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.