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Skull and Bones: The Pirate Flags (Jolly Roger)

The secret symbol of the skull and bones had many popular uses in the past. One such use was the inclusion of the skull and bones symbol on the flags used by many pirates; a use that symbolized the ruthlessness of the pirates and which also symbolized death.

The pirate flag that featured the skull and crossed bones was known as the Jolly Roger. This term is thought to derive from the French, jolie rouge, meaning “pretty red”. The etymology of this term is based on the fact that the skull and bones symbol as often featured on blood-red flags that were flown on ships of pirates who were especially cruel; the flag therefore served to instill fear into those who came under the attack of these pirates.

Originally used by French Templars to refer to the red flags flown by Templar warrior ships, the Jolly Roger, also known as the Old Roger or simply the Skull and Crossbones, was flown by many European and American pirates. The French pirate Emanuel Wynne was the first to fly a flag featuring a skull and crossed bones in 1700, when he plundered the Caribbean; Wynne incorporated an emblem of an hourglass featured beneath the skull and crossed bones into his flag.

In contrast to the Jolly Roger, pirates used a white flag was when chasing a potential victim. In certain instances, the victim would take down the king’s flag from his ship in a sign of submitting to the pirates, an action that was referred to as a pirate having to “strike his colors”. If a victim refused to surrender, the pirates raised a black and white flag in order to show their intentions. If the pirate was particularly merciless, or a ship was particularly evasive, the red flag featuring the skull and bones—a symbol of death—was raised to show that no victim would be spared. The skull and bones symbol also appeared on pirates’ flags that featured a black background.

However, the flag of pirates did not always feature a symbol of the skull and bones. Some pirates would raise red flags portraying a skeleton with horns, which symbolized a particularly gruesome death. Some pirate flags also featured the image of the skull accompanied by a dart or spear in order to denote a violent death, while others featured images of a bleeding heart in addition to a skeleton in order to indicate a slow and agonizing death. Blackbeard, the infamous English pirate who terrorized the Caribbean, is believed to have used most of these symbols in his flags.

The English pirate Jack Rackham, also known as Calico Jack because of his colorful clothing, used the image of a set of crossed swords beneath the skull instead of bones, as did the American pirate Thomas Tew.

Pirate flags were also often customized for a specific need. For example, Bartholomew Roberts, the pirate who captured over 470 vessels who is also known as Black Bart, featured a flag on his ship that showed him toasting Death, personified as a skeleton, during his adventures along the coast of Brazil and the Caribbean during the eighteenth century.


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