When we think of famous pirates, we sometimes think of a black flag adorned with a skull and crossbones, flying high above their ship. This is close to reality, but there were many other different types of pirate flags.
During the 17th century, for instance, pirates sailed under a plain red flag (the ‘bloody flag’), and by the turn of the 18th century, some ships also began to sail under a plain black flag. These soon came to take on two different meanings: red meant that pirates would give no quarter (mercy), while black meant that pirates would give quarter.
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By the 1710s the red flag had pretty much gone out of fashion and was almost entirely replaced by the black flag, which became known as the Jolly Roger. This itself sported many different designs, one of the most common versions depicting a bloody heart alongside a devil holding a trident.
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However, the first iteration of the skull and crossbones flag put into widespread use was designed by the pirate Captain ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, who created an image of a skull above a pair of crossed cutlasses. This became the most popular emblem, and by the mid-18th century the skull and crossbones flag was used exclusively.
The symbol, simply meaning ‘death’, can also be found on headstones, and in later maritime logbooks next to the names of deceased crew members.
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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed
Was the Jolly Roger only used by pirates?
No, writes Justin Pollard
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.