Certainly for many, these might be the most exciting, widely known and easily recognizable nautical flags out there. We’d venture a guess that they might be what first comes to mind when most people think about flags flown at sea.
We are speaking, of course, of Pirate flags. Specifically, those seen during the later stages of the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 18th century, which were flown by ships and crews primarily operating in and around the Caribbean Sea. The usage and style of these nautical flags was uniquely interesting in that they were essentially a combination of a signal flag, a private signal, and an ensign all rolled into one.
When we envision a pirate flag, it is the iconic black banner featuring a skull and two crossed bones– otherwise known as the “Jolly Roger.” The purpose of this design was simple: intimidation. Virtually every pirate flag depicted some type of human skull, bones, or skeleton. Universally and clearly, these images represented death.
It was a common tactic for pirates to hold off raising these flags until they were about to attack, allowing them to approach other vessels under the false pretense of peaceful (or at least neutral) intentions. In order to sidle up close to potential targets, it wasn’t uncommon for pirates to carry and fly colors of different nations, depending on whom they were trying to fool. Once they were close enough, they would lower whatever false flag they were flying (if they were flying any identifier at all) and raise their own piratical flag to strike terror into their prey.
Pirates–looking to capture a ship, its cargo, or its crew–would raise their flag with its fearsome symbolism in order to signal to their target that if they did not surrender, they would receive no quarter and no mercy in the fight to come. The purported (and uniquely red ) flag of the pirate Christopher Moody explicitly spelled out such a message with a winged hourglass (“your time is running out”) an arm holding a dagger (“we will use force and violence” ) and a skull and crossbones (“expect the result of said violence to be your death”) in that order. Therefore, pirate flags were, in a way, signal flags: flags spelling out specific messages to others at sea or in port.
The uniqueness of his flag identified Moody as an individual, just as other pirate captains flew their own distinguishing flags which identified their personal commands. Thus, the flags of these pirate captains effectively served as private signals: flags which identify the owner or captain of a particular vessel. Some flags were especially specific to individual captains, as with Bartholomew Roberts, whose deadly grudge against the inhabitants of the islands of Barbados and Martinique was visibly apparent in his flag’s design.
Though they had different variations on the skull and crossbones theme, all of these threatening flags were known as Jolly Rogers (accounts differ, but it may come from the red flag known as the “Jolie Rouge” used by French buccaneers in the late 1600s). Any ship committing acts of piracy while using these flags was said to be flying under the Jolly Roger, regardless of which individual captain commanded. Taken together, the use of all these flags flown by pirates joined them (though perhaps unwittingly) in a kind of affiliation defined by owing no allegiance to any power but their own self-interest and ideals – not unlike the way an ensign groups “legitimate” ships in a fellowship, albeit one oppositely defined by owing absolute allegiance to a particular nation, state, or realm. Each captain may have been their own unique person – known variously as a pirate, corsair, freebooter, or buccaneer – yet they were all united under a recognizable banner of lawlessness, defiance, and terror.