What Do Pirate Flags Mean?

Flags on ships were a common sight on the sea. Ships hoisted different flags mainly to represent their nationality. The pirates sought to build a unique representation of themselves, and they designed their flag. The most common flag is the Jolly Roger, characteristic of a skull sitting on top of crossbones on a black background. The pirates used the flag to terrify their prey. When sailors spotted the pirate flag hoisted on a ship’s mast, the message was clear: surrender or die.

Black Pirate flag

What is the Pirate Flag?

The pirate era holds adventures that still strike the curiosity of young and old alike. If you are a pirate enthusiast, you probably have heard about the pirate flag. Known as the Jolly Roger, its sight on the sea brought a sensation of fear among sailors. The pirates used the flag as a means of communication. The message was clear to all sailors; surrender or die. Over the years, the flag appeared with different symbols, but the flag was a source of terror no matter what symbol the pirates used.

One may wonder where the formidable flag got its name from. Several theories seek to solve this mystery. Jolly Roger could have been a pimped version of Jolie Rouge which means ‘very red’. It could be that the name is lifted from a play featuring Old Roger, which is another name for Satan. Other people reckon that the name might be related to Ali Raja, King of the Sea. No one knows for sure where the name originated from. The term is now used to refer to any pirate flag, regardless of its design.

History and Origin of the Pirate Flag

History and Origin of the Pirate Flag

The pirates are believed to have existed since early 1650. However, the first appearance of a classic Jolly Roger wasn’t reported till the early 1700s. Earlier, pirate flags were made of solid colors. Black and red were the common colors used. The red flag originated from English privateers of the 1960s. The privateers used the flag to differentiate them from the Royal Navy. Later, after these privateers turned to piracy, they continued to use the red flag, but with a new meaning.

Before the classic Jolly Roger, Bartholomew Roberts used a flag symbolic of himself sharing a drink with a skeleton. Francis Spriggs flew a flag with a red skeleton on a black background. The emergence of a flag characteristic of a white skull and crossbones dates to the 1700s. Credit goes to a French pirate captain, Emanuel Wynn. On the flag was an hourglass image that sent the message that whoever saw it must surrender before they ran out of time. The French pirate mostly went after English ships and was well respected among his people. Some theories state that fellow pirates referred to him as ‘Joli rouge.’ Some sailors had difficulty pronouncing the name and began referring to him as Jolly Roger.

Poole, the captain of the Royal ship, first spotted this flag in 1700, flying across the Cuban coast, Santiago. Emanuel Wynn and his crew attacked their ship, and since then, the pirates sent a universal message across the seas. All sailors on the sea now understood that the flag warned them to surrender to the pirates or face death. The pirate flag became the official symbol used by pirates to announce their presence and intention.

Famous Jolly Roger

Pirate Flag Symbols and Meanings

Piracy was a common occurrence on the open seas. The pirates had a terrible reputation- one of terror and brutality. However, as unbelievable as it may sound, the pirates weren’t so bent on fighting and killing. The pirates were interested in looting the ships cruising the sea, and they needed to succeed at it. So what did they do? They sought to build a terrible reputation for themselves. The pirates sailed fully armed and used a flag with bloodcurdling symbols. Most ships would surrender without a fight. Easy right? Pirates added more symbols to their flags, intending to instill fear in the target ships.

The black color used on pirate flags represented death. Black is associated with death, and black flags on ships meant plague victims were on board. The pirates adopted the black flag to symbolize that their ship, too, was a death trap. The red color meant that the pirates would show no mercy. The skull, skeleton, and bones also represented death, while the hourglass indicated that time was running out. Other pirates introduced different symbols on their flags. Below is a table showing the meaning of some of the symbols used.

Heart dripping of bloodSlow and painful death
Red skeletonTorture leading to death
Naked pirateShameless pirate
Dressed pirateRepresented the Pirate captain
Skeleton with hornsThe devil
Raised glassA toast to death

Why Hoisted on Ships the Jolly Roger?

The Jolly Roger generally refers to a pirate flag with a white human skull cast above crossbones against a black background. Together with other flags with similar fearful designs, the Jolly Roger had only one purpose. The flag’s purpose was to terrify the target ship. With a series of possible symbols of death, no mercy, surrender, violence, and limited time, the pirate flag sends a clear message to the sailors.

Usually, the pirates hoisted the flag at the last minute. The ship on sight received the message to immediately surrender or face an attack that could lead to the execution of all members on board. The pirates raised a red flag which meant that no mercy would be shown to the sailors, to reinforce the message on the Jolly Roger. The pirate ships often disguised themselves by raising national flags and only revealed their true identity when the target ship was too close to retreat. The occupants of the ship under attack had no option but to surrender.

Modern Use of the Jolly Roger

Modern Use of the Jolly Roger

Today, there are strict policies against piracy. When caught, pirates serve a jail term. However, pirates still roam the seas in some parts of the world, such as South China and South Asia. The pirate tale remains an object of interest up to date. The Jolly Roger is used in movies that seek to recreate the pirate experience. The cast uses the infamous flag to create a realistic representation of the golden age of pirates in their movies.


The pirates, well known for ‘robbing the sea,’ used a clever strategy to instill fear in the sailors. With eyes on the loot, the pirates cruised the seas fully armed with ammunition and a terrifying flag, and very few dared to cross their path. The pirates hoisted regular flags on their ships and only raised their representative flag when they closely approached the target ship. With no option but to surrender, the pirates robbed the ships. The pirates killed those who showed resistance, as communicated by the flag.