A long time ago, before the internet existed, before the NFL was founded, before Florida was even a state, pirates roamed the waters of the Gulf of Mexico searching for treasure to pillage. Yes, that’s right, pirates went north of the Caribbean in their pursuit of rum and gold.
Most Americans don’t hear too much about the history of piracy in this country, but it was a thriving enterprise for some time, back before we had so many rules and laws. We say most Americans because there is one place in the states that knows all about the pirate life. It’s Tampa Bay.
In fact, in Tampa Bay, hundreds of thousands of people gather together annually to throw a good old-fashioned pirate throwdown, remembering the city’s lawless history. It’s known as Gasparilla, and the event has been taking place since 1904. It’s even come to define a season in the Tampa area spanning several months. It’s just one more reason to love the Big Guava.
Wondering what the big deal is? This is your official guide to Gasparilla.
You can’t talk about Gasparilla without covering the complicated identity of José Gaspar. Local legend paints him as the patron saint of all Gasparilla festivities. Did he actually exist? That’s a different story. First, let’s uncover who José Gaspar was, according to the Tampa Bay myth, according to the Tampa Bay History Center.
José Gaspar was a Spanish naval officer who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. He apparently didn’t much like what the naval life was offering him, so he joined others in mutiny and sailed across the Atlantic to Florida to begin a life of piracy. He gained a reputation fast, amassing a sizable fortune that has never been found.
The legend of Gasparilla is based on his final act as a pirate. After deciding to retire, Gaspar wanted to do one last raid on a ship to commemorate his four decades of pirate life. Unfortunately for the captain, the ship he picked to raid was actually a US navy ship in disguise, and the sailors did not take kindly to a pirate invasion. They fought it out, and José Gaspar eventually tied an anchor around his waist and jumped into the ocean, refusing to be captured.
So the story goes for José Gaspar. Now, did any of this happen? Hard to say. There is no evidence of anyone by that name in the Spanish census, which was famously meticulous. More likely than not, Gaspar is actually a fictional character based on a few pirates that did indeed wreak havoc on Florida’s western coast.
Diego Martin of Cuba and Robert Seales of England became infamous for their raids on the Caribbean and Floridian coasts. Scholars even refer to the 17th century as the golden age for piracy, so it’s no wonder that a story like José Gaspar’s took hold.
While it’s true that buccaneers roamed the waters around Tampa, Gaspar seems to be a piece of fiction who went from urban legend to local hero, thanks to some phony writing which appeared around the turn of the twentieth century.
Louise Frances Dodge, an editor of the Tampa Tribune, was looking for ways to liven up the city’s annual May Day festival. George Hardee, a customs agent in Florida, suggested including the myth of José Gaspar in the festivities, with people in pirate costumes sure to add some excitement.
In May of 1904, the first Gasparilla festival kicked off, with Tampa’s elite dressing up in pirate costumes and ‘invading’ the city on horseback. These actors were deemed the Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, who still return to Tampa every year to take over. By 1911, the pirates left their four-legged friends for the more authentic maritime experience, invading the city by ship. In 1936 the Krewe purchased its first ship, the Gasparilla, which still sails every year.
It’s not alone. The festival has grown more and more every year and now usually involves upwards of 1,000 boats. By now, Tampa Bay locals know what to expect. The Gasparilla ship sails into the city, throwing beads at the big crowd gathered around to watch. It is met with some resistance.
Tampa Bay doesn’t go down without a fight. A small flotilla tries to fend them off, but ultimately the merry krewe wins the battle, and the Gasparilla, followed by a long boat parade, cruises down to the Tampa Bay Convention Center, where the mayor is forced to hand over the keys to the city.
One thing we really love about Gasparilla is that it’s not just one single event or even day. Gasparilla has come to define an entire season of festivities in Tampa and St. Petersburg.
From the end of December all the way into March, Tampa has special activities, celebrations, and festivals commemorating the legend of José Gaspar and honoring the diverse and historic culture within the city.
This all unofficially kicks off with the Gasparilla Bowl, which takes place at the end of December, right around Christmas. Starting in 2008, the bowl game is relatively new but is already catching on fast with a local and national audience.
The game is held in the Raymond James Stadium, which also hosts the Buccaneers, and you can usually spot some swashbucklers in the stands handing out beads.
Gasparilla season starts in earnest with the pirate invasion. All along Bayshore Boulevard, thousands and thousands of locals and tourists alike gather to watch the Gasparilla sail into the city.
If you’re extra lucky and have a friend with a boat, you can even observe from the water for a more immersive experience. If you get the chance to do that, make sure you wear our Beads, Booze, Bayshore t-shirt.
The boat parade is a sight to see, but it’s not the only parade in town. The Sant’Yago Knight Parade in Ybor City is also worth checking out. It takes place at night, with the floats lighting up the sky, celebrating the rich history of Latin American culture in Tampa.
If you’re more into exercise than piracy, the city puts on a massive series of running races in honor of the Gasparilla season. There’s a half marathon, a 15k, an 8k, and a 5k, in addition to a number of fun runs for kids.
The races are responsible for millions of dollars in donations for local Tampa Bay charities, so you can feel extra good about crossing that finish line.
Last but certainly not least, the Gasparilla season is a huge chance to engage with the local arts scene. Over the months immediately following the pirate invasion, Tampa hosts an arts festival, a music festival, and an international film festival, attracting talent from all over the world.
The Gasparilla Arts Festival includes a wide variety of craftsmanship, including painters, ceramics artists, and even woodworkers. Visitors can explore a vast tent city with booths upon booths of unique artwork.
The Gasparilla Music Festival is a three-day affair featuring local artists with that Floridian flair in addition to national acts as headliners. The outdoor venues also include favorite Tampa Bay food vendors.
The Gasparilla International Film Festival has gained a lot of notoriety in a short amount of time. They hand out prizes for best feature-length and short films, for both documentaries and narrative pieces. The festival takes place in theaters all over the city and often hosts Q&As with the directors and casts of the movies.
Suffice it to say, from sports to films, the Gasparilla season has a little something for everyone to enjoy.
So, was José Gaspar a real man? Maybe not, but that hasn’t stopped the city of Tampa from creating a one-of-a-kind experience that both locals and tourists can agree is pretty great. There’s something about watching grown men and women dress up as pirates that inspires the kind of a party a whole city can rally around. If you get the chance to visit Tampa at any point in Gasparilla season, make sure you take full advantage of the city’s unique selection of things to do.
Do you call the 813 home? Lucky you. Check out our full Tampa Bay t-shirt and merchandise collection, featuring long-lost teams that you grew up with, beloved and bulldozed arenas, and, of course, a little something for Champa Bay.