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The traditional "Jolly Roger" of piracy.

The Jolly Roger is the name given to any of various flags flown to identify a ship's crew as pirates.[1] The flag most usually identified as the Jolly Roger today is the skull and crossbones, being a flag consisting of a skull above two long bones set in an x-mark arrangement on a black field. This design was used by several pirates, including Captains Edward England and John Taylor.[2] Some Jolly Roger flags also include an hourglass, representing that the victims' time to surrender was running out. Despite its prominence in popular culture, plain black flags were often employed by most pirates in the 17th-18th century.[3] 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 didn't 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.


Origins of the term

The name "Jolly Roger" goes back at least to Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, published in Britain in 1724.[4]

Johnson specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag "Jolly Roger": Bartholomew Roberts in June, 1721[5] and Francis Spriggs in December 1723.[6] 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.[7]

Richard Hawkins, 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".[8]

Despite this tale, it is assumed by most that the name Jolly Roger comes from the French words jolie rouge, meaning "pretty red".[9][10] During the Elizabethan era "Roger" was a slang term for beggars and vagrants who "pretended scholarship."[11] "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", the name of a Tamil pirate.[9][12] Yet another theory is that it was taken from a nickname for the devil, "Old Roger".[12] The "jolly" appellation may be derived from the apparent grin of a skull. Theories that the epithet comes from the names of various pirates, such as Woodes Rogers, are generally discredited.[citation needed]

In his self-published book Pirates & The Lost Templar Fleet, David Hatcher Childress claims that the flag was named after the first man to fly it, King Roger II of Sicily (c.1095-1154). Roger was a famed Templar and the Knights Of The Temple were in conflict with the Pope over his conquests of Apulia and Salerno in 1127.[13] Childress claims that, many years later, after the Templars had been disbanded by the church, at least one Templar fleet split into four independent flotillas dedicated to pirating ships of any country sympathetic to Rome. If this is so, then the flag was an inheritance, its crossed bones a reference to the original Templar logo of a red cross with blunted ends. However, as shown below, many Jolly Rogers did not have crossed bones.

Origins of the design

The first record of the skull-and-crossbones design 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.[14]

"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.[15] Before this time, English privateers such as Sir Henry Morgan sailed under English colors.[8]

Black flags are known to have been used by pirates at least five years before the name "Jolly Roger" became popularized. Contemporary accounts show Captain Martel's pirates using a black flag in 1716,[16] Edward Teach, Charles Vane, and Richard Worley in 1718,[17] and Howell Davis in 1719.[18] An even earlier 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.[19] 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.[12] 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.[8]

Jolly Rogers Gallery

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.[20] 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."[34]
  • 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."[35] 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."[36]
  • 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."[35]
  • 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."[37]
  • Florida Strait 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.[38]
  • 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.[39]

Use in practice

The Jolly Roger raised in an illustration for Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance.

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.[40] 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.[41] 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."[42]

In this view of 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."[43]

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.[44]

Use by Royal Navy Submarine Service

6 February 1942 Members of the crew of HMS Utmost with their "Jolly Roger" success flag, photographed alongside submarine depot ship HMS FORTH in Holy Loch, on their return from a year's service in the Mediterranean

Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, summed up the opinion of the many in the Admiralty at the time when in 1901 he said submarines were "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews."[45][46] In response, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116 in 1914 while in command of the E class submarine HMS E9.[47][48]

During World War I, the submarine service came of age, receiving five of the Royal Navy's fourteen Victoria Crosses, the first by Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of HMS B11.

In World War II it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth rather than of lawlessness. The Jolly Roger is now the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.[49]

The Jolly Roger was brought to the attention of a post- World-War-II public when HMS Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger on her return to the UK from the Falklands War, having sunk the cruiser ARA General Belgrano.

In May 1991, during the Gulf War, Oberon class submarines HMS Opossum and her sister HMS Otus returned to the submarine base HMS Dolphin in Gosport from patrol in the Persian Gulf. They flew Jolly Rogers for their part in Operation Granby.[50][51][52] In 1999 HMS Splendid participated in the Kosovo Conflict and became the first Royal Navy submarine to fire a cruise missile in anger. On her return to Faslane, on July 9, 1999, Splendid flew the Jolly Roger.[53][54]

After Operation Veritas, the attack on Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, HMS Trafalgar entered Plymouth Sound flying the Jolly Roger on March 1, 2002. She was welcomed back by Admiral Sir Alan West, Commander-in-Chief of the fleet, and it emerged she was the first Royal Navy submarine to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against Afghanistan.[55] HMS Triumph was also involved in the initial strikes, and on returning to port displayed a Jolly Roger emblazoned with two crossed Tomahawks to indicate her first missile salvos fired in the "War on Terrorism".[56]

