Think pirate and you think of the Jolly Roger, or as its more commonly known, the skull and crossbones. While the Jolly Roger on the left is the flag we currently know, historically pirates flew many different patterns. The name “Jolly Roger” is is derived from the French word “Jolie Rouge”, which means “Pretty Red”. The reason the flag is called this is that red flags were flown by some infamous pirates.
There is little authentic information about the flags used by pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries. Usually it must have suited pirates not to be recognized as such and they no doubt made much use of false colors to gain surprise. The pirates preferred to sail incognito and flew the colours of any country suitable for their area of operation.
The main purpose of the pirate flag was to strike fear into the hearts of the enemy. The goal of the pirates was to make the enemy surrender without a fight. Often this plan worked out well, and the victim struck his colours and submitted to the pirates. Usually the pirates would show the black and white flag to make the victim surrender. The same flag design, but in red, was flown by the pirates to indicate that no quarter would be given, which meant that they would take no prisoners and slaughter every one of the enemy. The first known pirate flag was flown in 1700 by Emanuel Wynne, while he looted and plundered in the Caribbean.
Blackbeard or Edward Teach
Different pirates used their flags for different purposes. Many would fly the flag of their country until raising the black flag in battle. This behavior was typical for privateers, who sailed for a particular country and carried a letter of marque, or signed permission from the country’s ruler, to prey on enemy ships. More independent pirates, such as Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, kept a collection of flags on board and simply raised whatever was most convenient in any given situation.
Usually pirate flags indicated a certain message by showing symbols of death. For example, the letters on Bartholomew Roberts’ second flag “ABH” and “AMH” meant “A Barbadian’s Head” and “A Martinician’s Head” and symbolized some kind of vendetta and his disgust of the island of Martinique.
But not only black and red flags were used by pirates. The two captains Mission and Caracioli fought against Britain in the Channel and in the Caribbean in the late 17th century. As a crew member proposed to use a black flag, Caracioli answered “We are not pirates, but men who want to live for the Freedom that God and Nature gave us, without surrendering to anybody”. That’s when they created a white flag with the inscription “Pour Dieu et la Liberte” which means “by God and Freedom”.
Even during the first world war, royal submarines have flown a Jolly Roger when returning to port after a successful patrol. The flag was modified by various symbols, if the submarine had sunk vessels or landed raiding parties.