Great misconceptions


“The Jolly Roger was just used by pirates”

The Jolly Roger is the universally recognised symbol of piracy, first recorded in France in 1687 (and used then on land rather than at sea). By the 18th century Charles Johnson in his General History of the Pyrates could record buccaneers flying a variety of black or red flags with ghoulish motifs, from the traditional skull and cross bones, to an hourglass and images of a skeleton piercing a heart with a spear.
Their purpose was simple. When pirates intended to attack they would raise the Jolly Roger to indicate to their prey that they weren’t going to fight by the normal rules of engagement so they’d do well to surrender. But the Jolly Roger is still sometimes flown today – and not by pirates. Various military units have used the skull and cross bones as an insignia but the most famous flyers of the pirate flag are the Royal Navy’s submarine service who still allow the flying of the Jolly Roger on vessels returning from a successful mission.
Legend has it that this originated when Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson (1842–1921), controller of the navy, called early submarines “un-English” and suggested that captured crews should be hanged “like pirates”. This story is repeated in many naval histories but a glance at Wilson’s memorandum on the matter of 21 January 1901 shows that he never said such a thing – although he was not in favour of the British building submarines.
The belief that submarines operated outside the normal rules of engagement was widespread, however, and this led Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton to fly a hastily sewn Jolly Roger on HMS E9 as it returned to port having successfully torpedoed SMS Hela in September 1914. And the tradition has remained ever since, despite various political attempts to abolish the practice.
The most recent occasion of the Jolly Roger flying from a British submarine was 20 June 2011, when HMS Triumph returned to Devonport having fired Tomahawk missiles at targets in Libya as part of Operation Ellamy.