José Gaspar, known by his nickname Gasparilla (supposedly lived c. 1756 – 1821), was a purported Spanish pirate, the "last of the Buccaneers," who is claimed to have raided the west coast of Florida during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Though he is a popular figure in Florida folklore, no mention of Gaspar appears in writing before the early 20th century and no physical evidence of his existence has ever been found. His legend is celebrated every year in Tampa with the Gasparilla Pirate Festival
The details of Jose Gaspar's life and career vary in different tellings, especially with regard to his origin. Most say that Gaspar was born in Spain in 1756 and served in the Spanish Navy, only to desert and turn to piracy in 1783. In some versions of the story, he began life as a troubled youth who kidnapped a young girl for ransom. Captured and given the choice between prison and joining the navy, Gaspar went to sea, where he served with distinction for several years before leading a mutiny against a tyrannical captain and fleeing to Florida.
In other versions, Gaspar was a Spanish nobleman who achieved a high rank in the Spanish navy and became a councillor to King Charles III. He was popular in the court, but when he spurned one lover for another, the jilted lady levied false charges against him, often said to involve the theft of the crown jewels. To escape arrest, he commandeered a ship and vowed to exact revenge on his country.
In all versions, the renegade fled to the virtually uninhabited west coast of Spanish Florida about 1783 and turned to piracy aboard his ship, the Floriblanca. Gaspar established his base on Gasparilla Island and was soon the feared scourge of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where he plundered dozens of ships and amassed a huge cache of treasure in the period coinciding with the second Spanish rule of Florida. Most male prisoners would be put to death or recruited as pirates, while women would be taken to a nearby isle (called Captiva Island for this reason), where they would serve as his concubines, become the wives of his pirate crew, or await ransom payment from their families.
Different versions of Gaspar's legend relate different episodes in his piratical career. One of the most famous involves a Spanish (or Mexican) princess Gaspar had captured. Allegedly named Useppa, she consistently rejected the pirate's advances until he threatened to behead her if she would not submit to his lust. Still she refused, and he killed her in a rage (or alternately because his crew demanded her death). The captain instantly regretted the deed and took her body to a nearby island, which he named Useppa in her honor, and buried her himself. Some versions identify the lady with Josefa de Mayorga, daughter of Martín de Mayorga, viceroy of New Spain from 1779 to 1782, and contend that the island's name evolved over time. Similarly, Sanibel Island is said to have been named by Gaspar's first mate, Roderigo Lopez, after his lover whom he had left back in Spain. Empathizing with his friend's plight, Gaspar eventually allowed Lopez to return home, and even trusted him with his personal log. Sanibel Island re-emerges in other stories as the headquarters of the mythical Haitian pirate Black Caesar, for whom there is also little to no historical evidence.
The legends agree that Jose Gaspar met his end in December 1821, the year that Spain sold the Florida Territory to the United States. Gasparilla had decided to retire after almost 40 years of plunder, and he and his crew were dividing his vast treasure at his base on Gasparilla Island. During this process, the lookout spotted what looked like a fat British merchant ship, an opportunity too good to pass up. But as they approached in the Floriblanca, the intended victim lowered the Union Jack and raised an American flag, revealing that this was no merchant vessel, but the pirate hunting schooner USS Enterprise. In the battle that followed, Gasparilla's ship was riddled by cannonballs and in danger of sinking. Rather than surrender, Gaspar wrapped an anchor chain around his waist and dramatically leapt from the bow, shouting "Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy's!" Most of his surviving crew were captured and subsequently hanged, but a few escaped. In most versions of the story, one of these survivors was Juan Gómez, who would tell the tale to subsequent generations.
Though his story has been retold in many forms since its first appearance in 1900, there is no evidence that Jose Gaspar ever existed. Research in Spanish and American archives have turned up no contemporary mentions of the pirate or his early life, and no artifacts or physical evidence of his presence have been found in Florida. While the USS Enterprise was assigned to the West Indies Squadron tasked with suppressing piracy in the Caribbean, the navy schooner is documented to have been in the Bahamas in December 1821, not in Charlotte Harbor. In all of the surviving United States Navy trial records involving prisoners accused of piracy, the names Gaspar or Gasparilla were never mentioned. In fact, there was very little piracy on Florida's west coast during Gaspar's supposed heyday because there were no established settlements in the area and thus few merchant ships carrying the easily liquidated cargo favored by pirates.
Sources of the legend
John Gómez (also known as Juan Gómez and Panther John) was a semi-legendary but real person who lived on Panther Key near Marco Island in Southwest Florida in the late 1800s. He was well known in the area as an expert boat pilot and fishing guide on Florida's Gulf coast and as a teller of tall tales, mostly about himself. Among other things, Gómez claimed to have been born in Portugal in 1781 (which would have likely made him the oldest person in the world before his death in 1900), saw Napoleon as a youth in France, became a cabin boy on a merchant ship and jumped ship in the United States, served as a scout for the U.S. Army during the Seminole Wars, served as a coastal pilot for the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, did some filibustering and perhaps some pirating in Cuba, and escaped from a Cuban prison before finally settling in Florida. The exact content of these stories are uncertain since they were usually told in informal settings to small groups and survive only as later reminisces or third-party re-tellings.
