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The Buccaneers embody Tampa’s love of pirates. Is that a problem?

How brutal outlaws became romanticized

A view of the pirate ship Jose Gasparilla ahead of Super Bowl LV (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa — the first time a team has played a Super Bowl at their home stadium. And the Buccaneers’ name and logo are a true reflection of the city hosting the game, trumpeting its close association with pirate legends, like José Gaspar, namesake of an annual Tampa Festival.

When the National Football League expanded to 28 teams in 1973, the league awarded Tampa an expansion team, prompting a name-the-team contest in 1975. “Buccaneers” won, a reference to the pirates who frequented the coasts of Florida in the 17th and 18th centuries. But team executives wanted the logo to be a “classy” pirate — a cross between Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, the musketeer D’Artagnan and pirate Jean Lafitte. It was a logo the team maintained until 1997 when they switched to a more aggressive, menacing Jolly Roger.

Yet, while this celebration of piracy seems like innocent fun and pride in a local culture, there is danger in romanticizing ruthless cutthroats who created a crisis in world trade when they captured and plundered thousands of ships on Atlantic trade routes between the Americas, Africa and Great Britain. Why? Because it takes these murderous thieves who did terrible things — like locking women and children in a burning church — and makes them a symbol of freedom and adventure, erasing their wicked deeds from historical memory. These were men (and women) who willingly participated in murder, torture and the brutal enslavement of Africans and Indigenous peoples.

Derived from the Arawak word buccan, “boucanier” initially referred to landless hunters who survived off wild game and developed a particular meat-drying technique on the islands of Hispaniola and Tortuga. Later, the term became Anglicized as buccaneer and referred to a group of Caribbean outlaws who operated much like Mediterranean pirates/privateers, who existed in a world of dubious legality. Sometimes they protected colonial interests in the West Indies with governors of Caribbean islands paying them to attack Spanish treasure ships. But most often they were considered a seafaring menace — one that gradually careened out of control, attacking any ship they felt might be carrying valuable cargo, whether it belonged to an enemy country or not.

Consider, for example, Gaspar, who died in 1821 and is still celebrated in Tampa today as the “Last of the Buccaneers.” Stories say he was born in Spain circa 1756 and worked his way into a high position in the court of King Charles III. One story alleges that he kidnapped a 12-year-old girl for ransom and the judge made him choose between jail or the Spanish Navy. Choosing the Navy, he purportedly made his way into the good graces of the king due to his fabulous feats against the Barbary pirates of Tripoli and victories against many pirates in the Caribbean.

According to legend, other members of the court were jealous of his success and his new position as admiral of the Atlantic fleet. They plotted against him, accusing him of treason in 1782. Another story argues that Gaspar publicly abandoned the king’s daughter-in-law for another woman. Heartbroken, she worked with the prime minister to frame Gaspar for stealing the Spanish crown jewels. Hearing that King Charles III had issued a warrant for his arrest, Gaspar escaped, stole a ship and entered into piracy, hoping to take revenge against the Spanish who had treated him so unjustly.

Another story says that at the age of 27, serving as a lieutenant on the Floridablanca, a Spanish Navy ship, Gaspar narrowly escaped a defeat inflicted on his fleet by the English. Humiliated and disappointed by Spanish governance, he decided to seek his own wealth and fame in piracy. Somehow he managed to persuade the crew to join him in mutiny and off they went pirating.

Despite the mystery and conflicting legends about his background, we know 1783 marked a turning point in which Gaspar became a pirate and established a pirate den in Charlotte Harbor on the west coast of Florida north of Fort Myers. He attacked merchant ships, accumulated immense wealth and killed all who stood in his way until he retired in 1821 at age 65. Ordering his men to disband, he promised to divide all their treasure equitably.

But on the day he was to divide the spoils, he spotted what he thought was a rich British merchant ship near the harbor. Gaspar could not resist the temptation to seize it. Unfortunately for him, it turned out to be an American warship, the USS Enterprise. Facing his own demise, Gaspar climbed to the bow of the sinking ship, wrapped the anchor’s chain around his waist, and threw himself into the sea shouting “Gasparilla dies by his own hand, not the enemy’s!” His crew either perished in the melee or were hanged in New Orleans. Only a few managed to escape, according to legend, one of them being John Gómez, who was supposedly the first narrator of the Gasparilla legend.

Other than Gómez’s supposed recollection, there are no historical records of Gaspar. Yet that doesn’t stop Tampa locals and visitors alike from celebrating his legend with a parade and a festival known as the Gasparilla Pirate Festival or Gasparillafest. It supposedly began in 1904 when Louise Francis Dodge (the society editor of the Tampa Tribune) and George W. Hardee (a federal employee) decided to promote the city of Tampa and the May Day celebration as a way to rebrand the city and attract tourists.

The only times Tampa didn’t celebrate the tradition were World War I, World War II and a two-year hiatus when there was dispute over African Americans being allowed to participate. This question of who could be involved in the celebrations mattered. According to André-Marcel d’Ans, the legend and ritual of Gasparilla was “born at a time when the adventurous plundering of pioneers had just given way to a system that necessitated the peaceful cooperation of all social classes” and it “tried to open a safety valve to release the ethnic and social tensions in a city where the relations between different classes and the different ethnic groups were marked by repressive violence in which a largely Anglo elite confronted mostly Latin … workers.” In short, Gasparilla was a way to bring the multiethnic population of Tampa together in celebration.

Of course, the glamorization of Gaspar is not unusual or new. When we consider pirates, we think of swashbuckling films like “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003), which spawned five additional films with a sixth in production. Lionizing pirates dates back at least to 1724, when Captain Charles Johnson’s “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates” hit London presses. Rather than condemn piracy, Johnson created caricatures who were as charismatic as they were deadly. Other writers and artists used Johnson’s work as a foundation for their own, like Lord Byron’s poem “The Corsair” (1814), which sold 10,000 copies in a day. Sir Walter Scott’s “The Pirate” (1821), based on the pirate John Gow, was one of his most popular novels.

So why do we celebrate individuals who were the baddest of bad guys, those whom preacher Cotton Mather once called “Common Enemies of Mankind?” Pirates were known murderers who pillaged, raped and plundered their way through the Caribbean. And they were well-known enslavers who dehumanized Africans and Indigenous people, selling them for profit.

Perhaps time has dulled us to the atrocities committed by these 17th and 18th century outlaws. Or perhaps it’s the fact that if pirates of the Golden Age were bloodthirsty, so too were the nations who opposed them. They willingly and purposefully massacred millions of African and Indigenous peoples in the name of colonization. Pirates, then, are seen as romantic heroes — the underdogs fighting the establishment — whom historian Marcus Rediker refers to as proto-democratic, egalitarian and multicultural.

Should we celebrate their complicated legacy? It’s a question Tampa Bay has to contend with as we collectively contemplate other major sports mascots with dubious legacies, like their Super Bowl rivals in Kansas City.