The Buccaneers Embody Tampa’s Love of Pirates. Is that a Problem?Roundup
tags: Florida, football, Piracy
Jamie L.H. Goodall is a staff historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History. Goodall is author of Tippling Houses, Rum Shops, & Taverns: How Alcohol Fueled Informal Commercial Networks and Knowledge Exchange in the West Indies and Pirates of the Chesapeake Bay: From the Colonial Era to the Oyster Wars.
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.
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