So what is a Jolly Roger?
Most people would say a Jolly Roger is a flag that was a flag flown from a ship probably as a jack or ensign to denote the crew as pirates. It is black with a skull and crossbones.
That is partly but not completely true. Indeed if one looks in detail at the origins of the flag, its development throughout history and its modern-day use it has and does fulfil a number of roles. In this post I am going to explore the jolly roger right through history until today.
The exact origin of the pirate flag known as the Jolly Roger is unknown, most experts seem to think its original colouring was red rather than black. This seems to suggest that it evolved out of a signal flag. In historic naval warfare a red flag was used to signal that no quarter would be given in a battle. As pirates were hung when caught they had nothing to gain by being captured alive, and nothing to lose by murdering an entire ships crew. The French Navy described this red flag as the Joli Rouge (pretty red), and it is thought that the English mishearing or mispronouncing joli rouge came up with Jolly Roger. This flag was used more to intimidate a ship's crew to surrender without a fight, rather than an excuse to massacre them. Pirates would sail up to the target vessel possibly flying a friendly flag, and at the last moment hoist their jolly roger, causing panic in the other ship which generally surrendered without a fight.As an attempt to increase the effectiveness of these flags symbols of death would be painted or sewed on it. The skull and crossbones is symbol in popular culture but they varied from ship to ship depending on the individual tastes of the pirates. Other prominent symbols were hourglasses (symbol of death in 17th-18th century Europe) the devil and a stabbed heart. Black flags probably became the prime colour rather than red because of its association with death, and so the jolly roger as we know it began to take shape.
Historic Use of the flagProbably the earliest record of a Jolly Roger being used is in a ships log book held in the national library of France. The entry into the log is dated December 6, 1687, and describes pirates using a Jolly Roger, on land rather than a ship. It states "(we) raised a red flag with a Skull head on it and two crossed bones, and then we marched on." The oldest known reference of the flag being called the Jolly Roger is in a book called the General History of Pyrates, which was published in Britain in 1724. There is evidence Pirates used black flags before the term jolly roger became popular, accounts of the pirate Peter Easton describe the use of a plain black flag. Black flags were used by various pirates throughout the 1700s. Captain Emanuel Wynn is credited by the accounts of the captain of British warship, for flying a black flag with a skull and crossbones and an hourglass on it in 1700. Many people see this as the first use of the popular skull and crossbones Jolly Roger flag from a pirate ship.
With an increase in piracy fallowing the end of the War of the Spanish Succession (possibly because of out of work privateers turning pirate) the flag seems to have become more popular. Pirates began to chose to decorate their black flag with various symbols. The pirate Edward England is credited with flying a black skull and crossbones flag from his mainmast and a red one from his lower mast. These flags appear to have been in the role of jack or pennant as he also apparently used the English National Flag as his ensign. (this could also be an example of using a friendly flag to get close, then hoisting a pirate flag to scare the opponent into surrender as stated above).
The Jolly Roger quickly became an almost personal flag that could identify a ship or pirate captain. Films are not always the best way to express this but for example, in Pirates of the Caribbean the Curse of the Black Pearl. Their is a scene where Jack Sparrow is secretly betraying the HMS Dauntless to Captain Barbosa. Jack says "you take the Dauntless as your flag ship and I'll take the Pearl, I'll sail under your colours and give you 10% of my plunder."
Similarly in the third film of the Pirates of the Caribbean series At Worlds End, there is a fantastic scene where the pirate fleet all hoist their jolly rogers after a speech by the newly elected Pirate King Elizabeth Swan. It depicts the many different flags excellently, many of which are based on Jolly Rogers used by actual pirates:
Unfortunately the last film, On Stranger Tides didn't keep up a good record of accurate flags, and depicts British Ships using Union Jacks rather than red, white or blue ensigns, which is rather disapointing as that was the case in the first film!
Here are some historic Jolly Rogers:
Accredited to Blackbeard but similar flags were used by other pirates
John Quelch or John Phillips flag
One of two flags used by Bartholomew Roberts (the first flag depicted a figure of him and death holding an hourglass, and can be seen in the above clip). The two heads he is standing on represent two islands he didn't like Barbados (ABH) and Martinique (AMH).
Flag used by Samuel Bellamy and from Edward England's mainmast.
Popular version of Henry Every's flag he might have also used a black version.
Emanuel Wynn's jolly roger already mentioned above
Of course the Jolly Roger was not flying at all times but wasn't used until the pirates were close to their target. It was often raised simultaneously with a warning shot.The flag was probably intended as communication of the pirates' identity, which may have given target ships an opportunity to change their mind and surrender without a fight. For example in June 1720 when Bartholomew Roberts sailed into the harbour at Trepassey, Newfoundland with black flags flying, the crews of all 22 vessels in the harbour abandoned them in panic. If a ship then decided to resist, the Jolly Roger was taken down and a red flag was flown, indicating that the pirates intended to take the ship by force and without mercy. Richard Hawkins reports that "When they fight under Jolly Roger, they give quarter, which they do not when they fight under the red or bloody flag."
In view of these models, it was important for a prey ship to know that its assailant was a pirate, and not a privateer or government vessel, as the latter two generally had to abide by a rule that if a crew resisted, but then surrendered, it could not be executed. Possessing or using a Jolly Roger until quite recently was itself considered an act of piracy.
