Jolly Roger (Pirate Flag) History

Feb 24th, 2017

The Jolly Roger is the name given to flags used by pirates. The most commonly used flag had a black field featuring a skull and crossbones image in the center. Other Jolly Roger flags had a different design or had no design at all.


Image courtesy of Liftarn,


Pirate ships used a variety of flags, but normally used the Jolly Roger when preparing to attack a merchant ship for the purpose of taking the goods that it carried. The black Jolly Roger would be raised to identify themselves as pirates and to give notice to the merchant ship it was the target. If the merchant ship resisted, the black Jolly Roger would be lowered and a red Jolly Roger flag raised to indicate that the merchant ship would be shown no mercy.


On display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard in England.


When privateers or government ships attacked them, they had to abide by the rule that if a merchant ship resisted, it could surrender with immunity, and most did if it became apparent that they could not win. Pirates, on the other hand, did not abide by that rule and, if resisted, would take no mercy on the merchant ship crew.


Most merchant ships did not have the strength to win a battle against a pirate ship, and pirates only attacked when they felt they could win. Pirates would raise specific flags, depending on their location or the ship they were approaching, to make the other ship feel comfortable, and, therefore, allow the pirates to get within attacking distance. Once within distance, the Jolly Roger would be raised. Because of this, many merchant ships were willing to surrender and allow the pirates to take what they wanted.


There is much speculation, but it is unknown how pirate flags acquired the name of Jolly Roger. It is known, through historical documents, that the name was commonly used in the 18th century.


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