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Pirate Flags and Banners

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years ago


Jolly Roger

 Animated by Brian Green 



 Pirate Flags and





The white skull and crossbones combination set against a black background has often been held as the general symbol for pirate flags. Even as piracy reached its golden age and individual pirates deigned unique patterns from their masts, common themes among the flags and banners became apparent. Pirate ensigns and their placement on the ship also played a functional role in identifying a vessel. The pirate flag became their identity: godless and tyrannical, the pirates blatantly defied the social order of their time.



Pirate Flag History



The make-up of the flag itself stems from a long history. The first recorded examples of a recognizable pirate flag occur sometime between 1700-1720. Symbols of skulls and crossed bones beneath it date back to medieval times. These figures were seen on tombs and gravestones in churches and cathedrals but were not associated with pirates at the time. Around the 1720’s, these symbols were utilized on pirate flags, along with the popular hourglass and the various weaponry representations. Only by the 1730’s did the skull and crossbones become the pirate trademark. 



The Jolly Roger



Resources later described the symbols of “the Old Roger which was ornamented by an anatomy with an hourglass in one hand, and a dart in the heart with three drops of blood proceeding from it in the other” (Cordingly- Black Flag 118) and depicted on a black flag. The term “Old Roger” used here in 1702 later became the more well-known “Jolly Roger.” Three possible theories explain the term’s source.


1. Jolie rouge describes the red and bloody flag to which it referred.


2. It was named for the (in) famous pirate Ali Raja who preyed upon the Indian Ocean coasts.


3. The term simply refers to the nickname for the devil, “Old Roger.”


Since the pirates spurned laws given by the government and by God, attributing their banner to the devil fits well with the pirate culture and beliefs.  Not to mention, pirates were often “like[ned] to Satan himself” (Pirates Own Book 250). In addition, Jolie rouge could be a term that fully described the pirates’ intentions, demeanor, and flag color. However, there was more to a pirate flag than the figures and names with which it was associated.  


More about an original Jolly Roger flag that has been recently restored.


The Jolly Roger Restored



Pirate Colors and Symbols



Use of certain colors alone represented pirate mentality. It played an important role in identification as well. The term “colors” when describing flags and banners signifies “the flags worn by a vessel to show her nationality” (Cordingly-Black Flag 275). The flag was meant to inspire the crew, terrify the victim, and display a ship’s identity. In a pirate’s case, this identity was made through “a black Flag and [by] declaring War against the whole World” (Pirates Own Book 243). Although various colors could be used as the backdrop, red and black were most commonly used for pirate banners. Before use of unique pirate flags became popular, black on a banner signified death and red suggested battle. 


Eventually, the two colors came to take on different meanings in the pirate world. A description of red flags used during the 1700’s was Pavillon nomme Sansquartier, meaning a flag that called for “no quarter” (Cordingly-Black Flag117). In this sense, red used by a pirate ship meant that its victims would not receive mercy. As it often times resulted, these victimized ships would succumb to a bloody demise. The term Jolie rouge finds greater meaning in this context since blood was often spilled when the flag was raised. In contrast, a black flag signaled that the pirates would give “quarter” to their victims. The Jolly Roger, a large white skeleton with a dart in one hand striking a bleeding heart and the other hand holding an hourglass, was hoisted to give “quarter.” By 1717, most flags were black with incorporations of red.


Similar to what has been portrayed in movies and described in books, a ship with a raised plain white flag signaled surrender to its captors. One vessel was bold enough to bear the words “Pardon for Deserters” (Pirates Own Book 64) on its flag as it surrendered to Captain Jean Lafitte.


The hourglass symbol, mentioned earlier, symbolized “the passing of time and the limited time span of our lives on earth” (Cordingly-Terror 106). It also instilled a sense of urgency to surrender in victims.




"An 18th century gravestone. The skull and crossed bones were often used to symbolize death-an image adopted by pirates for their flags."

(Cordingly-Terror 106).


The following are a list of the most common symbols found on pirate flags (followed by some examples of the pirates who placed these symbols on their flags-see below for images):


- White skull (Bartholomew Roberts, Edward England, Edward Avery, John Rackham)


- Crossbones (Edward England, Edward Avery)


- Bleeding hearts (Blackbeard)


- Hourglasses (Blackbeard)


- Spears and Cutlasses (Bartholomew Roberts, John Rackham)


- Whole skeletons (Blackbeard, Edward Low)


One major cause for the uniformity seen in pirate flags derives from the formation of two main pirate groups. More than 70% of pirates between 1716 and 1726 had some sort of connection with Captain Hornigold or connection with the meeting between George Lowther and Edward Low(Cordingly-Black Flag 112). The symbols displayed on flags were passed along from pirate to pirate. This explains the rapid spread of the black flag used by many pirates throughout the ocean. In a sense, the uniformity found in the various flags symbolized the pirate defiance of laws and their stance against fear. They were a nationless people in solidarity.



Flag Tactics 101



Although each pirate captain had his special style when it came to overtaking merchant ships, certain attack characteristics prevailed throughout the pirating world. First, pirates did not have to disguise their hostile intentions as they approached the vessel. Secondly, the captain of the merchant ship would have to come across in another boat and be held hostage as pirates looted his ship. Modern films and books provide images of pirates as they entered harbors and made their arrival known.  One pirate barreled into a harbor with "black colors flying, drums beating, and trumpets sounding-in fact with all the fanfare expected"  (Karraker 214).  Starting with the flag, pirates made impressive entrances, almost kingly-like.  During the golden age of piracy, pirates did not have to hide their true colors and were able to easily overtake a ship due to the infamy that preceded them. This did not always hold true in piracy’s beginning.


