1700: The Jolly Roger

Fearsome: the skull and crossbones emblem of the pirates
Fearsome: the skull and crossbones emblem of the pirates

Information and explanations of the likely origins of the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger.

Submitted by Steven. on September 11, 2006

There have been a number of different explanations of the origin of the most famous of the pirates’ flags: the ‘skull and cross bones’, which was first used around the year 1700.

In the book Socialism For Beginners, Anna Paczuska declared that, despite pirates’ flags being predominantly black, the term Jolly Roger was a perversion of the French jolie rouge (red and beautiful). This may have some basis in fact as the navy flag signal for mutiny was a red flag, and mutinies were often followed by the mutinous crew seizing the ship and becoming pirates themselves. Some early pirates were also said to have flown a solid red flag.

The Jolly Roger flown by the Atlantic pirates in the Golden Age of piracy, however, was black and either showed a skeleton or a skull and bones. 18th century Atlantic historian Marcus Rediker provides a more convincing explanation of its origin.

The flying of the Jolly Roger was a part of the psychological war waged by the pirate band and was designed to strike terror into the hearts of those who saw it. The skull and crossed bones device was commonly used by a ship’s captain in his log, as a sign that a seaman had lost his life on voyage. As such it would be a universally recognised symbol of death. The colour of the flag indicated ‘no quarter’ and ordered the victims not to resist. Finally, Rediker argues that the name is taken from 18th century slang for sex (as in ‘a good rogering’). Quite simply, if the captain of a fat merchantman were to look out, and see through his telescope the Jolly Roger flying, then he could be sure that he was well and truly fucked.

Edited by libcom from a review of the history of the Atlantic pirates 'Villains of all Nations' by Marcus Rediker, by Darren Williams. It was first published in the Red Star No.2 Oct. 2004