Modern Military Usethe Jolly Roger is used by the Royal Navy Submarine Service as a type of victory flag. When a submarine returned or returns from a successful mission it flies a jolly roger, normally with markings on it depicting its achievements. It should be noted that the white ensign is still worn when the jolly roger is in use, in this way fulfils the role of a pennant.
This tradition is as old as the Submarine Service itself and has its origins from the early days of submarine warfare. Following the introduction of submarines in several navies, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, the First Sea Lord of the British Navy, stated that submarines were "underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English", and that he would convince the British Admiralty to have the crews of enemy submarines captured during wartime be hanged as pirates.
In September 1914, the British submarine HMS E9 successfully torpedoed the German cruiser SMS Hela. Remembering Wilson's statements, commanding officer Max Horton (who would ironically lead the fight against Nazi subs n WWII) instructed his sailors to manufacture a Jolly Roger, which was flown from the submarine as she entered port. Each successful patrol saw Horton's submarine fly an additional Jolly Roger until there was no more room for flags, at which point Horton then had a large Jolly Roger manufactured, onto which symbols indicating E9's achievements were sewn. This was copied by a number of other submarines and a way of protesting against the comments of one's superiors became a tradition.
This practice was repeated in World War II, where it spread to other Commonwealth and Allied submarines that often sailed with and as part of the British fleet.
Free Polish submarine ORP Sokół returning to base in 1944. A Jolly Roger flag displaying the boat's achievements and two captured Nazi flags are flying from the periscope mast.Although the symbols on each Jolly Roger were often unique to each Submarine some symbols were in common use.
A white bar denotes the torpedoing of a merchant ship
A red bar indicated the torpedoing of a warship.
A black bar with a 'U' stood for sinking a German submarine.
A dagger indicated a 'cloak and dagger' mission, such as secretly putting Commandos or spies on enemy shores.
A star or a cannon stood for firing the deck gun at the enemy, (obviously when on the surface).
Mine laying was depicted with he figure of a sea mine and a number indicating how many.
Rescue operations of downed air crew or shipwrecked sailors was often depicted with a lifebuoy.
The Jolly roger of HMS Proteus included a can-opener, referencing an incident where an Italian destroyer attempted to ram the submarine, but ended up worse off because of damaging it hull.
Crew of HMS Utmost displaying their Jolly Roger in 1942. All the symbols on it are mentioned above.
Royal Navy submarines continue to use the Jolly Roger flag in the modern navy. Returning home after the Falklands War of 1982, the submarine HMS Conqueror raised a flag with the silhouette of a cruiser on it, denoting the controversial sinking of the ARA General Belgrano. In 1999 HMS Splendid fired Tomahawk cruise missiles during the Kosovo conflict. On returning home to Scotland she flew a jolly roger with a tomahawk on it, (representing the type of missile used). HMS Turbulent flew a jolly roger depicting two crossed Tomahawks after firing cruise missiles during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, her sister boat HMS Triumph flew a Jolly Roger with six tomahawk axes on it in 2011. The boat had fired six cruise missiles during the campaign to enforce a UN no fly zone over Libya. Its not just British submarines either. In 1980 the Australian sub HMAS Onslow flew a jolly roger with seven ships on it. The Onslow was acting as the enemy in a submarine hunting exercise with seven other ships, all of which she (not literally) sank. A great achievement considering it was supposed to be the other way around.
The Jolly Roger flying from HMS Triumph
The Jolly Roger is popular with the US Air Force and fleet air arm with some squadrons like the 90th Bomber group having it painted on the tail of their air craft. The skull and crossbones has been adapted as military insignia by various militaries all around the world.
Because of books like the Pirates of Penzance and Treasure Island, and films like Pirates of the Caribbean, historic pirates have been romanticized and so has the Jolly Roger. The pirate ship with the jolly roger has become the emblem of the glory days of sailing, despite the fact that they pillaged, plundered and murdered. The Jolly Roger has become the international flag of the mariner, a sort of fun flag, being used by yachts, cruise ships and pleasure craft the world over, sometimes even in place of an ensign! The Sea Shepard Conservation Society even designed their own version and defiantly flew it from their ships as the went through a region of ocean where pirates are known to operate, its now become the popular flag of the organisation. Its been adopted by the Pirate party Movement, and other political groups and movements. Because of it historic symbolism of death it is perhaps inevitable that its been adopted by criminal gangs and terrorist groups. Perhaps those who use it get a feel like they are reliving (for want of a better word) the romance of the golden age of sailing, or perhaps it encourages a sense of adventure or a sense of fun, or perhaps even a sense of defiance, to a government/authority or as is the case of the sea shepherds pirates themselves?
The Pleasure Boat, Maid of Antrim flying the Jolly Roger on the River Foyle.
In conclusion the Jolly Roger is a fascinating flag or rather type of flag as it comes in many forms. Its use and its role has evolved and changed throughout history. Its terrifying origins as a pirate flag means it has almost been made into a legend by writers and film makers. It use has changed throughout history. As a warning flag, a type of personal flag, a military flag, and a fun flag. It has even been adopted by Sports teams, protest and political groups and even fashion. Ironically enough today it seems the only people who don't use it are modern day pirates.
Feel free to leave a comment.
most of the pictures come from Wikipedia but some I have taken with my own camera.