The Jolly Roger, with its white skull and crossbones placed against a black backdrop, has become a joyful aspect of pirate tradition, but in its day, this flag and others with similar blood-curdling patterns served a single, frightening function.
The hoisting of the pirates’ flag, which was generally done at the last minute, signaled that the ship under assault should surrender immediately or risk not just attack and boarding but also execution of everybody on board.
The Golden Age of pirates, which lasted from the mid-17th through the early 18th century, was the height of high-seas pirates. During this period, pirate flags developed to include symbols of violence and death in order to shock and intimidate the pirate’s targeted victims. Let’s take a look at the history of this flag and some of the other iconic pirate flags of the Golden Age. If you’d like to make one of these iconic flags a part of your home’s decor, visit Ultimate Flags to find the perfect one for your wall.
The first pirate flags of the era had no designs and were just basic crimson or black. The red flag may be traced back to the late 1600s when English privateers were made to fly red flags to identify their vessels as not being those of the Royal Navy. Many of these privateers subsequently became pirates and used the red flag.
Other pirates opted for a black banner. Black has traditionally been linked with death, and black flags were frequently flown by ships carrying plague victims as a warning to keep away. A pirate’s use of a black flag indicated that his ship, too, was a “death ship.”
When employed by pirates, the red flag came to symbolize “no quarter given,” which meant no mercy and no life would be spared, but the black flag typically denoted that anyone who surrendered without a struggle would be permitted to live.
The Jolly Roger
Although pirates may have used skulls and bones on flags far earlier in history, the earliest known usage of a “Jolly Roger” was in 1700 on the ship of Emmanuel Wynne, a Breton pirate who employed a skull, crossbones, and hourglass design.
Despite Wynne’s use of it, the Jolly Roger was only employed regularly by British and American pirates in the early 18th century, after the plain black flag had been in use for about a century.
Blackbeard’s flag, one of the most dramatic of all pirate flags, is claimed to have portrayed a horned skeleton brandishing a spear aimed at a leaking bleeding heart in one hand while raising a toast to death with the other.
However, there is no mention from his time of Blackbeard’s flag featuring a two-horned skeleton clutching an hourglass and a spear or dart pointing toward a bleeding heart.
Indeed, over 200 years would pass before the flag pattern was depicted in words for the first time by an American journalist who wrote a novel about buried riches while living on his idyllic New Hampshire farm.
The iconic spear-wielding skeleton image has become a central part of the Blackbeard legend, though, and the imagery is inextricably linked to him in the popular imagination. You can buy a Blackbeard flag from Ultimateflags if you want your own flag to fly – but remember, you are now equipped to tell people the true history of this image!