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The History of the Skull and Crossbones Flag

Updated on January 28, 2020

Pirate Flag (Skull and Crossbones)

The Skull and Crossbones is a design comprising of a Human Skull and two Long Bones crossed over each other under, or sometimes behind the Skull. It has been seen as an emblem of death since the Middle Ages.

It has long been associated with Piracy as a terrifying universal warning insignia at least from the 14th century but possibly even earlier.

Displayed on Military Flags and Insignia as a sign of fierceness from at least the 12th century.

Ships belonging to the Knights Templar organisation (active between the 12th and early 14th century) used the skull and crossbones insignia on their flags to show they were the owners of the ship.

Skulls and Bones have been used for many centuries to mark the entrance to Spanish Cemeteries. This resulted in the symbol subsequently becoming associated with the idea of death. They also decorated many other countries catacombs and cemeteries from around the Middle Ages.

The Skull and Crossbones symbol on a black flag which was traditionally called the “Jolly Roger” in England was the most commonly used and was raised as a signal that a pirate ship was about to attack.

As some pirates did not use the Skull and Crossbones on their flags, the name “Jolly Roger” would become the term used to mean the name for any specific design of a black pirate flag. Some chose to use skeletons, crossed swords, hourglasses or a bleeding heart.

The Catholic Church banned the symbol in the 18th Century due to its associations with Pirates.

The Skull and Crossbones became associated with poisonous substances around the middle of the 19th Century. As well as the logo, being on labels it become the symbol for the American Association of Poison Control.

Skull and Crossbones on Gravestone


Infamous Pirates | Flying the Skull and Crossbones Flag/Jolly Roger

Aruj and Hizir Barbarossa

Known as The Barbarossa Brothers, they became wealthy sailing from the North African Barbary Coast and raiding European vessels in the Mediterranean Sea.

Barbarossa means “Red Beard” in Italian.

After Aruj lost an arm during a battle against the Spanish, the brothers began specifically targeting their ships.

After the death of his brother in 1518, Hizir took over and spent the rest of his life fighting against various enemies including a fleet specifically conceived by the Pope to annihilate him.

Captain William Kidd

Originally, a respected Privateer this dashing Scotsman crossed over to Piracy after being elected by his then crew.

The action that ultimately led to his downfall was attacking an East India Company ship. This riled the authorities into casing him down.

He had a cunning plan to bury some of his treasure (around $30,000 worth of ruby’s and diamonds) on Gardiners Island (East Hampton, New York) and use it to plead for his freedom if he was ever captured. The plan failed.

It is thought that even then and particularly now his “exploits” have been exaggerated, but it did not stop him being captured and executed by hanging and his corpse covered in tar then displayed along the side of the River Thames in London as a chilling warning to other pirates.

Edward Teach | Blackbeard

Although he was universally feared and very successful, legends abound about Blackbeard.

He was said to have gone into battle holding two swords and several daggers and pistols on his person while candle smoke billowed from his beard.

He is credited with capturing over 40 ships and became known as a man with no conscience, apparently never hesitating when he killed his prisoners.

Legend again tells that he was only captured by the Royal Navy after being stabbed 20 times and shot five times. He was then beheaded and like others before him, his head was displayed near the HamptonRiver as a warning to other pirates of their waiting fate.

Henry Morgan

Captain Henry Morgan, perhaps the most infamous pirate of all.

Unofficially endorsed by English Parliament he menaced Spain’s Caribbean Colonies ultimately becoming the leader of the Jamaican Fleet.

His greatest achievement was his downfall when he raided and captured Panama City’s fleet of 30 ships and over 1,000 men. This resulted in him being arrested, and sent back to England.

His destiny then took an unexpected turn in that he was knighted by King Charles the Second and made Deputy Governor of Jamaica. Where he remained living as a reputable planter until his death.

During his time as Deputy Governor Jamaica passed anti-piracy laws!!!

Anne Bonny

Bonny joined the crew of Jack Rackham (Calico Jack) by acting and dressing as a man.

She was a heavy drinker and a fearless fighter. In fact, with her confidence she goaded Calico Jack and his crew into even greater acts of violence and slaughter.

After her capture, she was imprisoned as she was pregnant. Following her release history does not record what happened to her or her future activities.

Madame Cheng

Cheng commanded the largest pirate alliance in history. In charge of around 1,800 ships and 70,000 crew.

She extorted protection money from many coastal residents, as well as kidnapping and attacking ships.

She received a pardon from the Chinese Authorities in 1810 and lived the remainder of her life running an opium smuggling venture.

Bartholomew Roberts | Black Bart

Roberts’ courage became legendary earning him the nickname “Pistol Proof”.

His skills, bravery, and charisma made him the most admired pirate of his day. He was almost considered immortal having raided and fought against over 400 ships.

His final battle against the British left him dead and many, including the British, were stunned by his ultimate death.

John Rackham | Calico Jack

The nickname “Calico Jack” was taken from the Calico shirts he wore and a derivative of John “Jack”.

After receiving a pardon for his previous piracy acts, he got restless and headed out to sea again to sail around the Bahamas.

Uniquely among his crew were two female pirates (Mary Read and Anne Bonny) both of who disguised themselves by dressing as men. After being captured, the escaped execution as they were both found to be pregnant.

Rackham’s untimely end was rather mundane, as he and his crew were effortlessly captured by a pirate hunting ship. They offered no resistance as they were in a very inebriated state. He was hanged a month later.

Uniquely among his crew were two female pirates (Mary Read and Anne Bonny) both of who disguised themselves by dressing as men. After being captured, they escaped execution as they were both found to be pregnant.

Edward England

Born Edward Seegar he was a rare bread of pirate in that he was known for his compassion and mercy (the Pitying Pirate).

One of his ships was named the “Pearl” long before Jack Sparrow was envisaged!!!

His compassion led to his downfall as his crew mutinied and abandoned him on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean because he refused to kill the crew of an English Trading Ship the “Cassandra”.

Along with two other crew, they built a raft and sailed to Madagascar where he lived for a short time before dying in 1720.

Francois L’Olonnais

Frenchman L’Olonnais became infamous for his excessive savagery and sadistic nature particularly when it came to his captured victims.

Along with the capture of many Ship’s he was the most successful pirate who carried out land attacks.

His infamy grew following a raid on a town in Venezuela where he amassed some 200,000 Spanish dollars.

His bloodthirsty reputation grew with stories that began circulating which said that he had eaten the heart of a Spanish soldier and would tie a chord round his victims’ neck until their eyes popped out.

Finally, running aground of the coast of Panama L’Olonnais and his crew ventured ashore to search for food but were captured by a local tribe who were cannibals and all were cooked and eaten.

Gravestone with Skull and Crossbones


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