The adventures of pirates have given rise to many legends that still interest young and old alike. If you are one of those pirate fans, you must surely know the famous pirate flag. Many wonders how this black flag came to be in history. It was in 1700 that it was first reported.
Since then, the pirate flag name is the Jolly Roger. There are many hypotheses about its history, but what is certain is that this black flag with a skull and crossbones once caused fear. What are its origins?
What do we know about the origin of piracy?
The pirate has always been a source of fear. In the past, when sailors saw the famous black flag, they would turn back or prepare for a possible plunder.
Indeed, this term means bandit. As for the origin of the famous Jolly Roger, it dates back to the 1700s. Here are the main hypotheses that all piracy history enthusiasts should know.
The meaning of the word pirate in Latin and Greek
The history of piracy never ceases to amaze. It contains a multitude of symbols more or less known to the general public that are real treasures for history.
Nowadays, you use terms related to piracy in an innocuous way, but in the past, they had very different meanings.
- In Latin, for example, the word pirate has its origin in a term that means: one who undertakes to try his fortune: “pirata“.
- From the Greek “peiratês“, it simply means brigand. That’s right! Pirates were sea bandits who plundered and stole ships. They were outlaws who ruled the oceans.
The pirate flag in 1561
In 1561, there was a flag with a black background and two crossed swords in blood red in Spain. It was Lope de Aguirre who used it when he rebelled against the Spanish empire.
Anyway, as a sailor and historian, Fernandez Navarrete pointed out that there were two types of pirate flags at that time.
- The one of death was used before the embarkation.
- And the other one, of blood red color, was hoisted in principle to indicate that one wanted to “fight until the end”.
The different hypotheses of the origin of the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger
Why is the pirate flag called the Jolly Roger? What does Jolly Roger mean ? The term “Jolly Roger” is the traditional English name for the famous black pirate flag with a skull and two white crossed shins. There are several hypotheses about the origin of the skull and crossbones flag.
Besides, the name pirate flag is a bit of a misnomer although in most cases people call them that out of habit. Pirates and privateers, on the other hand, mostly used the term flag.
Even today, historians disagree on the true origin of the Jolly Roger, so it’s up to you to choose the one you like best.
Hypothesis 1: First appearance of the Jolly Roger with the French pirate Emanuel Wynn
According to the pirate history, he would have a French origin, but this name would have been the result of a false translation. To show that he was different from the others, Emanuel Wynn, one of the most famous French pirates, had the good idea to create this black flag decorated with a skull and crossbones and an hourglass.
This Frenchman specialized in English goods. His compatriots, for their part, considered him a hero.
According to records, in the Caribbean, members of the French piracy had called him “Joli rouge”, but this was quite difficult to pronounce for the Anglo-Saxon sailors, so they pronounced him “Jolly Roger“.
It was in 1700 that this flag was seen flying near the Cuban coast of Santiago. It was the captain of His Majesty’s Ship Poole who reported it after his ship was attacked off Cuba by Emanuel Wynn.
As soon as fleets saw it from afar, they understood the message that this flag implied: “surrender or die“. That is why it caused a lot of fear on the oceans.
Since then, this pirate flag has become a symbol of the authenticity of the flag of the pirates who proudly hoisted it. It was very present when the sailors were in search of the route to India, famous for its wealth. Its history is eternal and is passed on from century to century.
Over time, some pirate ships have replaced the shins with two swords.
Hypothesis 2: Jolly Roger, a Sicilian revolutionary fighter
According to some historians, this great symbol represented by the Jolly Roger dates back further than Emanuel Wynn’s 1,700. Its origin would be Christian.
The existence of this buccaneer flag dates back to between 109 and 1154, a period during which Roger II of Sicily lived. The latter was a revolutionary man who used this flag when fighting on the side of the Papal power. He was even nicknamed Jolly Roger.
He once became a leader of the Templar fleet. At sea, he tended to use the Jolly Roger to confront ships from Europe.
And long after the death of Roger II of Sicily, in the 14th century, another Templar ship used this flag. This fleet then went underground after some of its crew members betrayed each other and became pirates.
Hypothesis 3: An appearance in the War of the Spanish Succession
According to some sources, it is quite possible that the pirate flag became popular during the War of Succession in Spain and Corsica.
At that time in the Atlantic Ocean, there was a confrontation between the Catholic monarchies and the Protestant, Dutch and English states. Some pirates, who had no connection with the Order of Malta, used the flag to plunder. Their goal was to intimidate their targets.
