THE PIRATES ARE COMING! THE PIRATES ARE COMING!(photo from the files of the Orlando Sentinel)
Each year, at the end of January, Tampa is invaded by PIRATES!!! For over 100 years, these "ruthless" members of Jose Gaspar's Krewe arrive, in their replicated ship, at the Convention Center in downtown Tampa and take over the city for a full day of merriment.
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla was formed in 1905...and the tradition was begun. These "pirates" are prominent businessmen from the area...doctors, lawyers, business owners, brokers, bankers, etc., who meet for an early "makeup session" at the Tampa Yacht Club. There they transform from "mild-mannered" men, to fierce pirates, complete with scars, beards, and swarthy complexions. Truthfully, it's difficult to recognize who they really are (I have never been able to pick out my brothers!) The "pirates" then board their ship, the Jose Gasparilla, and sail around Davis Islands to the convention center, where they dock and disembark.
The pirate ship is escorted by hundreds of boats...big and small. It's quite a sight! Once the ship docks, the pirates disembark and meet the mayor. To "avoid devastation of the city", the mayor relinquishes the keys to the city and the festivities begin.
A parade...now one of the largest in the US... is held, followed by a carnival atmosphere filled with stage acts, rides, and foods along the river in downtown Tampa. Fireworks light the sky to end the day's festivities.
Here the Jose Gasparilla has landed, and the pirates are getting ready to invade the city. (When I was a kid, there was a tightrope walker going back and forth between the mast. It was so cool!!!)
Other parades and festivities, including the Children's Pirate Parade and the Gasparilla Classic...a half marathon and a marathon race, have been added to make this a two week celebration. The Illuminated Knight Parade in Ybor City is hosted by the Krewe of Sant' Yago. This night parade is almost as big as the day parade...but with a Spanish flavor. It takes place under the vintage street lights of Ybor. (When I was in high school, our Chiefette (dancer) uniforms were short lace dresses with mantillas, in place of the "Indian" silver fringe and rhinestones and white plumed headdresses. We all felt so beautiful!) And of course, bands played Malaguena.
Why PIRATES? And who was Jose Gaspar?
As legend goes, Jose Gaspar, "the last of the buccaneers", was a Spanish aristocrat who was quite a rogue...even at a young age. To avoid jail for his many crimes, Gaspar was given the option of joining the Spanish navy. While in the navy, he showed that he was cunning and quite brave. At the age of 27, he rose through the ranks to become a naval attache to the Court of King Charles III, in 1772.
While at court, he dallied with many ladies....including the king's daughter-in-law, who he publicly jilted. To get even with Gaspar, the jilted woman conspired with the prime minister to frame Gaspar for the theft the crown jewels. Escaping punishment, Gaspar stole the ship, the Floridablanca, and sailed to the new world. Swearing revenge against the Spanish crown, Gaspar attacked any Spanish ship who came his way.
For the next 38 years, Gaspar attacked as many as 400 merchant ships from many countries...some Spanish, some from other countries. "Gasparilla", the name he gave himself, sailed the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida and down to Cuba.
At the age of 65, Gasparilla announced to his crew that he was going to retire. However, there was just one more ship coming his way that was reported to have a FORTUNE aboard. What a great way to end his days as a pirate! This "fat merchant ship" was flying the British flag and seemed to be helpless on the seas. Unfortunately, for Gaspar and his band of pirates, this ship was actually the USS Enterprise, an American ship with a boatload of cannons, sent to wipe out the pirates preying in the Gulf of Mexico. A fierce battle ensued, and the Floridablanca was sinking. To avoid capture, Jose Gaspar wrapped the chain of the ship's anchor around his waist and jumped into the waters, never to be seen again.
There are many more stories about Jose Gaspar...some about his ruthlessness, some about his kindness and sentimentality. Whether any of these tales are true is anyone's guess. But, here in Tampa, we celebrate this pirate taking over the keys to the city...and have been doing this for 106 years.
This year's celebrations started today, with the Children's Pirate Parade. The Gasparilla Parade will be held on Saturday, January 30. The pirate ship will arrive in Tampa around 11:30. There is a brunch with the pirates at the convention center...and the parade begins at 1:30...on Bayshore Blvd. The parade ends in downtown...and the festival begins. The day's festivities come to an end with a fabulous fireworks display late in the evening.
This is a fun-filled experience. If you are anywhere near the Tampa area, and have not attended any of the parades, you really should make the time to do so. It's a true "Tampa Experience".
Sources: www.gasparillapiratefest.com, www.josegaspar.net