Pirate Flag

Not to be confused with Jolly Rancher.
For other uses, see Jolly Roger (disambiguation).

The Jolly Roger is any of various flags flown to identify a ship's crew as pirates that were about to attack. The flag most commonly identified as the Jolly Roger today is the skull and crossbones, a flag consisting of a human skull above two long bones (probably tibias) set in an x-mark arrangement, most usually depicted crossing each other directly under the skull, on a black field. This design was used by several pirates, including Captains "Black Sam" Bellamy, Edward England, and John Taylor.[1] Some Jolly Roger flags also include an hourglass, another common symbol representing death in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Despite its prominence in popular culture, plain black flags were often employed by most pirates in the 17th-18th century. Historically, the flag was flown to frighten pirates' victims into surrendering without a fight, since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of engagement—and might, therefore, slaughter those they defeated (since captured pirates were usually hanged, they did not have much to gain by asking quarter if defeated). The same message was sometimes conveyed by a red flag, as discussed below.

Since the decline of piracy, various military units have used the Jolly Roger, usually in skull-and-crossbones design, as a unit identification insignia or a victory flag to ascribe to themselves the proverbial ferocity and toughness of pirates. In a non-naval context the skull and crossbones motif has additional meanings, for example, to signify a hazard such as poison.


The origin of the pirate flag has been lost. Pirates may have originally used a red flag, which was also common in naval warfare, to signal that no quarter would be given. This red flag was called Joli Rouge (pretty red) by the French, and may have been corrupted into English as Jolly Roger. From the red flag it seems that individual pirates began to develop their own personal flags in order to terrify their foes into a quick surrender. In contrast with the well known red flag, they used the black flag of quarantine and disease as the base, with the universal symbol for death, the skull and bones, and modified it to suit their individual tastes. The skull and bones was also used in captains' logbooks to indicate the death of a sailor.

Another possibility is that Jolly Roger derived from 'Old Roger', a term for the Devil. That the "Jolly Roger" flag was called the "Old Roger" flag in 1723 supports this proposed origin. A news report in Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, October 19, 1723; Issue LVII, page 2, col. 1 reads: "Parts of the West-Indies. Rhode-Island, July 26. This Day, 26 of the Pyrates taken by his Majesty Ship the Greyhound, Captain Solgard, were executed here. Some of them delivered what they had to say in writing, and most of them said something at the Place of Execution, advising all People, young ones especially, to take warning by their unhappy Fate, and to avoid the crimes that brought them to it. Their black Flag, under which they had committed abundance of Pyracies and Murders, was affix'd to one Corner of the Gallows. It had in it the Portraiture of Death, with an Hour-Glass in one Hand, and a Dart in the other, striking into a Heart, and three Drops of Blood delineated as falling from it. This Flag they called Old Roger, and us'd to say, They would live and die under it."[2]


The name "Jolly Roger" goes back to at least Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, published in Britain in 1724.[3]

Johnson specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag "Jolly Roger": Bartholomew Roberts in June, 1721[4] and Francis Spriggs in December 1723.[5] While Spriggs and Roberts used the same name for their flags, their flag designs were quite different, suggesting that already "Jolly Roger" was a generic term for black pirate flags rather than a name for any single specific design. Neither Spriggs' nor Roberts' Jolly Roger consisted of a skull and crossbones.[6]

Richard Hawkins, who was captured by pirates in 1724, reported that the pirates had a black flag bearing the figure of a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear, which they named "Jolly Roger".[7]

During the Elizabethan era "Roger" was a slang term for beggars and vagrants who "pretended scholarship."[8] "Sea Beggars" had been a popular name for Dutch privateers since the 16th century. Another theory states that "Jolly Roger" is an English corruption of "Ali Raja," supposedly a 17th-century Tamil pirate. Yet another theory is that it was taken from a nickname for the devil, "Old Roger".[9] The "jolly" appellation may be derived from the apparent grin of a skull.


The first record of the skull-and-crossbones design being used by pirates is found in a December 6, 1687 entry in a log book held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The entry describes pirates using the flag, not on a ship but on land.[10]

"And we put down our white flag, and raised a red flag with a Skull head on it and two crossed bones (all in white and in the middle of the flag), and then we marched on."

17th and 18th century colonial governors usually required privateers to fly a specific version of the British flag, the 1606 Union Jack with a white crest in the middle, also distinguishing them from naval vessels.[11] Before this time, British privateers such as Sir Henry Morgan sailed under English colours.[7]

Black flags are known to have been used by pirates at least five years before the name "Jolly Roger" became popularized. Contemporary accounts show Peter Easton using a plain black flag by 1612, Captain Martel's pirates using a black flag in 1716,[12] Edward Teach, Charles Vane, and Richard Worley in 1718,[13] and Howell Davis in 1719.[14] An early use of a black flag with skull, crossbones, and hourglass is attributed to pirate captain Emanuel Wynn in 1700, according to a wide variety of secondary sources.[15] Reportedly, these secondary sources are based on the account of Captain John Cranby of the HMS Poole and are verified at the London Public Record Office.