In addition, in 1728, Daniel Defoe revealed in the second edition of his book entitled “General History of Pirates” that Captain Francis Spriggs, went by the name of Jolly Roger. This man was a very modest English sea pirate.
Other hypotheses on the origin of the pirate flag, Jolly Roger
In 1811, Francis Grose explained in his Classic Dictionary of the Vulgar Language that the term Jolly Roger was a pure slang expression.
In the 19th century, it was used in certain sayings. “Jolly” mostly meant gay, merry head and crazy head. There is also a chance that this pirate flag was used in irony against Woodes Rogers, a much hated governor in the Bahamas.
What is the Jolly Roger ?
The pirate flag was not just a symbol. It was a real communication tool with which pirates intimidated and threatened targeted ships. There were many pirate flags, but the Jolly Roger was the most famous. Historically speaking, it reflected the famous phrase “memento mori” which means “let us remember that we are going to die”.
The Jolly Roger, a formidable weapon of intimidation
Pirates of the Caribbean used the Jolly Roger to steal treasure and plunder ships. Their goal was to intimidate their targets, but in a very clever way.
In fact, if you thought this legendary flag was flown all the time, you should know that this was not the case at all. They only hoisted it when they wanted to take action: that is, to attack the ships they wanted to steal their booty.
To do this, the pirates had set up very effective stratagems in order to give their victims no time to flee. They usually displayed a flag similar to that of the target ships in order to gain their confidence. And when they did, they were able to get closer to the target. When they could no longer flee, that was when the pirates would raise their ill-fated emblem, the Jolly Roger.
Before boarding an enemy ship, the sea pirates would shout for the opponents to surrender without a fight. Moreover, they had no other choice, since getting into a battle with pirates was very dangerous, because they were in real danger of getting hurt.
And indeed, after bad wounds and without competent doctors on board the ship, the sailors gave up the ghost. Sometimes, the sick suffered a lot from fever, but also from gangrene before succumbing to their injuries. A tragic death! To avoid such a situation, they preferred to surrender and let the pirates plunder their ship.
The Jolly Roger flag, a means of communication on the seas
On the seas and oceans, the use of a flag by ships was highly regulated. Flags had their own meaning and were even a means of communication. Each country had its own flag. When the crew of a privateer or buccaneer ship wished to salute those of another, they would lower it and then raise it.
Some practices were also codes that only sailors knew. For example, when a pirate ship nailed its flag to the mast, it meant that it wanted to fight to the death. And no one in the crew was allowed to lower it.
On the other hand, when a ship accepted its defeat, it lowered its flag and the opponent understood the message and stopped fighting.
It should also be noted that the color of the flag had a meaning. In general, the sailors of the past used the colors red, black and white.
- The red flag meant the start of a fight. And if the red canvas with a skull or crossbones was hoisted, it signaled that the pirates wanted their opponents to know of their intention to engage in an all-out battle.
- The black flag, on the other hand, informed other ships of a mutiny in the ship.
- Finally, the white flag was used to announce that the crew members wanted to make peace.
How were pirate flags made?
The Jolly Roger was in most cases made by the pirates themselves. At the time, there were no stores specializing in the sale of these accessories like ours today. (see our pirate flags)
Sailors often used pieces of sails and made the cuts and seams themselves. This explains why the edges of the pirate flags did not look very neat since the men did not have the same skill and delicacy as the women in sewing. But this look of the pirate flag also contributed to terrorize the opponents.
Who are the most famous pirates and what about their flags?
Just looking at the Jolly Roger takes us back to the most ruthless pirates in history. Even today, legendary captains continue to inspire piracy enthusiasts of all ages.
Here are some of the most famous, and some had a level of viciousness far beyond the norm. (Check out our article on the 12 most famous pirate flags in piracy)
Emanuel Wynn and his Jolly Roger
This French pirate was among those who hoisted the Jolly Roger as you know it on his ship. Emanuel Wynn’s flag meant that time was running out and he had to surrender or die.
It was Captain John Cranby, the man in command of the HMS Poole, who had described this flag in the contemporary world and it was of great rarity. This ship had launched an attack on Wynne’s in July 1700. This scene took place in July 1700, off the Cape Verdean archipelagos.
Following this collision, Emmanuel Wynne left this area to go to the Caribbean. They believed that these waters were more profitable for attacking ships from Spain and Great Britain. The fate of this French pirate remains unknown to this day.
Calico Jack, the pirate who customized the Jolly Roger
Jack Rackham, nicknamed Calico Jack, had the idea to customize the Jolly Roger. At first, this flag had a skull and crossbones.