Though most versions of the Gaspar legend claim that Gómez was a member of the pirate's crew or even his brother-in-law, no account written before his death in 1900 links Gomez's alleged piratical exploits to that of José Gaspar.
The first written account of José Gaspar comes from a 1900 advertising brochure for the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company, a part of Henry B. Plant's railroad system that ran to Plant's Boca Grande Hotel on Gasparilla Island in Charlotte Harbor. Retelling and extensively elaborating tales attributed to John Gomez, the brochure fancifully related the legend of Jose Gaspar ("The Last of the Buccaneers") and mentioned Gomez as a member of his crew. It explained that several of islands in the Charlotte Harbor area were named by Gaspar - Captiva Island where his captives were supposedly held, Sanibel Island supposedly named after Gaspar's love interest, and Gasparilla Island after the pirate himself. Finally, the brochure claimed that the buccaneer's vast cache of buried treasure had been hidden somewhere near the Boca Grande Hotel but had never been found.
Though presented as fact, the brochure's claims are doubtful at best. Local place names supposedly inspired by Jose Gaspar appeared on maps drawn long before the pirate was said to have arrived in the area. Documents from the 1700s mention that Gasparilla Island was named for Friar Gaspar, a Spanish missionary who visited the native Calusa in the 1600s. In addition, no artifacts or other physical evidence of Gaspar's home base have ever been found on the islands of Charlotte Harbor.
The brochure, which included lines such as “Taking the best of everything when a capture was made, he chose the best of the islands in Charlotte Harbor, for his own secret haunts", was used as an advertising leaflet for the Boca Grande Hotel and was freely distributed to guests. In 1923, a Boston historian named Francis B. C. Bradlee received a copy of the brochure and, assuming that the story was true, included Jose Gaspar in a book that he was writing about piracy, Piracy In The West Indies And Its Suppression. His book was used as a source for later works such as Philip Gosse's Pirates' Who's Who and Frederick W. Dau's Florida Old and New, the authors of which also took Gaspar's authenticity for granted. Over the next few decades, several more books about pirates or Florida history erroneously included Jose Gaspar / Gasparilla as a real historical figure.
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla
In 1936, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the Tampa organization which sponsors the annual Gasparilla parade, commissioned Tampa Tribune editor Edwin D. Lambright to write an authorized history of the Krewe. The volume included a version of the legend of Jose Gaspar in which he was a more "respectable" and "courtly" pirate who resorted to violence only when absolutely necessary. Lambright claimed that his account was supported by "unquestionable records", including a diary written by Gaspar himself. However, the diary was said to have been lost, and later research in both Spanish and American historical archives has not turned up any evidence of Gaspar's existence.
In 2004, the Krewe published a new centennial history of the organization. This document basically recounts the Gasparilla legend first published in 1936, but adds the coda that while Jose Gaspar might not have ever existed, his legend does, and that "it has provided many adventurous and colorful stories for the residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast."
"The Gasparilla Story"
In 1949, Fort Myers author Jack Beater published a mass-market paperback version of the Gaspar legend called The Gasparilla Story. Though written in the style of a light adventure novel, the narrator claimed that the story was true and had been verified with a "mouse-eaten Cuban manuscript" and an old map found in a used book store, neither of which were made public. The book was reprinted several times, spreading the tale of Gaspar to a wider audience.
"The Hand of Gasparilla"
While working on the Cass Street Bridge reconstruction in downtown Tampa during the 1930s, railroad worker Ernesto Lopez is said to have discovered a buried box containing a pile of Spanish and Portuguese colonial coins, a map indicating that the rest of Gaspar's treasure was hidden nearby, and a severed hand wearing a ring engraved with the name "Gaspar."
In 2015, these artifacts appeared on national news outlets after Lopez's great-grandchildren rediscovered the box in their late grandfather's attic. However, upon examination, experts at the Tampa Bay History Center determined that the coins were non-precious souvenir coins from an early Gasparilla parade and the map was from no earlier than the 1920s, as several local landmarks built around that time are depicted. The origin of the hand remained a mystery, though the curator of the history center opined that it was a mummified monkey hand.
Gasparilla Pirate Festival
In 1904, members of the Tampa business elite put on an "invasion" of their city based on the increasingly popular figure of Gasparilla. Under the guise of "Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla", an organization modeled after the New Orleans Mardi Gras parade krewes, the invaders donned pirate costumes and rode through the streets on horseback. The event was a hit, and the Krewe planned an even more elaborate spectacle the next year, when all 60 of Tampa's cars were paraded through downtown.
The Gasparilla Pirate Festival has been celebrated almost every year since then and has become a celebrated local holiday. The focal point of the various events is an "invasion" by Jose Gaspar and his crew, which has been held on the last Saturday in January since 2005. Members of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, accompanied by a flotilla of hundreds of private boats, sail across Tampa Bay to downtown Tampa on the Jose Gasparilla, a 165' long "pirate" ship which was specially built for this purpose in 1954. The mayor of Tampa then hands over the key of the city to the pirate captain and a "victory parade" ensues down Bayshore Boulevard. Dozens of other Krewes have joined the festivities over the years, and an average of over 300,000 people attend the event, which contributes over $20 million to the local economy.
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