The man behind it all

It has been a week for pirates.

Since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers captured Super Bowl XXXVII, swords, cannons, and the skull and crossbones have been all the rage throughout the community.

And what better way for the week of celebration to culminate than with the annual Gasparilla invasion, parade and pirate- fest Saturday?

The event, now one year shy of its 100th birthday, re-enacts Tampa’s original invasion by plundering pirates. The street party and concerts surrounding the event have been fodder for jokesters who annually point out that Tampa is a city that celebrates being pillaged and sacked.

Crowds of bay area residents will no doubt be treated to the same lavish costumes and entertainment that have been mainstays for the past 99 years. But lost in the parties and the beer is the reason for the festivities. Behind Gasparilla is a rich history that, in many ways, defined a growing Tampa.

The original Tampa Bay Buccaneer

He is now a part of legend. Many of the stories about him cannot be confirmed. But it is the pirate José Gaspar who gave his name to the festival, his hero status earned through a dubious career that combined evil and terror with bravery and an ocean-going chivalry.

Gaspar’s pirate career spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries and came at a time when the United States was still in it infancy and Florida was in Spanish hands.

Gaspar, according the Gasparilla Web site, began calling himself by the festival’s name while serving in the Royal Spanish Navy.

Following a mutiny, Gaspar sailed to Florida and began his pirate life.

That is the last solid information about Gaspar’s life. Stories about his days as a buccaneer, infused with legend, vary greatly depending on sources. Accounts have Gaspar seizing from anywhere up to 400 ships. He became infamous all along the western coast of Florida, with reported hide-outs from Tampa Bay, south to Charlotte County.

He terrorized the coast, taking what he wanted. His fame grew as word of his exploits traveled.

Gaspar seized treasure and, by some reports, gave captured crews a choice between becoming members of his crew or death.

The end of the pirate life

A turning point for Gaspar came between 1820 and 1822. The United States now had control of Florida, and in more mythological accounts, Gaspar decided it was time to give up his pirating ways.

But, Gaspar could not leave the life quickly enough. The pirate was tricked and attacked by a U.S. warship. Following a frantic battle, Gaspar’s ship was destroyed, and the pirate lay dead.

A more romantic version of his death, as told on the festival’s Web site, describes Gaspar as daring and brave to the end. According to the story, Gaspar leapt into the sea brandishing his sword and taking the American commander down with him. The end, maybe a little too fitting for belief, was Gaspar’s final act of defiance.

Gaspar’s death was the final curtain call on the pirate life. With the end of the colonial period, centuries of crime on the high sea sunk into the sea with Gaspar’s body.

Because of that, Gaspar has come be known as the last buccaneer.

Buried treasure?

Legend has it that just before Gaspar’s bloody farewell, the pirate decided to divide and conceal his considerable wealth. His crew apparently buried the treasure somewhere on the western coast of Florida. To this day, his treasure has never been found, leaving modern treasure hunters with the hope they will one day stumble upon Gaspar’s horde.

Gaspar’s spirit still with us?

With the Super Bowl championship, this year’s party will probably be even more intense. But maybe it is finally Tampa that will have the last laugh. At least for this year, it will not be known as a city celebrating its own sacking. Now, its Tampa’s own, home-grown Buccaneers who sailed west and destroyed the Raider Nation are bringing home the treasure.

José Gaspar would have been proud.

Contact Rob Brannonat