Jolly Roger (The Pirate Flag)
When someone says Jolly Roger, most people think of a skull and
crossbones against a black cloth. However the Jolly Roger was a
generic term for any pirate flag including those that did not fly your usual skull and
crossbones. Pirate flags ranged from solid black to shades of red. The Jolly Roger's purpose was to scare the pirate's victim into
surrendering thereby avoiding a costly fight as pirates wanted the victim's
booty intact with the least amount of struggle. The scarier the flag or the reputation of the pirate behind a
flag, the easier it was to force a surrender. A flag could be called a pirate's trademark upon the high seas, each a unique creation with a specific meaning.
As a Symbol
Different symbols on a Jolly Roger flag had different meanings though many pirates chose simply to fly a black flag to signal battle or a red flag to signal no quarter. To see a red flag meant death as no mercy would be shown even if the ship surrendered and everyone would be killed. Though the skull and crossbones are one of the most recognized symbols of piracy, the skull and crossbones actually predates the pirate flag by a number of years. Symbolizing death the skull and crossbones appeared on tombstones and graveyards or in ships' logs to denote a dead crew member long before they were flown from the mast of a pirate ship. Emanuel Wynne around 1700 AD is considered one of the first to fly a flag with skull and crossbones. Other Jolly Roger themes include an hourglass signaling time was running out to surrender, dancing skeletons to symbolize no fear of death and swords and weapons symbolizing power or death.
A pirate had many flags not just his Jolly Roger. Pirates would fly the national flag of their victim to draw close to their target only to raise the "Jolly Roger" when in cannon range. Pretending to be a friend only to switch to a hostile flag is called ruse de guerre, and was a common tactic to achieve surprise and force surrender or prevent a target from escaping. Many pirate ships flew several flags at the same time including national flags, pennants or "Jolly Roger's."
The origin of the name "Jolly Roger" has several theories include "Jolly Roger" springing from the Devil's nickname "Old Roger" in the 18th century. Another theory says the French term "joli rouge," (beautiful/pretty red) eventually was corrupted into "Jolly Roger." A less common theory says that a Tamil pirate in the Indian Ocean known as "Ali Raja" had his name corrupted into "Jolly Roger" over time. Wherever it originated the "Jolly Roger" made its way into the Oxford Dictionary by 1724.
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© 2009 N. Ramius