Gasparilla has been a Tampa tradition since 1904. This weekend is the annual Gasparilla Parade of Pirates along with other related events. An opportunity for folks to gather, dress up as pirates, wear beads, watch fancy floats as well as watch a flotilla of boats invade the harbor. Generally, have a lot of fun. For a few its just another opportunity to get drunk.
It’s all based on the sketchy life of a Spanish Royal Naval Officer, one Lt. Jose Gasper. There are a variety of legends surrounding how Gasper who changed his name to Gasparilla, became a pirate and roamed the Gulf of Mexico attacking merchant ships, creating havoc and terror throughout the area. One version is he deserted the Spanish Navy fleeing to the Southwest area of Florida where in 1783 he turned to piracy aboard his ship the Floriblanca. His home base was Gasparilla Island where he allegedly hid his gold and other prized possessions.
In 1821, the United States purchased Florida from Spain. Gasparilla and his fellow crew of pirates were set to “retire” and live off what they stole. However, they saw one final opportunity come their way when one of the crew spotted what they thought was a British merchant ship. As they approached the ship, an American flag was raised. The ship turned out to be the USS Enterprise which was on a pirate hunting mission in the Gulf. The Enterprise bombarded the pirate ship to a point where it began to sink. Rather than be captured, Gasparilla jump overboard, some say wrapping an anchor chain around his waist, and was never seen again. Many of his crew were captured.
How much of all this is true is open to a lot of questions. There is actually no proof that one Lt. Jose Gaspar ever existed. Inquiries in Spanish and American archives have revealed no records on anyone named Jose Gaspar. No proof has surfaced that anyone by the name of Jose Gaspar was ever in the southwestern part of Florida.
Much, if not all, is just Florida folklore helped along the way by the tourism industry to lure out-of-towners to the area. But like the newspaper publisher in John Ford’s classic film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The legend had fueled Gasparilla in Tampa now for more than 100 years which included Coronation balls and parades. Today, there are three parades, a juried art show and community service programs.
Earlier this week, my wife and I went into Tampa to pick up our photographs that were part of a recent exhibit at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. We also went over to the Henry B. Plant Museum that is currently hosting an exhibit on the tradition of Gasparilla in Tampa. The Museum, which was originally known as the Tampa Bay Hotel, was once a major part of the Gasparilla tradition with many of the Coronation Balls being held in the hotel’s main dining room. The parade route for many years passed by the hotel finishing up on the large hotel grounds. This changed in 1976 with events now happening in Downtown Tampa, South Tampa and along the waterways.