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Hidden History: Pirates in Tampa Bay

Modern Globe

Pirate ships [seen] through palms : Tampa, Fla. 1938Photo byHillsborough County Library System

It's January in Tampa Bay. The time to be inundated with all things pirates and parades. But what were pirates to Tampa Bay? Were they a genuine threat? Did they lead to the development of the area? Were they just an extension of colonial control, Let's learn more about pirates and Tampa Bay and why we've dedicated so much to their memory.

The golden age of pirates in Florida

For centuries, pirates were a genuine threat in Florida! These crews made their living by plundering small settlements and raiding cargo ships in the Caribbean and the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida. Life as a pirate, or buccaneer, was hard. They lived fast and died young, with many of them only going on one or two raids before retiring.

The Golden Age of Piracy was from 1650 to 1726. Some of these crews were total outlaws. Men who tried to make an honest living through treasurer diving or some other odd job, but eventually turned to piracy. Some were an extension of colonial authority, patrolling the seas on behalf of greater powers like England or Spain.

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Real pirates like Diego “El Mulato” Martin and Robert Seales did plunder the Gulf Coast. Attacking cargo ships and trying to turn a profit in nearby settlements in the Tampa Bay area.

However, a pirate by the name of José Gaspar? Probably not real.

José Gaspar in a brochure from Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Company .Photo byHillsborough County Library System

José Gaspar — The man, the myth

Really more myth than actual man. According to Brad Massey, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center, the story of José Gaspar comes from a local Florida man in the 1900s. Juan Gomez lived in Collier County and said he was once a cabin boy to a pirate named José Gaspar. He even came up with a swashbuckling story.

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The story grew and grew with details coming and going, depending on who told the story. Most retellings say José Gaspar was born in Spain and served in the Spanish Navy until turning to a life of piracy on his ship, the Gasparilla. He was eventually taken down by American forces focused on eliminating piracy. He refused to surrender and instead wrapped an anchor around his waist and plunged into the great beyond.

A splendid story. Almost certainly not true.

The first pirate invasion for Gasparilla (1904) took place on horseback.Photo byCourtesy Tampa Bay History Center

Actual pirates in Florida history

The story of Gaspar grew and in the early 20th Century. Local Tampa citizens saw this tall tale as a great gimmick to get people interested in the Bay area. Thus, the Gasparilla parade was born.

So, while José Gaspar may not be real, here are some actual pirates who caused mischief and mayhem along the Florida coast.

  • Sir Francis Drake — You may know him as an explorer for England, but according to 16th century Spain, this guy was a pirate! Sailed all around the Florida coast. Raided St. Augustine once.
  • Henry Jennings — An English privateer from Bermuda aka a pirate. Was one of the many pirates who sailed around Florida looking for gold on old wrecked ships that were scattered along the coastline.
  • Samuel Bellamy — Another sunken treasurer seeker turned pirate. Actually, a pretty nice guy, considering! His crews loved him and he was sometimes affectionally called "Robin Hood of the Sea."

This story was written with help from The Smithsonian Magazine.

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