Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gaspar's Island

Wednesday morning and we were driving on what I call the “old road” south out of Englewood, heading for Gasparilla Island and the small town of Boca Grande. This is Placida Road, which connects Englewood with the unremarkable settlement of Placida (Spanish: calm), population 1064, six miles to the south east. There’s not much to look at on this road, once you have taken stock of the numerous real estate signs and empty condominium developments. But it leads to a corner and a right-turn just before Placida (which has probably dropped in population during the typing of this paragraph) onto the bridge and causeway to the Island.

Gasparilla Island was named after one José Gaspar, romantically called by some the “Last of the Buccaneers,” but a particularly nasty piece of work. Born in Spain in the mid 18th century he served in his country’s navy until he fell afoul of the authorities and in particular the King of Spain, Charles the Third. So he did what naval officers rarely do these days and turned to piracy. For forty years he conducted what amounted to a maritime terror campaign up and down the coast of Spanish Florida, taking treasure, burning ships, killing the men who would not join his hearty crew, and imprisoning women (and some men) on the suitably named island of Captiva for ransom or sexual favors.

In 1821 Florida changed flags and became part of the growing United States of America, and Gaspar made a wise decision to lower his Jolly Roger and retire. But on seeing a prosperous looking ship flying the British colors he decided to have one final attack, for old times’ sake as it were. No way, Jose. It was a trap. In the final approach the ship suddenly raised the Stars and Stripes. It was the heavily armed USS Enterprise, who gave no quarter. Gaspar chose suicide by drowning, and the majority of his crew was killed or captured and hanged. Good work, eh? But at least it gave the island a nice name. Gaspar’s name and legend remains. There are some who claim that his treasure remains buried on the Island, but as this announcement was first made in 1907 by the owners of the newly-completed railroad, it must surely be taken with a large grain of sea salt. Likewise the annual winter Gasparilla shenanigans that happen each January in Tampa, when a faux pirate barge is towed up river, the pirate himself is given the keys to the city, plastic beads are draped over everything, and massive hangovers are created. Central to all this is Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, a prestigious social group demonstrating not only a complete failure to read the history books, but a singular inability to spell.

But I digress. We paid our toll and drove onto the island...

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