possibly – prankful habits.”
In 1954 the Krewe commissioned the building of the world’s only fully rigged pirate ship to be built in modern times. Named the Jose Gasparilla, the ship is a replica of a West Indiaman used in the 18th century. She is constructed of steel at 165′ long by 35′ across the beam, with 3 steel masts standing 100′ tall. During the year she is usually docked at the Tarpon Weigh Station on Bayshore Blvd. for the public’s viewing pleasure. In the past, Gasparilla has been celebrated on the second Monday in February.
A break in tradition came in 1988 with the move to a Saturday festival. The change allows surrounding communities to take part in the celebration. In 2002, the festival was moved to the last Saturday in January. In addition to the traditional invasion and parade, the Gasparilla celebration encompasses a full week’s worth of activities held throughout the city. This January, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla will lay siege upon Tampa once again.
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