Pirate Flags

Among the flags that have always stirred peoples’s interest and imagination are of course the pirate flags. It is known that pirates created their own individualised versions of the flag called Jolly Roger which was flown by Edward England. The Jolly Roger is the name by which any of the different flags were flown in order to identify a ship’s crew as pirates. Nowadays Jolly Roger is known as the Skull and Crossbones. The skull and the two long bones set in an x-mark arrangement over the skull are placed on a black field. In spite of the pirate flags’ appearance in popular culture, black flags were usually used by most of the pirates in the 17th and 18th century. The purpose of flying pirate flags was to readily induce victims to surrender.

The decline of piracy did not make pirate flags and symbols dissapear completely. Actually, the skull-and-crossbone design has been used by different military units as a unit identification ensign or a victory flag ascribing the famous ferocity and cruelty of the pirates to themselves. Unofficially, the symbols of the pirate flags have been used to point out electric hazard; in this case the background is blood red and the skull and bones are black.

The name given to pirate flags, Jolly Roger takes us back to Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates which was published in 1724. In this book the writer mentioned two pirates who had baptized their pirate flags as Jolly Roger. The two pirates Roberts and Spriggs both named their pirate flags but their flags were actually quite different from each other. This means that Jolly Roger was used as a generic title for black pirate flags and not necessarily the name of a certain design. Books and diaries recorded different descriptions of pirate flags which were called Jolly Rogers by the people on the ships that flew them.

It is generally assumed that the name Jolly Roger originates in the French words jolie rouge, which means pretty red. Yet, another theory states that this name given to pirate flags is a distorted use of the name of the pirate, Ali Raja. Finally another story says that the name comes from a nickname of the devil – Old Roger. How were pirate flags used? Well, obviously the pirates did not fly their pirate flags at all times. They would carry different flags with them and would normally display false colors or no flags at all until they were sure they could manage the situation successfully. Pirate flags were usually raised at the same time a canon was fired as a warning shot. The pirate flags were probably designed as a means of communicating their identity which could have convinced the victims to surrender without a fight.