With the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, many privateers turned to piracy. They still used red and black flags, but now they decorated them with their own designs. Edward England, for example, flew three different flags: from his mainmast the black flag depicted above; from his foremast a red version of the same; and from his ensign staff the English National flag.

Just as variations on the Jolly Roger’s design existed, red flags sometimes incorporated yellow stripes or images symbolic of death.[9] Colored pennants and ribbons could also be used alongside flags.

While pirates used the red, or bloody, flag as well as black flags, there was a distinction between the two. In the mid-18th century, Captain Richard Hawkins confirmed that pirates gave quarter beneath the black flag, while no quarter was given beneath the red flag.[7]


The gallery below showing pirate flags in use from 1693 (Thomas Tew's) to 1724 (Edward Low's) appears in multiple extant works on the history of piracy.[16] All the secondary sources cited in the gallery below are in agreement except as to the background color of Every's flag.

Other Jolly Rogers

Sources exist describing the Jolly Rogers of other pirates than the ones above; also, the pirates described above sometimes used other Jolly Rogers than those shown above. However, no pictures of these alternate Jolly Rogers are easily located.

  • John Phillips. At the hanging of two of John Phillips' pirates, the Boston News-Letter reported "At one end of the gallows was their own dark flag, in the middle of which an anatomy, and at one side of it a dart in the heart, with drops of blood proceeding from it; and on the other side an hour-glass."[30]
  • Edward Low. Low used at least two other flags besides his famous red skeleton. One was "a white Skeliton in the Middle of it, with a Dart in one Hand striking bleeding Heart, and in the other, an Hour-Glass."[31] The other was described by George Roberts, a prisoner of Low, as a call to council among Low's ships: "a green silk flag with a yellow figure of a man blowing a trumpet on it."[32]
  • Francis Spriggs is reported to have flown a Jolly Roger identical to one of Low's, from whom he had deserted: "a white Skeliton in the Middle of it, with a Dart in one Hand striking bleeding Heart, and in the other, an Hour-Glass."[31]
  • Walter Kennedy. The Jolly Roger flag pictured above for Kennedy was flown at his ensign staff, i.e. at the stern of his ship. Kennedy also flew a jack (at the bow of the ship) and a pennant (a long narrow flag flown from the top of a mast). Both Kennedy's jack and his pennant had "only the head and cross bones."[33]
  • Florida Straits pirates. On May 2, 1822, the Massachusetts brigantine Belvidere fended off an attack by a pirate schooner in the Florida Strait. The pirates "hoisted a red flag with death's head and cross under it." Neither the pirate schooner's name nor her captain was identified by the Belvidere.[34]
  • In 1780 a pirate flag was captured in battle off the North African coast by Lt Richard Curry, who later became an admiral. The flag is red with a yellow skull and crossbones.[35]
  • In 1783, William Falconer reported that the "[t]he colours usually displayed by pirates are laid to be a black field, with a death's head, a battle-axe and hour-glass," but does not state which pirate or pirates allegedly showed this device.[36]

Use in practice

Pirates did not fly the Jolly Roger at all times. Like other vessels, pirate ships usually stocked a variety of different flags, and would normally fly false colors or no colors until they had their prey within firing range.[37] When the pirates' intended victim was within range, the Jolly Roger would be raised, often 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.[38] 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."[39]

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:

An angry pirate therefore posed a greater danger to merchant ships than an angry Spanish coast guard or privateer vessel. Because of this, although, like pirate ships, Spanish coast guard vessels and privateers were almost always stronger than the merchant ships they attacked, merchant ships may have been more willing to attempt resisting these "legitimate" attackers than their piratical counterparts. To achieve their goal of taking prizes without a costly fight, it was therefore important for pirates to distinguish themselves from these other ships also taking prizes on the seas.[40]

Flying a Jolly Roger was a reliable way of proving oneself a pirate. Just possessing or using a Jolly Roger was considered proof that one was a criminal pirate rather than something more legitimate; only a pirate would dare fly the Jolly Roger, as he was already under threat of execution.[41]

Modern uses

By submarines

Following the introduction of submarines in several navies, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, the First Sea Lord of the British Royal 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.[42]

In September 1914, the British submarine HMS E9 successfully torpedoed the German cruiser SMS Hela.[43] Remembering Wilson's statements, commanding officer Max Horton instructed his sailors to manufacture a Jolly Roger, which was flown from the submarine as she entered port.[42][43] 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.[43] A small number of other submarines adopted the practice:[43] HMS E12 flew a red flag with the skull and crossbones on return from a foray into the Dardanelles in June 1915,[44] and the first known photograph of the practice was taken in July 1916 aboard HMS H5.[45]

