Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration

Pirate Ships > Pirate Flags

Pirate Flags


A pirate flag was designed to instill a sense of fear and terror in a merchants ship before being boarded. The presence of a pirate flag or "Jolly Roger" was designed to limit casualties to the pirates and was often an effort to take a ship without ever firing a shot. This was because the pirate flag was synonymous with pirates and their brutal trade.

The most famous pirate flag is the skull and crossbones today, however back in the Golden Age of Piracy there were dozens, each hoisted by a different pirate. The term Jolly Roger goes back to Charles Johnson's, A General History of Pyrates, published in 1724. The term Jolly Roger was the name given to any pirate flag, however the term was most likely coined by Bartholomew Roberts.

Pirates did not always fly the pirate flag, and often they had many flags for every different country in an effort to blend with the rest of the ships in an area. They would not raise the pirate flag until they were within firing range and then it would often be used as a scare tactic to use psychological warfare against the enemy.

This was a great tactic in piracy because if the pirates could capture a ship intact, this ensured the highest value for the goods aboard the ship. For a pirate such as Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach with a brutal reputation, sometimes flying the Jolly Roger was the only thing necessary for a crew to surrender without a shot. Merchantmen were not soldiers and had no particular interest in dying for their cargo.

A great example of this tactic was when Bartholomew Roberts sailed into a harbor at Trepassey in Newfoundland, and hoisted the black flags. All twenty-two boats in the harbor were abandoned by their crews. Black Bart actually did this several times, at several different ports. Most crews surrendered without firing a shot.

Flying a Jolly Roger was both good and bad. For example flying the colors too early or all the time meant giving advance notice of piratical intentions and thus opening up for potential attacks by Imperial warships. However, during a battle, this flag was often raised to inspire moral and instill fear amongst the enemy.

As much as the flag itself is set in black and white, the use, construction and display of the Jolly Roger is not. Most pirates created their flags from whatever materials they could find at the time, with an exception being Black Bart who made his out of silk. However, pirates such as Black Bart also flew multiple flags, at multiple times, from multiple points on the ship. It does not seem to indicate that a Jolly Roger was more of an identifier of a specific pirate as it was of pirates in general.

Pirates and their Flags

The first known pirate flags were used about 1700, at the beginning of the privateering and Post Spanish Succession Era.

Being in the 17th and 18th century, the concept of bones was still fraught with religious overtones and often symbolized pirates to remind themselves of their own mortality and also instill fear among merchantmen.

Red Pirate Flags

Pirate flags were not always black either. Some pirates, especially buccaneers in the Buccaneering Era had red flags. Others such as English privateers in the early 1700's retained the red pirate flag because it symbolized blood and was often more dreaded than its black counterpart.

Pirate Flags - Red Pirate Flag

The red flag was a very omnious flag because in the Age of Sail it meant that a signal had been denied or refused and in pirate terms often meant no quarter if there was no surrender. This is one of the possible origins of the term "jolly roger" since in French, "joli rouge" was used to identify a red pirate flag.

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