Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Jolly Roger and
By Cindy Vallar
Skulls and crossed bones are synonymous with pirate flags, but the use of such symbols to denote death predates the appearance of the first Jolly Roger. They are frequently found on tombstones, and ships’ logs often contain skulls beside deceased crew members’ names. Once pirates adopted the familiar skull and crossbones as their emblem, frequently on a field of black, anyone who saw their flags recognized the implied threat. To further intimidate their prey, pirates used other symbols. The swords found on the flags of Thomas Tew and Calico Jack Rackham symbolize power over life. Christopher Moody added an hourglass with wings to make his intentions clear: time was swiftly running out. Dancing skeletons signified that the pirates cared little for their fate. A raised glass meant they toasted death.
Why use such symbols of death and destruction to instill fear? Pirates earned their wages by capturing prizes and ransoming captives. To do battle against their opponent risked the intended cargo and ship they meant to confiscate. A fight could also mean their own deaths. Rather than resort to physical violence (although they did so when necessary), they preferred to wage psychological warfare. Woe to any merchantman who dared to defy the warning, for some pirates gave no quarter.
Pirates, navies, and merchantmen used flags to identify other ships. Most carried an assortment of ensigns aboard. The ruse de guerre was a frequent ploy that allowed ships to approach the enemy before declaring their true intentions. As they neared their target, the ship flew the national flag of the ship they approached, signifying friendship. When the prey was within range, they hoisted their true colors and caught them off guard. The first maritime flags were often solitary-colored banners and came into use during the Middle Ages. Eventually each nation adopted its own flag for easier identification and solidarity. Pirates were no different, for they considered themselves a nation (albeit one of a criminal nature). In time, anyone who saw their flag through a spyglass dreaded the meeting to come. Chinese pirates adopted different colored flags to identify each squadron. Cheng I, the commander of these fleets, may have flown a flag with an elaborate design on a field of gold or yellow. Charles Vane and Edward Teach flew the Union Jack from one mast while flying the Jolly Roger from their mainmast.
Near the start of the 18th century, the Jolly Roger gained prominence amongst pirates and captains created their own designs. Aside from those mentioned earlier, anyone who spotted a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear or dart in the other while standing beside a bleeding heart knew who chased them – Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. Black Bart favored one of two flags: a man and a skeleton, who held a spear or dart in one hand, holding either an hourglass or a cup while toasting death, or an armed man standing on two skulls over the letters ABH and AMH. The latter warned residents of Barbados and Martinique that death awaited them, for these islanders had dared to cross Bartholomew Roberts.
While The Buccaneers of America (a first-hand account of Alexandre Exquemelin’s years amongst pirates) makes no mention of the Jolly Roger or the skull and crossbones, the flag was mentioned during the trial of Captain John Quelch and his pirate crew who were executed in Boston in 1704.
Three months later the pirates were off the coast of Brazil flying as a flag the Old Roger which was ornamented by an anatomy with an hourglass in one hand, and a dart in the heart with three drops of blood proceeding from it in the other.
It is one of the earliest recordings of pirates using the black flag as well as the use of the term Old Roger. The Oxford English Dictionary first defined Jolly Roger in 1724.
English privateers flew the red jack by order of the Admiralty in 1694. When the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, many privateers turned to piracy and some retained the red flag, for red symbolized blood. No matter how much seamen dreaded the black pirate standard all prayed they never encountered the jolie rouge. This red flag boldly declared the pirates’ intentions. No life would be spared. No quarter given.
This message was confirmed by Captain Richard Hawkins in 1724 when pirates overtook his ship: they all came on deck and hoisted Jolly Roger…. When they fight under Jolly Roger, they give quarter, which they do not when they fight under the red or bloody flag.
How did pirate flags become known as the Jolly Roger? No one knows for certain, but there are several hypotheses. One is that the name is an English corruption of the French jolie rouge, which means pretty red. Others believe it comes from English slang used to denote the devil – Old Roger. Or perhaps it comes from Ali Raja, a Tamil pirate captain who terrorized the Indian Ocean. No matter its origin, the intent of the skull and crossbones was clear – intimidation and fear – and even today we comprehend its meaning.
© 2001 Cindy Vallar
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