But this pirate had made modifications to the image by changing the shins to two swords. These were also a representation of power. On his ship, you could see this flag nicely personalized and embroidered on black sail.
This captain was one of the few pirates to recruit women into his crew. Rackham became a celebrity in our time because of his character in the series “Black Sails“. This pirate is also featured in the video game “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag”.
However, his career in piracy lasted only two years. He participated in piracy for the very first time in 1718 when he worked on board Charles Vane’s Ranger as a quartermaster. He was promoted to captain when the latter was removed from his post.
During his two-year career, he had the opportunity to command many ships, including the Kingston. And each time, he raised the same pirate flag. It was a canvas with two crossed swords with a skull underneath.
Blackbeard, one of the most famous
Blackbeard, whose real name was Edward Teach, was certainly one of the bloodiest pirates in history. He was very scary to merchant ships in his time.
In the 18th century this pirate captain terrorized the West Indies with his iron reputation. With his crew, he managed to capture many ships and booty.
His ship, named Queen Anne’s Revenge, was easy to recognize because of its flag, which differed slightly from the famous Jolly Roger. He used a canvas with a white horned skeleton representing the devil. His right hand held an hourglass and his left hand had a spear that was pointed at a bleeding heart.
Black Bart, the richest of the pirates
Black Bart was named Bartholomew Roberts when he was alive. He was a pirate from 1719 to 1722. He was a pirate from 1719 to 1722, but he had captured more than 400 pirate ships and created the pirate code.
It all started when the ship he was on was commandeered by pirates. While in captivity, he was forced to join the crew of Howell Davis.
The ship then sailed to the island of Principe in Africa where Captain Davis was shot by Portuguese troops who had learned that he was a pirate. Roberts was subsequently elected captain of the ship. This was the occasion for him to design his very first flag.
Bartholomew Roberts was best known for his great wealth. This pirate had commandeered 400 ships in only 2 years. He used two flags mainly.
- The first one had his effigy standing on two skulls with the inscriptions ABH and AMH just above. According to historians, this was a joke addressed to the governor of Barbados and the governor of Martinique. These two countries had tried to capture him and this choice of flag was mainly to send a message of revenge and hatred to these enemies.
- As for his second most famous flag, it represented his image drinking with death. This was a perfect representation of his philosophy of life. Better to live a short life of abundance and fortune than a long life of toil.
La Buse, the fastest pirate
Olivier Levasseur, alias La Buse, was a very skilled French pirate. One of his famous flags was unique. It was decorated with a skull and crossbones on the bottom of the skull and an eye patch.
When boarding target ships, this captain was particularly quick in his maneuvers. His favorite area to plunder was the Indian Ocean.
However, he met an atrocious end, as he was sentenced to death following his capture. But before that, he would have had the opportunity to hide his treasure in Reunion, more precisely on Bourbon Island. He would have left a cryptogram to find it.
Edward Low, a ruthless pirate
Edward Low was known as a ruthless pirate who did not give quarter to anyone. When he captured ships, his torture techniques were so harsh and original. As if martyring his victims was his specialty.
Even his crew members were terrorized by his ruthless approaches. This captain also stood out for his black flag with a red skeleton. This choice was undoubtedly an illustration of the blood he had spilled.
Francis Spriggs, one of the pirates who raised the Jolly Roger
The flag flown on Francis Spriggs’ ship was one of those named Jolly Roger. However, it didn’t look anything like the flag you’re familiar with, as it was missing most of the symbols.
It did have a black background, but with a red skeleton that Edward Low would have given to Spriggs. Historians are not sure when this pirate began his activities, but he ended his partnership with Low at Christmas 1724.
Spriggs then boarded the Delight and headed for the Caribbean. This pirate was still active before April 1725.
At that time, he had released some of his crew members with whom he had made his Caribbean conquests. He left them on the island of Roatan, north of Honduras.
Then, Francis Spriggs continued his adventure by conquering many other ships in the vicinity of St. Kitts and Bermuda. But nobody knows what happened to him after 1725.
Stede Bonnet and his mixed flag
Traditionally, Stede Bonnet was associated with a pirate flag with a heart and dagger between which is a skull on a long horizontal bone.
The meaning of these images is clear: the heart and the dagger were a simple representation of life and death respectively. As for the bone and the skull, they are assimilated to the image of a ladder.
However, historians today do not have any source to justify this. The oldest information on this subject was discovered thanks to an unknown manuscript which unfortunately has no date.
The Maritime Museum of Britain received this one in 1939. Contemporary sources, however, spoke of a dark red flag with a skull and crossbones.
