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CHASING GASPAR

Men masquerade as pirates on a Gasparilla ship in 1921. Except for a few missed years, the buccaneer-inspired party has played out in Tampa since 1904, and, of course, continues today.
Published Jan. 25, 2014

José Gaspar is real, and there is proof.

Head up to the University of South Florida, to the library in the middle of campus. Take the elevator to special collections, and ask for the only known copy of History of Gasparilla and Ye Mystic Krewe, circa 1935, in public circulation. It's the size and shape of an old high school yearbook, handsomely bound and dedicated to "those who have perpetuated the celebration inspired by the gay and daring buccaneer." Save a few missed years, that gay buccaneer-inspired party has played out in Tampa since 1904, and, of course, continues today.

Inside — careful with the binding — is a riveting, 35-page account of the exploits of Gaspar, penned by Edwin D. Lambright, editor of the Tampa Morning Tribune. "Yes," he writes in Chapter 1, "there was a Gasparilla. His actual existence, many of his depredations, are authenticated in unquestionable records." His primary record was Gaspar's own diary, loaned to Lambright, the acknowledgement suggests, by "an American, resident in Madrid, who wishes his name withheld." One of those records details a bloody mutiny aboard a Spanish ship-of-war called the Florida Blanca. The strike was led by Gaspar, and "sometime in the latter part of 1783," the outlaws headed for Florida and settled at a hideout forevermore known as Gasparilla Island. There they embarked "on a career of slaughter and pillage — to become greedy, gory outlaws of the sea."

There it is. Black and white.

One minor quibble: José Gaspar is not real, and there is proof.

Head down to the Tampa Bay History Center. On display upstairs are 150 rare maps of the Land of Flowers dating back to the 16th century. One giant map drawn by Bernard Romans takes up most of a wall and contains one of the earliest mentions of Boca Gafparilla, a.k.a. Gasparilla Island, the pirate's haunt.

It was drawn in 1774, nine years before the dread pirate reputedly found his hideout.

Those same maps are cited in an exhaustive 25-page debunking by André-Marcel d'Ans that appeared in a 1980 issue of Tampa Bay History. The historian traces the myth to a pre-1900 advertisement from the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad Co.

This account, in turn, was published in 1923 by a historian from Massachusetts, himself the great-grandson of an American privateer. He treated the advertisement as authentic. A decade later, in 1936, José Gaspar entered the pages of an actual history book, Florida Old and New.

Historian d'Ans threw down the gauntlet.

"In perhaps his most successful conquest, Gasparilla has overwhelmed the frontiers of historical knowledge to become in the public's mind the main cultural identity-factor for Tampans," he wrote. "This despite the fact that the Pirate José Gaspar, alias Gasparilla, never existed. This fact is proven both by the absence of his name in the Spanish and American archives and by the total absence of any material trace of his presence in Florida."

And that was that. Modern Tampa residents by and large seem to think of Gasparilla as a work of fiction. So says an informal poll by your correspondent.

Case closed.

Arrrr . . . maybe not.

Enter Mark Newton, who used to romp around South Tampa as a boy, hunting for buried treasure. He's 66 now and still finds time to read about pirates. He was poring over a heavily footnoted, 705-page history called The Pirates Laffite: The Treacherous World of the Corsairs of the Gulf by professor William C. Davis, an award-winning author of more than 40 books on the Civil War and Southern history.

And there it was, on page 449: José Gaspar.

And more: The name of his ship, Jupiter, and an account of Gaspar plundering a Yankee ship, the Orleans, and an account of the USS Grampus putting Gaspar out of business in 1821.

Newton was surprised. He started emailing newspaper reporters. The book had been written in 2005. Why hadn't this news made more waves?

"I have proof that José Gaspar existed," he wrote. "It is backed by National Archives and cited in a reputable history book. . . . This is real."

Stop the presses. José Gaspar is real, and there is proof.

"Gasparilla was a myth, but there was a real Jose Gaspar, though little is known of him, a small-time pirate sort," wrote Davis, the author, in an email to the Times. "Alas, I wrote that book some 10 years ago and remember almost nothing about Gaspar other than what appeared in the book, which I see is only two mentions, so there is really nothing more I could tell you."

The first footnote references two articles from September of 1821 in the Pensacola Floridian. The brief articles under the headline PIRACY mention the Orleans, but not José Gaspar. The newspaper reprinted a letter, allegedly from one of the pirates to a U.S. Naval officer, that demonstrates Gasparilla's panache.

"Between buccaneers, no ceremony; I take your dry goods, and, in return, I send you pimento," the pirate wrote. "Nothing can intimidate us; we run the same fortune, and our maxim is that 'the goods of this world belong to the strong and valiant.' "

The letter, translated from French, was signed Richard Coeur de Lion. Not our pirate.

The other two footnotes cite books mentioned earlier that had perpetuated the legend from the railroad advertisement.

The last, most important footnote: a letter from Francis Gregory to the secretary of war on Oct. 18, 1821. If José Gaspar existed, he'd be in that letter.

To the National Archive.

The script of the four-page letter is hard to read. And the eight people this reporter asked to examine it could find no mention of a pirate named José Gaspar.

Mark Newton seemed a little disappointed when he heard.

"As a little kid growing up, I always believed he was real," he said. "I've researched this for years and I've found no proof. Then in the book I saw 'Gaspar,' and I thought, well, maybe there's something here."

These are the pitfalls of history. Somewhere a charlatan is laughing, and somewhere a new legend is being born, and somewhere belief is sown in the fuzzy space between fact and fiction.

"I think there was a Gaspar," Newton said. "You just can't find him."

Jose Gaspar is real. There's your proof.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com.

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