The Legend of Jose Gaspar
Let’s talk pirates! One of the truly great charms about American life is that almost every little town and hamlet has some sort of historical special day or event celebrated each year. When I was a young bride in Tampa, Florida, the big event was seeing a huge PIRATE ship, cannons blazing, pirate flags flapping in the breeze, followed by a flotilla of scores of small boats, attack Tampa to raze and plunder at will by hundreds of bloodthirsty pirates pouring off the ships and flowing into the city, muskets and sabres drawn! Gasparilla Day had arrived!
Gasparilla Day, which is like Mardi Gras with boats and pirates, started in 1904. There’s a real honest-to-goodness 165 ft. long pirate ship built in 1954 just for the occasion that storms into Tampa Bay, cannons booming and pirate flags hoisted. Every year in late January, the big pirate ship moors at the Tampa docks, disgorging hundreds of “pirates” (who are mostly local businessmen who have been professionally made up by imported Hollywood make-up artists to look authentically scary) from the ship – pistols and sabers at the ready – all of whom “invade” the city and take the mayor “prisoner.” The mayor, “fearful for his life,” surrenders the keys to the city. The pirates then kick off a massive “victory” parade, “assaulting” the “helpless” city, “plundering” and “looting” as they meander through downtown, throwing out baubles and candy to the “captured citizens”. It’s an event you don’t want to miss if you’re in the Tampa Bay area in late January.
The main character in this event is a pirate named Jose Gaspar, who was born into a wealthy aristocratic Spanish family back in 1756. He was a bit of a rogue, however, and at the age of 12, kidnapped a young girl he intended to ransom off to enhance his allowance. He got busted and the judge gave him the choice of entering the Royal Spanish Naval Academy or going to prison. Wisely, he chose the Navy and over time showed great navigational and tactical skills. He was brave and cunning in battle and eventually became an admiral of the Atlantic Fleet. At the age of 27, he became a naval attache’ at the Court of Charles III.
Being the rogue he was, he got involved with several women at the court all at the same time, which is never a good idea. It appealed to his love of danger and adventure – but, of course, it couldn’t end well. He jilted one of them, who happened to be a daughter-in-law of the King! Her revenge was to conspire with the prime minister to frame Gaspar for stealing the Spanish crown jewels. He got wind of the plot and fled before he could be arrested by commandeering a ship, the Floridablanca, and escaped. From that day on, he swore an oath of revenge on Spain and plundered every ship flying the Spanish flag he could find.
Gaspar set up shop along the virtually uninhabited Gulf coast of Florida in 1783 and roamed the west coast of Florida (then held by the Spanish) down to Cuba looking for ships to attack. If it was a particularly large, juicy prize, he would join forces with other pirates in the area, including Jean Laffite.
For the next 38 years, Gaspar attacked merchant ships from all countries, not just Spain. It’s rumored he plundered over 400 ships and built a reputation for being fearless and ferocious in battle. He soon became the scourge of the Gulf, showing no mercy: passengers and crew were killed, with the exception of beautiful women, who were transported to Captiva Island (a beautiful place you can still visit today and so named for the captives held there) and used as concubines for Gaspar and his crew. Sometimes if they captured a wealthy woman, they would hold her for ransom on Captiva as well.
At the age of 65 (incredibly old for a pirate!), Gaspar decided to retire. Florida was now in American hands, he had made his pile of loot and he wanted to retire to live a life of luxury. In December of 1821, he gathered his crew together to split up 20 years’ worth of spoils into twenty large chests of gold and jewels.
Just then, a rich British merchant ship was seen passing nearby the hideout. One last easy score presented itself and he could not resist! Gaspar and half the crew took off in pursuit, the rest stayed to guard the treasure. Just as the Floridablanca came within cannon range of the promising target, the British ship dropped its colors and ran up the American flag!! Dozens of cannon were instantly uncovered and aimed at Gaspar – he had fallen into a trap and he was facing the lethal US Navy’s warship and pirate-hunting schooner – the USS Enterprise!
A raging sea battle ensued on Tampa Bay, but it became clear pretty quickly who would prevail and Gaspar could see the writing on the wall. He climbed to the bow of the ship, wrapped the anchor chain around his waist, held his cutlass high in one hand, yelled “Gaspar dies by his own hand, not the enemy’s” – and jumped into the dark waters, never to be seen again. The rest of the crew was killed or captured and hung as pirates in New Orleans.
The ten most trusted men left on the island with the treasure chests watched the epic battle unfold, saw the Floridablanca go down, hurriedly loaded all the chests into longboats and took off unnoticed up the Peace River to a place called Spanish Homestead, which was owned by a Lady Boggess. The pirates bribed her with a small part of the treasure to hide them and not divulge their location if the Americans came looking.
The men spent the next day burying the rest of the treasure in different spots, burned the longboat and disappeared forever.
Although he was supposedly the most feared pirate on the Gulf Coast, there is no real evidence that Jose Gaspar ever existed. Research turns up very little fact, the ship Floridablanca does not apear in US Navy archives, no trace of his hideout has ever been found. . . . did he really exist?? . . . .
. . . . . Years later, near Spanish Homestead, $300,000 in buried gold coins was found. The remaining estimated $30 million dollars in gold and jewels still remain undiscovered . . . .