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A Jolly Roger, the infamous pirate flag

The Ultimate Pirate Branding Symbol - The Origin of the Jolly Roger

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Pirate lore is a popular topic among many today, with romanticized tales involving adventure on the high seas, camaraderie, and treasure hunting. However, centuries ago, pirates were very real criminals, one of the first examples of organized crime. Traveling by sea, pirates would attack and plunder, killing with disregard.

There are many objects of piracy that are used as symbols of the practice today – walking the plank, a wooden leg, an eye patch , a hook for a hand, and a single gold hoop earring. However, the most commonly recognized symbol of piracy throughout the years has been the black flag with the skull and crossbones design – the Jolly Roger. As a symbol, the Jolly Roger was flown on pirate ships to convey a message to their targets. It was meant to instill fear and to demonstrate that those onboard were extremely powerful .

The traditional 'Jolly Roger' flag of piracy.

The traditional "Jolly Roger" flag of piracy. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Significance of Pirate Flags

The use of pirate flags in general mimics the use of flags on other ships. Throughout maritime history a ship would display a particular flag to convey a message, mainly to indicate where a ship’s allegiance laid. For example, private ships would fly a different flag than naval ships.

 

 

To the same extent, pirate ships would fly certain flags to communicate a message, or even to trick nearby ships into believing the pirate ship was an ally and give the pirate ship an advantage in subsequent attacks.

Historically, a pirate ship which was attacking would fly a solid black flag. This would indicate that, so long as no one resisted the attack of the pirates, all would be given quarter. However, upon resistance the flag would be changed to a solid red flag indicating that no mercy would be shown.

The purpose of the flag was to instill fear in those being attacked, giving the pirates even more power. The solid red or black flag was originally referred to as the Jolly Roger, before the name came to be associated with the skull and crossbones.

1725 woodcut of Stede Bonnet with a Jolly Roger.

1725 woodcut of Stede Bonnet with a Jolly Roger. (Public Domain)

Why is it Called the Jolly Roger?

It is debated why the pirate flag is called the Jolly Roger, with uncertainty as to where the phrase came from. In 1724, Charles Johnson published a book called “A General History of the Pyrates.” This is where the phrase “Jolly Roger” is said to have originated, as Johnson cites not one, but two pirates who called their flag the Jolly Roger: Bartholomew Roberts in June of 1721 and Francis Spriggs in July of 1723.

Still others believe that the words Jolly Roger were derived from the French “ jolie rouge ,” meaning "pretty red.”

In the book “Pirates & the Lost Templar Fleet” David Hatcher Childress provides another possible origin for the phrase Jolly Roger. In this book, Childress indicated that the Jolly Roger was actually named after King Roger II of Sicily, a Templar who was believed to be the first man to fly the flag.

A torn Jolly Roger. ( adimas /Adobe Stock)

The Many Variations of the Jolly Roger

Today, the Jolly Roger – a black flag with a skull and crossbones on it - is considered to be the standard design for a pirate flag. However, this was not the original design for the Jolly Roger, which has taken many different arrangements over the years.

In Charles Johnson’s “A General History of the Pyrates,” two pirates flew a flag they called the Jolly Roger, but neither of those Jolly Rogers featured the design of a skull and crossbones. From this we can ascertain that the Jolly Roger was not intended as a depiction of a particular design so much as a generic term used to describe any pirate flag.

The variations on the pirate flag over the years have been many, ranging from solid black or red, to varying black and red designs, including images of skeletons, weapons, blood, and hearts. Some examples of the Jolly Roger over time include:

Different flag designs used by pirates over the centuries

Different flag designs used by pirates over the centuries. (Public Domain)

Why a Skull and Crossbones?

Some sources attribute the skull and crossbones design to a Templar legend . Philip Gardiner writes in “The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail”:

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 was able to defeat his enemies by merely showing them the magic head. In due course, it passed to the possession of the order.

Today, the Jolly Roger, particularly the skull and crossbones design, is considered by many to be an incredible example of collective hybrid branding. The symbol was not adopted and used by a single entity to represent their role or status. Rather, it became a universal symbol that still immediately invokes the image of a pirate centuries later.