The practice restarted during World War II. In October 1941, following a successful patrol by HMS Osiris, during which she sank the Italian destroyer Palestro the submarine returned to Alexandria, but was ordered to remain outside the boom net until the motorboat assigned to the leader of the 1st Submarine Flotilla had come alongside.[44][46] The flotilla leader wanted to recognise the boat's achievement, so had a Jolly Roger made and delivered to Osiris.[46](I) After this, the commanders of submarine flotillas began to hand out the flags to successful submarines.[46] Although some sources claim that all British submarines used the flag,[47] the practice was not taken up by those submarine commanders who saw it as boastful and potentially inaccurate, as sinkings could not always be confirmed.[43] During the war, British submarines were entitled to fly the Jolly Roger on the day of their return from a successful patrol: it would be hoisted as the boat passed the boom net, and remain raised until sunset.[46]

Symbols on the flag indicated the history of the submarine, and it was the responsibility of the boat's personnel to keep the flag updated.[43][46] The Royal Navy Submarine Museum (which, as of 2004, possessed fifteen Jolly Rogers) recognises 20 unique symbols.[48] A bar denotes the torpedoing of a ship: red bars indicated warships, white bars represented merchant vessels, and black bars with a white "U" stood for U-boats.[48][49] A dagger indicated a 'cloak and dagger' operation: typically the delivery or recovery of shore parties from enemy territory.[47][49] Stars (sometimes surrounding crossed cannon) stood for occasions where the deck gun was fired.[47] Minelaying operations were shown by the silhouette of a sea mine: a number inside the mine indicated how many such missions.[47] A lighthouse or torch symbolised the boat's use as a navigational marker for an invasion force.[49] Rescue of personnel from downed aircraft or sunken ships was marked by a lifebuoy.[47] Unique symbols are used to denote one-off incidents: for example, 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 damage to the destroyer's hull by the submarine's hydroplanes.[50]

Flying the Jolly Roger continued in the late 20th century and on into the 21st: HMS Conqueror raised the flag decorated with the sillouette of a cruiser to recognise her successful attack on the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War of 1982. On returning to her home port of the Faslane Submarine Base in Scotland, HMS Splendid flew a Jolly Roger with a Tomahawk, representing the launching of cruise missiles during the Kosovo conflict of 1999. HMS Turbulent flew a flag carrying crossed tomahawks (representing the launching of Tomahawk cruise missiles) on returning from a 2003 Iraq War deployment.[48][51] In April and again in June 2011 HMS Triumph returning from Operation Ellamy also flew a Jolly Roger adorned with Tomahawk axes, six in total, to indicate the missiles fired by the submarine in the operation.

The practice, while commonly associated with British submarines, is not restricted to them. During World War II, Allied submariners working with Royal Navy fleets adopted the process from their British counterparts.[52] While operating in the Mediterranean, the Polish submarines ORP Sokół and ORP Dzik were presented with Jolly Rogers by General Władysław Sikorski, and continued to update it during the war.[53][54] At least one British surface ship recorded their U-boat kills through silhouettes on a Jolly Roger.[55] The Australian submarine HMAS Onslow flew the Jolly Roger in 1980, following her successful participation in the Kangaroo 3 wargame as an opposing submarine.[56] The flag bore the silhouettes of the seven surface ships involved in the exercise: Onslow had successfully 'sunk' all seven.[56]

In U.S. military aviation

Four squadrons of the 90th Bombardment Group of the Fifth Air Force under General George C. Kenney, commanded by Colonel Art Rogers were known as the Jolly Rogers. Easily distinguished by the white skull and crossed bombs, from 1943, the four squadrons all displayed the insignia on the twin tail fins of their B-24 heavy bombers (heavies) with different color backgrounds for each squadron. The 319th's tail fin background was blue, the 320th's red, the 321st, green, and the 400th, the most graphic of the four, black.[57] The skull and crossed bombs remains the heritage insignia of the group's successor, the 90th Operations Group.

The 90th Bombardment Group, commanded by Col. Rogers, known as the Jolly Rogers, used the Skull and Crossed bombs insignia. The Skull and Crossed bones was used by an outfit called Russell's Raiders.

