The Jolly Roger? Not so Jolly.

November 1, 2010

Sketch a pirate flag on a scratch piece of paper.  It’s okay.  I’ll give you a minute.

Creative Commons License photo credit: andrewasmith

What you probably came up with is a small black rectangle with a white skull in the middle and two, white crossed bones underneath.  Is this right, however?  The answer is yo.  Or nes.  You be the judge.

The “Jolly Roger” isn’t one particular flag.  Rather it is the name collectively given to all pirate flags, and boy were there a bunch of them.  In the case of Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship, you are a 100% correct if you sketched the description above as our captain, Black Sam Bellamy, flew what is considered the traditional pirate flag.

The original pirate flag was probably a small red square, which would have told approaching ships that there would only be blood loss if you tangled with this crew. “Jolie rouge” means “pretty red” in French and may be the actual origin of the term “Jolly Roger.”  Another basic option was just a black cloth square.  It would have been simple but effective, stating death for all who came near. More often than not, however, pirates either flew false colors or no colors at all.  This allowed them to get closer to unsuspecting or confused targets before hoisting their pirate flag.  Since the prescribed punishment for piracy was death – usually by hanging – the pirates had nothing to lose and would fight to the death if necessary. This is what the flag needed to indicate.

From a plain square of fabric, the flags evolved into grand creations.  Besides the skull and crossbones, you might see a skeleton, a spear, an hourglass, swords, and even the captain depicted on the flag, all of which are supposed to indicate to you that death is on the way. 

So where did the skull and crossbones come from?  Many pirates (but not all!) were illiterate and they often communicated through symbols or drawings.  In a ship’s log, skull and crossbones might be used as a universal symbol to indicate the death of a sailor.

Universal symbol for a dead pirate.

Universal symbol for a dead pirate.

And now for another joke:

Why does it take a pirate so long to learn the alphabet?

Because they can spend years at C.

(I didn’t say they were good jokes…)

Authored By Nicole Temple

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

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