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The Terror of the Seven Seas: How the First Jolly Roger Flag Came to Be

The Terror of the Seven Seas: How the First Jolly Roger Flag Came to Be

Jolly Roger Flag on a Blue Sky
Jolly Roger or Skull and Cross Bones flag

The Origin of the Pirate

A few hundred years ago, sailing the seven seas was the quickest way to trade goods with other countries, but it wasn’t always the safest. Merchant boats would sail from coast to coast and load up on goods to be delivered to their destination.

These boats, laden with riches, traveled along sea-trade routes and became prime targets for boats of sea-robbers wishing to get rich off of the merchants’ goods. At the end of the 1600s, several wars ended and many sailors were out of employment so it was an easy choice for them to seek employment on pirating boats.

Piracy was incredibly common amongst the Caribbean because there wasn’t a strong government in the American colonies to put a stop to it. Pirates were able to sail freely throughout the warm waters and pillage ships at their leisure and without fear of punishment. With these perfect conditions, the Golden Age of Piracy  began.

Purpose of the Flag

Ships have always flown their colors by way of a flag to indicate where their allegiance laid. If they were a naval ship, they would fly their country’s national flag and private ships would fly a different flag to communicate who they are without having to get close to each other. Other maritime signal flags could be used to indicate to another ship if they needed assistance or geographical locations.

Similarly, pirate ships would also fly certain flags to send a message and would also attempt to trick other ships into believing that they were an ally by using a similar flag as the other ship. This would get the other ship to put their guard down and the pirate ship would go in for an attack.

When not attempting to be a trickster the pirate ship would fly a solid black flag. This would indicate to the other ship that they were about to be attacked, and if they didn’t resist, the pirates would take what they wanted and allow the men to come with them unharmed.

If the ship resisted the attack, the pirates would change their flag to solid red which was an indication that they would take the ship at all costs and show no mercy. These flags became a symbol of fear for those who were being attacked and gave the pirates more power by intimidation.

What’s in a Name?

Jolly Roger used to be a term for a cheerful and friendly man, but during the early 1700s, it becomes synonymous with piracy. The grinning skull and crossbones on a solid black flag are first mentioned in “A General History of the Pyrates” by Charles Johnson in 1724. Johnson credits pirates, Bartholomew Roberts and Francis Spriggs, with calling their flags the Jolly Roger.

But how did the name of the flag develop? There is some speculation as to how it came to be. French privateers would fly a red flag known as the “Jolie Rouge” which translates to Pretty Red but if said by an English tongue it is not a far step to being Jolly Roger.

However, even though Roberts and Spriggs were calling their flags the same thing, their design of the skull and crossbones were vastly different. This suggests that amongst the pirate community they were already referring to the solid black flag as the Jolly Roger rather than specifically the skull and crossbones.

Before the traditional style of the Jolly Roger flag gained in popularity, there were many different variations in the design. For instance, a man that had been captured and released by pirates, Richard Hawkins, reported that the pirates had a black flag featuring a skeleton being stabbed in the heart with a spear.

There have been other versions of the flag, such as a red flag featuring a profile view of a white skull and crossbones flown by the famous pirate Henry Every. As well as, Calico Jack’s version of the black flag with a white skull and two crossed swords. 

The symbol of a skull and crossbones was a popular symbol used during the medieval ages in Europe. It was used as a symbol of death on poisons, tombstones, entrances to cemeteries and military gear. It’s no wonder that over time, pirates eventually adapted it to their purposes to scare and intimidate other sailing vessels they encountered.

Pirate Lore

These days the Jolly Roger flag, more specifically the version with the skull and crossbones, has become the universal symbol of the pirate. Whether telling classic stories of real-life pirates such as Blackbeard and Jose Gaspar or creating new pop-culture pirates there will always be one thing in common, the Jolly Roger flag. Even though each type of these pirates is vastly different, there will always be a common image between them. Pirates will always be depicted as rum drinking sailors who plunder loot, hide treasures, and are masters of the seas with the Jolly Roger flag flying high on the mast.

Learn More About the Jolly Roger Flag Today!

Hopefully, you have found this brief history of the Jolly Roger pirate flag interesting. 

If you would like to purchase your very own Jolly Roger flag, visit our website and order yours today!

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