Early in maritime culture, flags were the only means of communicating to another vessel one’s nationality. By the 1700’s most national flag designs had been established. As a result, most pirate ships carried trunkfuls of various national flags in order to raise whichever flag would prove advantageous at the time. For example, a pirate ship might bear Dutch colors, though of English descent, as it approaches a Dutch merchant vessel. Only within hailing distance will the pirate ship raise its black flag and demand that the other ship surrender. If the ship concedes, the captain of the taken vessel will ride to the pirate ship until all goods have been looted. If the ship resists, the pirate ship will broadside it. A broadside occurs when all the guns of one side of a ship are fired at the opponent. In order to end the fighting, the losing side would “strike her own colors down” (Wilbur 56) and yield to the pirates. 


Of course there were instances where hoisting a false colors was not beneficial. Two ships both bearing false flags have run away from each other even though they were partners on the same side. On the other hand, two ships, also bearing false colors, have fought each other and only later in the battle did they realize that they were on the same side of the war effort (Wilbur 56). As the HMS Swallow hunted Captain Bartholomew Roberts, he was found with “an English ensign jack and Dutch pennant and ye black flag hoisted at the mizzen peak” (Cordingly-Black Flag 115). Apparently, Roberts had too many flags ready at the mast and this led to his incrimination when displayed all at once.



Captain Bartholomew Roberts with two ships.  Note that one ship carries two flags both associated with the pirate.  The flag on the left is displayed below. The other flag depicts Roberts and a skeleton sharing a cup, each holding on to it.



However, most pirates did not have complications with meeting another false colored friend. Most pirate captains were successful at tricking merchant ships. Earlier in his career, Captain Roberts was able to deceive ships by using Dutch flags. He drew ships towards him by utilizing flag signals that meant that his ship was a vessel carrying slaves. Captain William Fly in pursuit of a merchant ship, made a “Signal of Distress, hoisting his Jack at the Main-Top-Mast-Head” (Defoe 610) as a Decoy. He boarded her and the crew took the prizes on board. When encountered with a Spanish ship off the coast of Honduras, Captain Edward Low hoisted a Spanish flag. Only until the other vessel drew near did Captain Low show his true colors, the black flag.


As time progressed, the black flag gained infamy. Pirates no longer had to deceive merchant ships with false colors. The sight of the Jolly Roger filled victims with fear and they would immediately surrender in hopes of going unharmed in the transaction. As the feared Blackbeard lay in the Charles Town harbor, ships “coming in sight turned and fled when they spied the craft athwart the bar flying the skull-and-crossbones” (Karraker 144). His infamy, along with that of the black flag, preceded him and instilled terror in his victims. They did not even dare come close in range. In a different instance, Captain Condent faced little resistance when he came across a Dutch East Indiaman. Having hoisted the pirate colors and killing the captain after the first broadside attack, Captain Condent easily seized another ship for his fleet.


Pirates gained confidence in their flags ability to instill fear in their victims. Stories of their attacks and adventures spread along the coasts and the pirates only needed to raise their Jolly Roger in order to take over a merchant ship. This is rightly so since pirate vessels often had greater firepower than merchant ships and a greater number of crew members. It also worked to the pirates’ advantage that the majority of the crew of a merchant ship had little battle experience at sea. From the merchant seaman’s point of view, being attacked by pirates was comparable to an attack by a naval ship, with the threat of death and torture. Not only would pirates use cannons and pistols, but grenades were utilized that could knock down a large group of seamen on the neighboring vessel. Giving into the pirates demands without resistance became the best choice for merchant ships since they had a change of being left unharmed.



Who’s Who in Piracy


 The following flags are a few examples of the most (in)famous pirates.


                The flag of Captain Edward Teach aka Blackbeard                               The flag of Captain Edward Low


Captain Low's flag, here pictured with a red skeleton, fits well with his

reputation as one of the most violent and feared pirates of the seas.

Turning pirate, he made it a point to "make a black Flag and declare War

against all the World."                                        




                       The flag of Captain Bartholomew Roberts                                           The flag of Captain Edward England



In this depiction of Roberts' flag, he is standing over two skulls.  The skull on

on the left with the letters "ABH" signifies "A Barbadian's Head."  The other

skull with the letters "AMH" stands for "A Martinican's Head."  With a cutlass in

his hand, this picture represents Roberts' anger and hate towards these two

nations in their attempts to capture him. 



                                    The flag of Captain Edward Avery                                                      The flag of Captain John Rackham aka Calico Jack








Images Borrowed


Waving flag:



Tombstone symbols:



Captain Roberts and his two boats:



 Pirate flags:






Works Cited


Cordingly, David.  Under the Black Flag.  New York, New York: Random House, 1995.


Defoe, Daniel.  A General History of the Pyrates.  Ed. Manuel Schonhorn.  Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1999. 


Karraker, Cyrus H.  Piracy Was a Business.  Rindge, New Hampshire: Richard R. Smith Publisher, Inc., 1953.


Marine Research Society.  The Pirates Own Book: Authentic Narratives of the Most Celebrated Sea Robbers.  New York, New York: Dover

          Publications Inc., 1993. 


Pirates: Terror on the High Seas-from the Caribbean to the South China Sea.  Ed. David Cordingly.  Atlanta, Georgia: Turner Publishing, Inc., 1996.


Wilbur, C. Keith M.D.  Pirates and Patriots of the Revolution.  Old Saybrook, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1984.





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