History with Haggis: Pirate flags

October 7th, 2010 by | No comments

When you think of a pirate flag, you’ll probably think of the archetypical Jolly Roger: a white skull and two crossed bones on a black background. Pirates used a lot more flags than that one though, and they weren’t just for show. A few centuries ago, flags played an important role in naval warfare. At the most basic level, a flag signified the nation a vessel represented, so that you didn’t inadvertently fire at your allies. But this could also be used as a ruse, by flying the colours of the enemy, goading them into thinking you’re their friend. Then, suddenly, you change colours, open fire, enter the enemy’s ship, and presto, another vessel conquered. These tricks weren’t unique to pirates, they were used by navy ships as well. But we’re not here to discuss the navy, we want to know more about pirate flags!

Pirate flags have their origin in the 16th century. The flag that pirate flags evolved from wasn’t black though, and it didn’t have any skulls or bones on it – it was a plain red flag, also known as the bloody flag. A red flag signified that no quarter would be given – a vessel flying such a flag would show no mercy, killing all aboard the enemy’s ship if need be. These flags weren’t unique to pirates, however. According to this site, one of the English ships that sailed against the Spanish armada in 1588 carried such a flag among its equipment.

The name Jolly Roger may have actually originated from this red flag. The French ‘jolie rouge’ literally means ‘pretty red’, possibly referring to the bloody flag. It’s also possible that it’s connected to the nickname ‘Old Roger’, that pirates used for the Devil.

In addition to the red flag, pirates also used other flags with solid colours. A white flag stood for surrender, but of course it didn’t mean the pirates surrendered (pirates never give up, after all). A white flag was actually used when pirates were giving chase, to order the ship they were after to surrender. The colour black is usually associated with death, so a solid black flag was a warning: if you don’t surrender, the only other alternative is death. So you could choose not to surrender, but it actually wasn’t much of a choice.

Why wouldn’t those pirates just fly red flags all the time then? What did they have to lose? Well, yes, it would potentially scare off the enemy, but on the other hand, if you’re shown a red flag, you know the end is near. So what do you do? You fight back, to the death. If pirates weren’t quite prepared for such a fight to the death, the smart choice would be to fly a black flag instead, which would give them the chance to retreat if necessary.

Another clever trick pirates used, was to use someone else’s flag. When capturing a vessel, they also captured everything on board – including its flag. Then they could later use this flag on their own ship, to pretend they weren’t pirates. Pirate ships usually had quite a collection of flags from different nations, so they could always fly the appropriate flag – that of their adversary at the time.

But still, the most famous pirate flags are the ones with symbols on a black background. These started to occur around 1700, with the infamous skull-and-crossbones motif being most popular. Other symbols that signified ‘your time is up’ were also used, such as skeletons, hourglasses, and bleeding hearts. You can see a collection of such flags here.

It has also been suggested that pirates flew their own flags to signify they were part of a separate social group, with little or no connection to nation states. You could say that they showed their participation in a subculture through their flags. Interestingly, the Jolly Roger is now also used as a symbol by people who pirate video games. I wonder, what would the pirates of old prefer: buying a Monkey Island game, or getting in league with the modern-day online pirates?

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