More recently (on April 16, 2003), HMS Turbulent, the first Royal Navy vessel to return home from the war against Iraq, arrived in Plymouth flying the Jolly Roger after launching thirty Tomahawk cruise missiles.[57]

Use in United States Military Aviation

F-14 Tomcat of fighter squadron VF-84
90th Bomb Group Insignia-319th Bomb Squadron

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 bones, 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.[58]

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 Naval Aviation squadrons have used the Jolly Roger insignia, VF-17/VF-5B/VF-61, VF-84 and VF-103, since redesignated as VFA-103.[citation needed]

Use in fiction

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]

Use in music

Album cover depicting variation on the Jolly Roger

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.

Usage by the pirate movement

Before changing to a stylized 'P', the Pirate Party used the Jolly Roger as its symbol; it is still so 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.

Use in professional 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 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. Also, the Jolly Roger is the popular icon of all University College Cork (Ireland) sports teams.

See also


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition 1989, under "Roger, n.2.4" records the first usage as: "1785 GROSE Dict. Vulgar T. s.v. Roger, Jolly roger, a flag hoisted by pirates."
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Regular black flags mostly employed by pirates.
  4. ^ A general history of the robberies & murders of the most notorious pirates. By Charles Johnson
  5. ^ Charles Johnson (1724), A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, p. 250.
  6. ^ Johnson (1724), pp. 411-12.
  7. ^ Bartholomew Roberts' Jolly Roger in June 1721 is simply described as "their black flag," which may or may not be the same Roberts is described as flying earlier on pp. 243-44, the man standing on a Barbadian's head and a Martinican's head (see the gallery). Spriggs' Jolly Roger is described as follows: "a black Ensign was made, which they called Jolly Roger, with the same device that Captain Low carried, viz. a white Skeliton in the Middle of it, with a Dart in one Hand striking a bleeding Heart, and in the other, an Hour-Glass."
  8. ^ a b c David Cordingly (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House, p. 117.
  9. ^ a b Jolie Rouge as origin of term jolly roger.
  10. ^ origin of jolly roger term.
  11. ^
  12. ^ a b c David Cordingly (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House, p. 118.
  13. ^ Stephen Dafoe. The Knights Templar, Accessed 30 December 2007.
  14. ^ Pirate Flags Pirate Mythtory.
  15. ^ David Cordingly (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House, p. 220.
  16. ^ Johnson, p. 66.
  17. ^ Johnson, pp. 72, 147, 344.
  18. ^ Johnson, p. 187.
  19. ^ See, e.g., Angus Konstam, Pirates: 1660-1730; Douglas Botting, The Pirates;; etcetera.
  20. ^ See, inter alia, Douglas Botting (1978), The Pirates, Alexandria, VA: TimeLife Books, Inc., pp. 48-49; Angus Konstam (1999), The History of Piracy, ISBN 1-55821-969-2, Italy: Lyons Press, pp. 98-101. Some of these flags are verified by contemporary accounts such as Johnson's. As to Low's flag, for instance, Johnson writes, "Low goes aboard of this ship, [the Merry Christmas], assumes the title of admiral, and hoists a black flag, with the figure of death in red, at the main-topmast head." Charles Johnson (1724), A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, ed. by David Cordingly (2002), Globe Pequot, ISBN 1585745588, p. 307. Likewise, Bartholomew Roberts' flag is described in the same edition of Johnson, p. 202, thus: "The jack had a man portrayed in it, with a flaming sword in his hand, and standing on two skulls, subscribed A.B.H. and A.M.H." Roberts' other flag, showing a man and a skeleton holding up an hourglass, appears in an engraving on p. 278 of Johnson's original 1724 text (reproduced here). Kennedy's flag is as described by one of his victims, Captain J. Evans of the Greyhound Galley, according to a letter written to Johnson in the second edition of the History (1726), on p. 331 (note, however, that this capture was in 1716, and thus probably does not refer to the same Walter Kennedy who sailed first with Roberts and then on his own account from 1720-23). For Wynn's flag, see the preceding footnote. The origin of the flags for Blackbeard, Tew, Every, Condent, Worley and Bonnet are far more obscure. Ed Foxe believes that the versions of the latter six pirates' Jolly Rogers shown in the secondary sources are taken from an undated, unsourced manuscript in Britain's National Maritime Museum. [2]
  21. ^ Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 101.
  22. ^ Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 100-01.
  23. ^ Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 99; Johnson (1726), p. 331.
