Why Does Pirate Flag Have Skull and Crossbones?

The source and usage of the pirate flag is unknown. However, the first pirate flag was used around 1682-1720 by the famous pirate, Calico Rackman. The pirate flag was a symbol of danger, and it was raised to inform the target ship to surrender or face a serious attack.

The flag was only raised when it was time to invade. There were many types of pirate flags.  Some were blank with solid colors, while others bore dangerous symbols. The pirate flag was the ultimate threat to the enemy. The most famed one was the Jolly Roger flag.

Where did the name Jolly Roger Come From?

The origin of the name of this fag is not clear. However, there have been attempts to explain the origin of this name. Some of the renowned theories include:

Ali Rajah Explanation

One of the explanations claims that the name was a mispronunciation of one Indian pirate called Ali Rajah, identified as the king of the sea. The justification claimed that the name Ali sounded like ‘Olly’ while Rajah sounded like ‘Roger’, hence the name. This theory was never proven and therefore remained as such.

The ‘Pretty Red’ Explanation

Another version of the origin of the name Jolly Roger is traced to the French phrase ‘Jolie Rouge’. This is translated as pretty red. The pirate flags were either red or black. The original red flags looked like the color ‘Jolie Rouge’. This idea has yet to be verified.

The Elizabethan Era Explanation

The 16th century was also known as the Elizabethan era after Queen Elizabeth 1 of England. This explanation states that the name ‘Roger’ was widely used in this era to connote vagrants and beggars. This term was used as a slang name. The name was thought to mean a jolly, friendly beggar. The privateers were also called ‘sea beggars’. Some people thought that this was the origin of the name Jolly Roger’.

All these explanations only attempt to explain the origin of the term ‘Jolly Roger’. The first person to be reported to have used a flag with this name is Emmanuel Wynn, a notorious French pirate. His design contained the skull and crossbones with an hourglass below.

What Does the Pirate Flag Mean

The History of the Jolly Roger

The first report of this name came up in the British Admiralty report in 1700. The report stated that the ship associated with Wynn carried the first Jolly Roger flag. In 1720, a period known as the ‘Golden age of Piracy’, two pirate captains who were known as Bartholomew Roberts and Francis Spriggs used this name to connote their flags. In this period, the pirates used simple black and red flags without any designs.

The early pirate John Quelch sailed in a ship named ‘old Roger’, a nickname for the devil. This term was possibly modified to identify with the pirate flag that symbolized death and danger.

What Does the Pirate Flag Mean?

Pirate flags bore different colors and designs to convey a message to the targets. Some pirates used one flag, while others raised two flags with different colors. Most pirates used plain flags, but other captains began to enhance theirs with threatening symbols.

The Red Flag

This was the most dangerous and intimidating flag.  It meant that this ship would spare no life nor show any mercy. It was the ultimate death symbol.

The Black Flag

The black meant that ships that surrendered without a fight would be spared. The color was borrowed from ships that ferried plague victims. Anybody who saw this flag on a ship knew that it meant to stay away as the ship was dangerous. The pirates borrowed this idea to symbolize that their ship was also a death trap.

Meaning of Symbols

SymbolMeaning
HourglassLimited time to surrender
Skull, crossbonesDeath
Horned skeletonThe devil
WeaponsFight, Attack
Red on skeleton or blood drippingBlood and death
InitialsReferred to the captain, targets, or a message

Pirate Flags: Beyond the Skull and Crossbones

Famous Pirate Flags: Beyond the Skull and Crossbones

Besides the common black and red flags, other pirate captains used colored flags of various shapes. Others thought that it was their right to use the national flags.

Cheng 1 Colored Flags

In 1765, a Chinese pirate by the name Zheng Yi also known as Cheng 1 used colored flags along the East Asian seas. His operations ranged from Vietnam to Hong Kong. In 1801, Zheng allied with six other notorious pirates. Their flags were colored:

  • Red
  • Black
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Yellow
  • White

Each fleet was headed by a pirate and raised a specific color to distinguish them from other fleets. The deadly alliance terrified the East Asian seas from 1765 to 1807. The symbolic colors were used for the fleets’ communication and distinction.

National Flags

A group of pirates saw nothing wrong with their activities. These groups used the national flag to show legitimacy and respectability as the privateers. Some pirates used their national flags to fool their targets.  This led to the privateers’ obligation to fly both the national flag and an additional red flag to distinguish them from pirates. In the 1670s, a Caribbean pirate used the deception of the national flags to lure his enemies into his traps. The pirate flew the French, Dutch, and Spanish flags. This deception gave the victims a sense of false security and led them right into his trap.

Conclusion

Flags have long been used as symbols by nations, groups, and organizations. The pirates adopted the idea of flags to symbolize their intentions. The Jolly Roger flag was the most famous and has since been adopted as a trendy design.

The skull and crossbones idea has been used to represent danger or death. Some flags were used in the sea while others were used on land. They all conveyed messages of danger and threat to victims. The pirate flags evolved with time from the black or red to include all sorts of symbols. Others expanded their creativity to include images of themselves on these flags.  Pirate flags became a symbol of piracy.

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