Banners of the Sea Bandits: the Jolly Rogers and Other Pirate Flags!

When Jen Grant approached me about contributing a blog post on behalf of Americanflags.com, I was somewhat sceptical. How would an article about American flags fit into our site, which is, after all, about world history? When I read this, however, I found it interesting and informative, and I hope you do too!

Banners of the Sea Bandits – Jolly Roger and Other Pirate Flags

When most of us think of pirates, we think of the swashbuckling films of the 1930s and 40s, with a dashing Errol Flynn climbing the ropes and setting sails. In reality, things weren’t quite so romantic. Until modern times, life at sea was difficult, treacherous, and often deadly. Seafarers suffered from all kinds of awful diseases (like scurvy), lived in filthy conditions, ate bad (literally, spoiled or infested) food, and drank murky water.

Sea voyages were rarely short and, if you survived a voyage, your port of call was most likely an uninhabited part of the world. Ships were always infested with rats and were vectors of disease. It was ships that carried the plague (aka the Black Death) to all four corners of the world.

The golden age of piracy occurred between the 1650s to the 1730s. Much of this pirate activity was due to the increase in goods being shipped across the ocean from Europe (and the natural resources that were returned to Europe during the return trip back), as well as the lack of protective navies in many parts of the world.

It was during the latter part of this golden age (the early 1700s) that the term Jolly Roger was coined. It is the name of the flag which a pirate ship flew when it was about to attack.

Today, when we think Jolly Roger flags, we imagine a black flag with a white skull and crossbones, but, at the time, it could be any flag that was either black or red, with or without any design.

The first time that “Jolly Roger” appeared in print was in Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724 in England.

Of Ships and Flags

Throughout history, ships have carried a number of different flags. Flags were used for sending messages, signaling other vessels, and for identification. English privateers (privately-owned ships licensed by the government to attack enemy vessels) flew a different version of the Union Jack in the 17th and 18th centuries from the ships of the English Royal Navy. Pirates often used flags for subterfuge. They would fly a flag to indicate they were allies. This was known as flying false colors. Once they were close enough to attack their prey, they would raise the Jolly Roger!

The Black and the Red

Here’s how pirates used the Jolly Roger. If a pirate ship approached you while flying a black flag, it meant “surrender now, or we will be merciless.” If the quarry surrendered without any resistance, they would be given safe passage. If, however, they chose to fight, the black flag was lowered and the red flag was raised. The red flag was sometimes referred to as the “bloody flag.” This meant that surrender was no longer an option, and every man would be tortured, or killed, or both tortured and then killed.

With ordinary naval engagements (or even engagements with privateers), ships could fight until one of them realized they would lose. They would surrender, and their surviving crews and passengers would be given quarter, according to the rules of engagement.

Pirates were a pretty canny bunch, so they seldom engaged another ship unless they were in a good position to win. Other seafarers knew this, and they usually surrendered at the first sign of a black flag! Generally speaking, merchant ships were not well protected and were an easy quarry. Under the rules of engagement, merchant ships would often try to resist attacks by naval ships or privateers, but they usually surrendered immediately to ships flying the Jolly Roger, so great was their fear of the flag and all that it stood for.

Another note of interest is that owning a Jolly Roger was proof of being a pirate, which, in and of itself, was illegal. Only a pirate who already faced the threat of execution would have the temerity to fly a Jolly Roger!

Origins of the Skull and Crossbones

Believe it or not, the skull and crossbones design goes back the Knights Templar. In the 13th century, the Knights Templar had a formidable navy and were known for their acts of piracy.  After the Knights Templar dissolved, many of its members formed the Knights of Malta. The Knights of Malta, also known to be pirates, continued using the skull and crossbones design.

The origin of the skull and crossbones iconography goes back to a legend in the Templar tradition known as the necromantic skull of Sidon.

“A great lady of Maraclea was loved by a Templar, A Lord of Sidon; but she died in her youth, and on the night of her burial, this wicked lover crept to the grave, dug up her body and violated it. Then a voice from the void bade him return in nine months’ time for he would find a son. He obeyed the injunction and at the appointed time he opened the grave again and found a head on the leg bones of the skeleton (skull and crossbones). The same voice bade him guard it Well, for it would be the giver of all good things, and so he carried it away with him. It became his protecting genius, and he could defeat his enemies by merely showing them the magic head. In due course, it passed to the possession of the order.” – From the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail

Other Jolly Roger Designs

The skull and crossbones design was not the only design that pirates stitched onto their black or red backgrounds. Some of the many other designs are a skull sitting atop a pair of crossed sabers, whole skeletons, the devil with a spear piercing a heart, a forearm holding a cutlass, and many others. The key to recognizing a pirate ship during the golden age was the black or red background.

The Jolly Roger in the Modern Day

The skull and crossbones is a well-recognized icon in our time. It is often used to denote poison or something else that is potentially deadly. It appears in cartoons and popular fiction. In Peter Pan, Captain Hook’s ship is called the Jolly Roger. Yale University has the Skull and Bones Society, and many Spanish graveyards are still marked by carvings of the skull and crossbones.

Beginning in 1901, British submarines returning home after a successful mission would fly the Jolly Roger. This led to the Jolly Roger being adopted as the official emblem of the English Royal Navy Submarine Service.

By Jennifer Grant

Jennifer Grant is an American History buff. She blogs for Americanflags.com, a top provider of American flags based out of New York State. She is obsessed with coffee, aromatherapy candles, and reading historical fiction. Oh yes, and she’s also a devoted wife and mother of two!

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