Pirate tales, old and new, continue to be told, from chronicles of real pirates such as Blackbeard and Ching Shih , to classic stories such as “Peter Pan’s” Captain Hook, and today’s pirate figures of popular culture from Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”.

Through symbolization such as the Jolly Roger, each of these tales depict very different pirates with very different stories, yet they all invoke images of the classic pirate – plunderers of loot, consumers of vast quantities of rum, masters of sailing, and lords over the seas.

Top Image: A Jolly Roger pirate flag. Source: donfiore /Adobe Stock

By M R Reese

Updated on September 8, 2020.

References

Why did pirates fly the Jolly Roger? – Scientific American. Available from: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/2014/09/19/why-did-pirates-fly-the-jolly-roger/

Jolly Roger – Cosmo Smith. Available from:  http://www.cosmosmith.com/jolly_roger.html

Origins of the Jolly Roger – Today I found out. Available from: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2011/09/origins-of-the-jolly-roger/

Comments

Hi All,

This was a fun, fascinating article to read it did bring me mine of The Classic Pirate Book Treasure Island an The Disney movie that was done about it in Theory child friendly Muppet Treasure Island the song Professional Pirate. Then the movie Tom Hank's Captain Phillips.

What stands out to me when I think of pirates is a direct line from that song Professional Pirate...

"Now, take Sir Francis Drake; The Spanish all despise Him
but, to the English He's a Hero and they idolize Him; it's how you look at Buccaneers that makes them, Good or Bad."

First time I saw Him Hank's True Story of the Somalian Pirates, that took over that ship near Africa, I was shocked not by what happened in the Movie I wasn't surprised by the outcome, but, how they appeared too me on screen.

I was left feeling gee whiz no wonder there pirates those guys were so skinny hungry in appearance; I hadn't seen people like that since the Ethiopian Famine in the 1985.

Although, the Second lead actor playing in Captain Philips leading the Somalian Pirates, I could of sworn I'd seen him in the 2012 Olympics in England he's Ethiopian a Track star, who ran the 10,000th Meters and won ( still can't get over how skinny he was even then).

Looking back at Professional Pirate Sir Francis Drake's Piracy resulted in economically benefiting England and himself since Queen Elizabeth the 1st Knighted Him.

In Treasure Island it benefited Long John Silver and the crew searching for the Treasure because they'd assisted the Original Captain in swiping the Loot from The Ships and painstakingly hiding it so they could come for it when it wasn't so Hot anymore.

Captain Phillips is say hunger and other reasons is probably why Somalian Pirates tried taking the Ship is suggest since they appear to be so hungry might consider steering away from those Hot Spots or I think confrontations like that might happen again.

In the case of Treasure Island when you read the old English version although if memory serves me right I believe Robert Louis Stevenson was Scottish Long John Silver makes his escape he apparently has a African Wife he went back too.

Reading that it made me laugh but, then I remembered something about Sir Francis Drake when He pirated Spain's ship he also grabbed Spanish Slave Ships at that Time Spain was neck deep involved in The African Slave Trade taking them to Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispanola better known as Haiti and the Dominican, Brazil, as well Peru.

Sir Francis Drake was selling the African Slaves he took off the Spanish Slave Ships.

Where ever Robert Stevenson was coming from in his adventure story Treasure Island I think he must of known someone who had an African Wife, I doubt seriously it was Sir Francis Drake, it sounded like Drake was secretly in Love with Queen Elizabeth.

So these are my thoughts regarding the Topic of Pirates and The Origin of Jolly Roger oh I guess I didn't discuss that only the Pirate Topic I was drawn to Pirates.

So until next time Everyone, Goodbye!

As I was told once up on a time, The skull and crossbones represent John The Baptist's head and it was flown by Templar Knights raiding ships when they would hit the King of Spain's ships to steal the gold. In retaliation for the treasures they lost, This being the start of the Pirate Movement.

The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, not Philip Gardiner, he just quoted their passage from it in one of his works.

aprilholloway's picture

Yes, thank you. This has now been fixed.

Paragraph 5... would that be 1724?

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