The first to appear was the red flag of the early buccaneers or privateers, which was rumoured to be dyed with blood and warned any merchant ship that the pirates would show no mercy if they encountered any resistance. The black flag, most often associated with pirates was not used until 1700 or thereabouts. At this time pirates raised a black flag to advise the enemy that good quarter would be given. If resistance was met, the bloody red flag was raised to show that the offer of quarter was withdrawn. However, there was a wide variety of flags beside the traditional one of the skull and cross bones, which had been the symbol of death since medieval times.
‘Calico Jack’ Rackham’s flag depicted a skull leering over crossed sabres. French pirate, Emmanuel Wynne, used a sable ensign with cross bones, a death’s head and an hourglass. The hourglass meant that time was running out. The pirate John Quilch’s flag showed a man with an hourglass in one hand and a dart in the heart with three drops of blood dripping from the other hand. A flag of ‘Black Bart,’ Bartholomew Roberts showed a pirate standing next to death, each holding a hand on an hourglass. Christopher Condent’s pennant contained three skull and crossbones.
The infamous Blackbeard’s flag showed the skeleton of the devil holding an hourglass and pointing a spear at a red heart that dripped blood, whilst Captain Edward Low’s flag featured a red skeleton on a black background.
Why the traditional black pirate flag was, and is, called the ‘Jolly Roger’ remains a mystery, but many people think that the name was first given to the red flag by French Buccaneers who called it the ‘jolie rouge’ (pretty red). This was changed by English pirates to Jolly Roger and the name was transferred to the black flag. Although, perhaps, the Jolly Roger may derive from the English word ‘roger’ which, in the seventeenth century, meant a rogue or devil.
Yet another explanation has the Jolly Roger deriving from the Tamil title ‘Ali Raja’, which means King of the Sea and was widely used in the eastern seas. According to this theory English pirates may have pronounced Ali Raja as Ally Roger or Olly Roger and thence to Jolly Roger. However, this theory seems a little far fetched but, as in many of these types of theory, almost anything is possible.
Whatever flags the old time pirates used and whatever they were named, they struck fear into the hearts of many a ship’s crew and passengers, as there was little mercy given by the pirates who were intent, in the first instance, of making themselves rich at the expense of others.
Modern pirates such as the Somalis use sophisticated weapons and do not show any flags, but still strike terror into the hearts of innocent seafarers.
by Terry Took © 2014
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.