Several United States Navy squadrons have used the Jolly Roger insignia, VF-17/VF-5B/VF-61, VF-84 and VF-103, since redesignated as VFA-103.[58]

In fiction

  • The anime character Captain Harlock uses the traditional Jolly Roger featuring skull and crossbones prominently. Not only does it appear on his flag, but also several times on his costume. His ship's internal decor likewise uses the symbol throughout. In some incarnations, such as Space Pirate Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey, the entire bow of his ship features the Jolly Roger.
  • The 1982 anime series Macross—and the Americanized version Robotech—featured a transformable aerospace fighter with a passing resemblance to the F-14. Some aircraft bore a paint scheme inspired by VF-84. Elite pilots were members of "Skull Squadron," and the vertical stabilizers their aircraft bore a white jolly roger on a black field with a yellow strip along the top and a white stripe on the leading edge.[59]
  • In Flashpoint, the logo of the SRU is Henry Every's Jolly Roger with the bones replaced with swords.
  • In J. M. Barrie's 1911 novel Peter Pan, Jolly Roger was the name of Captain Hook's ship.
  • The 2009 Coen Brothers film A Serious Man, featured a motel called the Jolly Roger that had a skull and crossbones on the sign.
  • In the 1996 movie Independence Day, the virus that Jeff Goldblum uploads to the alien mothership is called jollyroger.exe
  • In the pirate manga series One Piece, flags of Jolly Roger present throughout the story and the skull design usually represents the captain of the ship. For example, the manga's protagonist, Monkey D Luffy, always wear a straw hat, and so his pirate flag is a Jolly Roger with a straw hat.
  • In the movie Down Periscope, the USS Stingray flew the Jolly Roger when they fired flares in Charleston Harbour and when XO Pascal is made to walk the plank
  • Pirates of the Caribbean is a series of fantasy-adventure which is all about pirates, basically focusing on Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp). The films represent various Jolly Roger flags.
  • The Pokemon "Koffing and Weezing" have skull and crossbones on their bodies due to both being directly based from toxic gases.
  • In Nintendo's Super Mario 64, the third level of the game, a water level featuring a pirate ship, is called "Jolly Roger Bay".

In music

On the cover of the 2006 Iron Maiden album, A Matter of Life and Death, a version of a Jolly Roger depicting a helmeted skull and two assault rifles instead of bones is displayed hanging from a tank.

The re-issued version of the Megadeth album, Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good!, shows a stylized Vic Rattlehead skull on top of crossed swords and crossed bones. This was based on Mustaine's original drawing for the cover which the band did not have enough money to produce at the time.

Also on the cover of Michael Jackson's Dangerous album it can be seen on the left side with the alteration of a skull over two swords.

"Pirate" Metal band Running Wild often reference the Jolly Roger and other pirate related themes in their music.

Kenny Chesney's single "Pirate Flag", from his fourteenth studio album Life on a Rock.

"The Pirates", a spinoff of the band [2]

By the pirate movement

Before changing to a stylized 'P', the Pirate Party used the Jolly Roger as its symbol; it is still used extensively in the Pirate movement. The Piratbyrån and The Pirate Bay also use either the skull and crossbones symbol, or derivatives of it, such as the logo of Home Taping Is Killing Music.

In sports

A number of sports teams have been known to use variations of the Jolly Roger, with one of the best known in current use, an adaptation of Calico Jack's pirate flag, with a carnelian red background instead of the black, being that of the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with an American football over the crossing area of the two swords.

The supporters of FC St. Pauli, a sports club from Hamburg, Germany, best known for its association football team, have adopted a variation of Richard Worley's flag as their own unofficial emblem. Also, the Jolly Roger is the popular icon of all University College Cork (Ireland) sports teams.

"Raise the Jolly Roger!" is also used in a statement by the Major League Baseball's team Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Greg Brown when the Pirates win a game.[60] Brown has become known for the phrase, his signature call, similar to other sports broadcasters, such as the Cincinnati Reds' announcer Marty Brennamen's phrase ('This belongs to the Reds'), and former Pirates announcers Lanny Frattare and Bob Prince, who like to end a Pirates win with similar statements.

Another such variation is the Oakland Raiders, it uses a head with facial features, wearing an eye patch and a helmet, crossed swords behind the helmet completes the image.

All these variations are seen as the logos of sporting teams in (Scotland):

The South African Football Association soccer team Orlando Pirates also has the classic Jolly Roger as their logo.

The athletic teams of East Carolina University use a stylized Jolly Roger as one of their logos. This particular variation includes an earringed and eyepatch-wearing skull donning a tricorn of purple and gold (the school's colors) emblazoned over two crossbones. This logo appears on the helmets of the school's football team, and an elaborate pre-game ritual takes place prior to each home contest wherein a flag bearing the university's Jolly Roger logo is raised on a special flagpole located behind the west endzone prior to the opening kickoff. Immediately prior to the start of the fourth quarter, the normal (black) Jolly Roger is lowered and replaced with a flag bearing the ECU Jolly Roger on a red background, indicating that the Pirates will grant their opponents "no quarter."[61]

In business

The early development team of the Apple Macintosh used a pirate flag to maintain a "rebellious" spirit.[62]

See also


Explanatory notes

^(I) One account states that Horton, now Commander in Chief Submarines, was visiting at the time of Osiris' return, and influenced the flotilla leader's decision.[44]



Journal and news articles
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