Who was José Gaspar, the namesake of Tampa’s Gasparilla festival?

Jose Gasar

The image on the left shows José Gaspar, as illustrated in the 1900 brochure for Gasparilla Inn. The map on the right from 1774 shows the names Gasparilla and Captiva before Gaspar's supposed arrival in the area.

By Crystal Harlan

January 26, 2024

Despite questions surrounding Gaspar’s existence, his legend lives on. The city of Tampa became inspired by the tale, and organizers created a pirate-themed festival in 1904 called Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

If you’ve ever been to Tampa, you have most likely heard of José Gaspar, a popular figure in Florida folklore. Doesn’t ring a bell? Then you’ve surely heard of Gasparilla, the annual pirate festival and parade inspired by his exploits.

But who was José Gaspar? Was he even real? According to legend, the Spanish buccaneer, also known as Gasparilla, terrorized the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean during the early 19th century, but it’s likely all fiction. There is no evidence of Gaspar from his time period, whether that be in the form of ship logs, court records, newspapers, or other archives, and there are no physical artifacts to prove his existence.

The earliest known written mention of José Gaspar was a short biography included in an early 1900s promotional brochure for the Gasparilla Inn on Gasparilla Island at Charlotte Harbor. The author of said brochure reportedly admitted that his dramatic tale was a work of fiction “without a true fact in it.”

Nonetheless, the story of Gapsar is incredibly detailed and dramatic. According to popular accounts, Gaspar was born into Spanish nobility but chose a life of piracy, leading raids on merchant vessels and amassing great wealth. His flagship, the Floriblanca, became a symbol of fear among sailors, and tales of his daring exploits spread far and wide. Gaspar is often associated with the mythical Isle of Tortuga and is said to have been driven by a longing for a lost love named Isabella.

They say that Gaspar took women captive on Captiva Island, and became the namesake of Gasparilla Island, a barrier island south of Tampa Bay. “Gasparilla Island” does indeed appear on Spanish and English maps made in the early 1700s, but contemporary documents suggest that it was named for Friar Gaspar, a Spanish missionary who visited the native Calusa in the 1600s.

Legend has it that after four decades or piracy, Gaspar and his crew headed out to sea to pursue one last ship before retirement, but it turned out to be a US Navy ship hunting pirates in disguise. The navy overpowered Gaspar and his crew and instead of surrendering, Gaspar wrapped an anchor chain around his waist, shouting, “Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy’s,” before jumping off the ship and into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

However elaborate and impressive his life story, there are some details that make it implausible. In addition to the lack of evidence, the story of Gaspar takes place well after the golden age of piracy (circa 1650 – 1725), when real historical figures such as Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard, and William Kidd operated. And during Gaspar’s time, the navies of Britain, France, Spain, and the newly independent United States were actively patrolling nearby waters, making any sort of piracy a difficult endeavor.

Some experts believe that the story of Gaspar is a composite of various pirate captains who roamed the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, while others argue that he was a real figure whose exploits were embellished over time.

Despite questions surrounding Gaspar’s existence, his legend lives on. The city of Tampa became inspired by the tale, and organizers created a pirate-themed festival in 1904 called Gasparilla Pirate Fest.

 

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Author

  • Crystal Harlan

    Crystal is a bilingual editor and writer with over 20 years of experience in digital and print media. She is currently based in Florida, but has lived in small towns in the Midwest, Caracas, New York City, and Madrid, where she earned her MA in Spanish literature.

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