  24. ^ a b Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 100; Johnson (1724), p. 278.
  25. ^ Botting, p. 48, Konstam, The History of Pirates, p. 98.
  26. ^ Pirate Mythtory, Ed Foxe, 2004
  27. ^ Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 98.
  28. ^ Botting, p. 48; Konstam, p. 99.
  29. ^ Botting, p. 49, Konstam, p. 98; Frank Sherry, Raiders and Rebels, New York: Hearst Marine Books, 1986, ISBN 0-688-04684-3, illustrated p. 97, ascribed p. 98.
  30. ^ The red version of this flag appears in Angus Konstam, Pirates: 1660-1730, Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1998, ISBN 1-85532-706-6, p. 44. Black versions appear in Botting, p. 48; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p. 99; Sherry, illustrated p. 97, ascribed p. 96.
  31. ^ Botting, p. 48; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p. 101; Sherry, illustrated p. 97, ascribed p. 96.
  32. ^ Botting, p. 49; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p. 100. Johnson (1724), p. 344, says only that Worley "made a black Ensign, with a white Death's Head in the Middle of it, and other Colours suitable to it," without specifying whether these "other Coulours" were the crossed bones that appear in Botting and Konstam.
  33. ^ Botting, p. 48; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p. 100, see also Origins of the Design, above.
  34. ^ John R. Stephens (2006), Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas," ISBN 0-7607-8537-6, p. 305.
  35. ^ a b Johnson (1724), p. 411-12.
  36. ^ Stephens, p. 168.
  37. ^ Stephens, p. 144.
  38. ^ Stephens, p. 140.
  39. ^ William Falconer (1783), An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, s.v. "Pirate."
  40. ^ This practice is considered deceitful today, but in the period of sail it was the standard practice for all ships. There was no other way to approach an enemy or victim on the open sea if they didn't want to fight.
  41. ^ Burl, Aubery Black Bart pp. 133-4.
  42. ^ Cordingly, p. 117. Cordingly cites only one source for pages 116-119 of his text: Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, America and West Indies, volume 1719-20, no. 34.
  43. ^ p. 10, "Pirational Choice: The Economics of Infamous Pirate Practices", Peter T. Leeson.
  44. ^ "Ships attacking under the death head's toothy grin were therefore considered criminal and could be prosecuted as pirates. Since pirates were criminals anyway, for them, flying the Jolly Roger was costless. If they were captured and found guilty, the penalty they faced was the same whether they used the Jolly Roger in taking merchant ships or not – the hangman's noose... For legitimate ships, however, things were different. To retain at least a veneer of legitimacy, privateers and Spanish coast guard ships could not sail under pirate colors. If they did, they could be hunted and hanged as pirates." p. 12, Leeson 2008.
  45. ^ "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English."(Stephen Wentworth Roskill (1968). Naval Policy Between the Wars, Walker, ISBN 0870218484 p. 231. cites A. J. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, vol. I (Oxford UP, 1961), p. 333 and also Williams Jameson, The Most Formidable Thing (Hart-Davis, 1965) pp. 75-76.)
  46. ^ "underhand, ... and damned Un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews." (J. R. Hill (1989). Arms Control at Sea, Routledge, ISBN 0415012805. p. 35 cites Marder, From the Dreadnoughts to Scapa Flow p. 332).
  47. ^ Staff, The Jolly Roger on a webpage of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
  48. ^ HMS Triumph and HMS Superb.
  49. ^ General information on the Royal Navy Submarine Service use and history of the Jolly Roger
  50. ^ Hansard 13 May 1991.
  51. ^ Ian W Hillbeck. Newsletter: Issue 24, Submariners Association Barrow-in-Furness Branch.
  52. ^ Ian W Hillbeck. Submarine Camouflage Schemes, Submariners Association Barrow-in-Furness.
  53. ^ Barton Gellman U.S., NATO Launch Attacks on Yugoslavia Washington Post 25 March 1999.
  54. ^ Swiftsure Class Nuclear Fleet Submarines.
  55. ^ Trafalgar Returns March 1, 2002.
  56. ^ Home and away over Christmas, Navy News, 24 December 2001
  57. ^ Cruise missile sub (HMS Turbulent) back in UK by Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian April 17, 2003.
  58. ^ * Birdsall, Steve. Flying Buccaneers. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1977. ISBN 0385032188.
  59. ^ Macross Mecha Manual


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary

A version of the Jolly Roger



Jolly Roger

Jolly Rogers

Jolly Roger (plural Jolly Rogers)

  1. the traditional flag used on European and American pirate ships; often pictured as a white skull and crossbones on a black field; the blackjack
    • 1883, Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island
      The Hispaniola still lay where she had anchored; but, sure enough, there was the Jolly Roger - the black flag of piracy - flying from her peak.
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