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History of the Pirate Flag


While the precise origin of the pirate flag is unknown, its ancestry can be traced with some certainty. They were used to intimidate the enemy or victim, and the flag was designed to conjure up fear and dread. It was an important part of the pirate armory, and was the pirate's best form of psychological warfare, especially when combined with a preceding reputation of not showing any quarter if opposed. If a pirate could intimidate an enemy to heave-to without offering resistance, then danger to the pirate crew would be eliminated, and the victim's ship could be taken undamaged, thus maintaining its value. Threatening images on the flag were often associated with a known pirate (and hence his reputation), or could conjure up more specific warnings. For example, Bartholomew Roberts bore a grudge against the island colonies of Barbados and Martinique, so in their waters he used a flag showing a pirate figure (presumably Roberts himself) standing on two skulls. Under one were the letters 'ABH' (standing for 'A Barbadian's Head'), and under the other was 'AMH' (for 'A Martiniquan's Head'). The threat was clear and sailors from those colonies would expect no mercy if they offered any resistance.

Identifying an enemy at sea has always been a difficulty business. In the 16th century, royal ships painted their sails with national emblems (e.g. Tudor Roses for English vessels, Catholic crosses for Spanish ones), but these ships operated in distinctive naval squadrons, treasure 'flotas' or other armada like forces. For other vessels, no such symbols were used. Instead, national flags or banners were employed, an identification technique first used in the medieval period. By the 17th and 18th centuries, national symbolism had stabilized enough for publishers to be able to produce flag identification charts, listing the flags of all known maritime nations.

At sea, these symbols indicated national identity, and whether the vessel was potentially friendly or hostile, although this was not always a reliable indication. Privateers or pirates (as well as national warships) often used foreign flags and banners, in order to entice the enemy within range. As long as these flags were replaced with the appropriate national emblem, this was seen as a legitimate ruse de guerre. The best policy was usually to assume all ships were hostile, especially in time of war.

Privateers, approved as such by their national governments, flew their respective national flag (e.g. the cross of St. George, or, after 1707, the union jack for England or the Dutch Tricolor for Holland.) By the mid 17th-century, privateers flew privateering symbols in addition to national flags. Without the national flag, they would have been considered as pirates. Although the nature of these early privateering flags is unrecorded, in 1694, an English Admiralty law made the flying of a red privateering flag mandatory for English Privateers. The red flag is depicted in earlier Dutch paintings, but the meaning was not recorded. The red flag today is associated with warning, and in the context of late 17th century privateering, it served the same purpose of warning another vessel not to resist. The flag as defined by the Admiralty in 1694 was an all red flag known as 'The Red Jack'. It's description as 'that recognized privateering symbol' indicated that the device was flown earlier in the century. Privateers later referred to 'sailing under the Red Jack'. At around the same time, a new symbol appeared. References to a black flag were noted in reports of privateering actions, the first in 1697. This was raised by a privateer if the victim's vessel showed any kind of resistance, and was a symbol that little or no quarter would be given. Yellow flags were also mentioned, although unlike their current association with quarantine, their precise meaning in the late 17th century was unknown. Therefore, by 1700, red and black were flag colors associated with privateering. When the outlets for legitimate privateering dried up at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, many privateers turned to piracy. They simply retained their old symbols, although black became the favored color. Red continued to be associated with privateering until the 19th century. The American 18th century privateering color of a red flag overlaid with white horizontal stripes provided the inspiration for part of the existing flag of the USA. Some reports say the Jolly Roger was run up first, to signify an offer of quarter. If the victim refused to surrender, the plain red flag was flown to show the offer had been withdrawn and no mercy could be expected.

The use of the term 'Jolly Roger' was not a Hollywood myth, and is derived from a couple of sources. The French name for the privateering red flag was the Jolie Rouge (Jolly Red), and this was said to have been converted into 'Jolly Roger'. Another possible derivation comes from the word 'Roger'. In late 17th century England the word 'rouge' was used in association with the rogue laws, limiting vagrancy in England. 'Roger' sprang from this, and was used as a slang word for a vagabond, beggar or vagrant. The privateering association with 'Sea Beggars' goes back to the phrase used by Dutch privateers (and freedom fighters) in the late 16th century. It continued the be used as a romanticized description of privateers operating in the English Channel, particularly those from the port of Dunkirk. The 'Jolly Roger' described the privateering symbol, whether a red or black flag. It later changed from the description of a privateering symbol to a piratical one. Yet another possibility come from the fact that the devil was sometimes referred to as 'Old Roger', so the flag suggested the wrath of the devil.

In popular legend, every pirate flag displayed a skull above crossed bones or crossed swords. In fact there was ample variation, since every crew wanted a unique flag. The first reference to a modified basic 'Jolly Roger' was in 1700, when the French privateer Emmanuelle Wynne flew a black flag embellished with a skull, crossed bones and an hourglass (Henry Every flew a basic skull and crossed bones, though with the skull turned to the side, as early as 1696, on both a red and black flag). It was presumably also used before the turn of the century, although there is no surviving evidence. It may also have indicated that the flyer no longer considered himself to be a privateer, and was a full-blown pirate. What is known is that following 1700, additional emblems on the basic red or black flag were increasingly associated with piracy, and different symbols were in turn associated with individual pirate captains.

Of these, the most common symbol was the skull, the symbol of death. It was also frequently depicted in association with crossed bones, another death symbol (although only Edward England flew the "skull and crossed bones" in it's pure form. Christopher Condent's banner repeated the same symbol 3 times.) Both signs were commonly 'momento mori' on 16th and 17th century gravestones all over the British Isles. Other symbols were complete skeletons, spears, swords, hourglasses, initials, hearts, crossed swords, wings and raised glasses. In an era where symbolism in art and everyday life was commonplace, each had a distinct and immediately recognizable meaning. Apart from the death association with bones, skeletons and skulls, dancing skeletons meant dancing a jig with death, a fatalistic reference the flyer didn't care about his fate. This was also the origin of the raised glass symbol ('toasting death'). Weapons were a portent of slaughter to come, while hourglasses and wings indicated that time was running out (or flying away). All these symbols can be found in contemporary allegorical paintings of death, or on gravestones.

The symbols were often combined. For instance, Christopher Moody used a skull and crossed bones, a raised sword and a winged hourglass. Edward Teach ('Blackbeard') flew a flag depicting a horned skeleton holding an hourglass and a spear next to a bleeding heart. In addition to his 'ABH/AMH' flag, Bartholomew Roberts also flew one depicting a pirate holding an hourglass, alongside a skeleton clutching a spear. The fatalism in pirate symbolism was evident, and it probably applied to pirates as well as their victims.

National flags were still flown, often in an attempt to show that the pirates still wanted to be seen as privateers who only attacked the ships of other nations. If the countries were at peace, or if the pirate held no privateering commission, this meant little or nothing. In 1718 Charles Vane flew the English flag from one mast and a black pirate flag from another. In 1720, Edward England flew a black flag from his mainmast, a red flag from his foremast and the English flag from his ensign staff!

Jolly Rogers were rough and ready affairs, run up by a pirate ship's sail maker or any member of the crew who was handy with a needle. Many Nassau pirates had their flags made for them by a sail maker's widow, who accepted payment in brandy.


Some Flags Flown by Famous Pirates



Flown By

Edward Teach 

Edmund Condent

Edward England


Henry Every 

Christopher Moody

John Rackham 
('Calico Jack')


Bartholomew Roberts 
('Black Bart')

Thomas Tew

Richard Worley

Stede Bonnet

Captain Dulaien

Edward Low

John Quelch