Christopher Moody, a bloodthirsty pirate
This pirate was known for his particularly frightening flag. Christopher Moody was active in the waters of North and South Carolina. He was a bloodthirsty man and his particularly intriguing flag was scary.
This one had escaped the tradition of the Jolly Roger and its black background with white motifs. This bloodthirsty pirate had opted for a red background with gold designs. And naval captains as well as privateers and pirates knew how enigmatic it was to fly the red flag.
Especially since Christopher Moody’s had an hourglass with wings, an arm with a dagger or sword and a gold skull with crossed bones. Enough to frighten other ships.
Thomas Tew, a flag that symbolizes violence
Thomas Tew’s flag was also out of the standard of the Jolly Roger, although it had a black background. But this pirate had made some modifications. He replaced the other symbols with an arm holding a dagger. And everyone knows that such an image is a pure representation of violence.
With this flag, Thomas Tew’s message was crystal clear. It was a kind of warning that he was capable of killing his enemies. Those who blocked his path would die and they had no choice but to surrender.
This pirate had only been in business for three years. Nevertheless, in 1695, he had nearly $1,651,137.49 to his name at the time of his death.
Henry Avery, a great treasure raider
Also known as Henry Every was a very famous pirate. His impressive works had made him famous especially to both modern and contemporary audience.
He was active from 1694 to 1696, but still, together with his crew, they had broken the record of treasure plundering. In 1695, for example, Henry Every had attacked Mughal merchant ships and had amassed a fortune of £300,000 to £600,000.
Since then, Every decided to live his life quietly. His pirate activities had ceased after 1696 and no one knows what he had done with the treasures he had looted.
The pirate flag, a great world symbol
For generations, the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem and Malta has used it. It is one of the most unprecedented undertakings and Catholic order that European history has known.
It has changed Malta into an exceptional place of exchange in the Mediterranean. Its official foundation was in 1961. Jolly Roger was a symbol placed on the vaults of the knights, but also in other places with links to the Catholic cult.
You can also discover this flag by visiting the church of Vera Cruz in Segovia. Its dodecagonal plant is very singular and is even more so thanks to some tombstones where the Jolly Roger is inscribed.
The pirate flag is a century-old symbol that had sharpened even more the very bad reputation of buccaneers and became a brand in its own right dedicated to the world of piracy.
The pirate flag has also become a decorative element, ideal for Halloween or a party with a pirate theme.
It is the emblem of wealth, fear, fortune, terror and power. To achieve their goals, these outlaw sailors set out to plunder the treasures of other ships.
The black flag today
Nowadays, the black flag is still hoisted on some ships. But this time, it has a military purpose. In other words, it no longer symbolizes terror, as it is mainly English submarines that use it when returning to their base.
Since the First World War, raising this famous flag has become a tradition in England. The crew flies it when they have succeeded in their mission. It is a kind of message that the sailors send. The British Navy also used it during battles.
In the United States too, the Jolly Roger is still in use. However, the Americans don’t wear it on a ship, but rather on an airplane and this dates back to January 1, 1943.
You can find it on a variety of F4U Corsairs and the F-14 Tomcat. The former is a World War II military aircraft and the latter is a supersonic fighter aircraft distinguished by its variable geometry wings. It plays a role in protecting the U.S. air fleet during wartime.
The Jolly Roger in the French Navy
The non pirate ships that had the possibility to hoist the famous Jolly Roger are very rare. The Commandant l’Herminier of the French Navy is one of them. It is an aviso that plays the role of a deep sea patrol boat F791.
However, this pirate flag cannot be used by yachtsmen. However, this French navy boat is still active.
In addition to this aviso, the submarine Casabianca also had the right to hoist the Jolly Roger. This French ship had, in fact, provided assistance in the liberation of Corsica. And it was Captain Jean L’Herminier who had given the order.
As a reward for this heroic act during the Second World War, he received the famous pirate flag from Captain Fawkes. Captain Fawkes was the commander of the eighth flotilla of British submarines.
That is why, in order to pay tribute to this brave man, the Commandant l’Herminier is authorized to hoist this flag rich in history. This aviso is based in Brest and was commissioned on January 19th 1986. It has a length of 80.50 meters and a height of 10.30 meters. As for its maximum speed, it is 24 knots.
Its captain Audrey Boutteville is one of the eight women promoted to command in the French Navy. As for its crew, it is formed by 7 officers, 58 petty officers and 24 petty officers and sailors.
If you like the spirit and history of the Jolly Roger, discover all our pirate flags.
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