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Pirates and the Jolly Roger

Updated on April 9, 2016

Pirate Flags

Here are a few famous pirates.
Here are a few famous pirates. | Source

Why Pirates Raised the Jolly Roger

Why Raise a Flag if you were About to Attack a Ship?

Would you warn your enemy if you were about to attack their ship?

ANSWER: Of course not (not unless you were a naval ship)

A lot of this misconception comes from the movies. Surprised?
Thought not.

Back when piracy was a common practice, most "legit" ship captains would carry a variety of different colored flags. Most ships would fly the flag of their country and was usually always at full mast most of the time, but other flags were flown along as well.

Red flags were flown when ships were about to attack one another. According to the military "rules-of-combat" at sea, red flags were flown to inform others that they were at war.

Pirates didn't fight this way and would most often fly false colors in order for a surprise attack. Then, (supposedly) at the last minute, raise their "jolly roger" when an attack was ordered or when boarding their victims ship.

If you weren't a naval ship, a "white flag" should always be ready and at hand.
Why, you might ask?
Because if a captain felt like if his ship were about to be attacked, the "white flag" would be flown informing the "would-be-attackers" (pirates, most likely) that they will surrender without a fight.

The sparing of lives was always in question when pirates took over a ship. Pirates that have been captured were always hung right away, so most pirates (depending on who they were), didn't care one way or another if their victims lived or died. It didn't matter if the victims cooperated with the pirates; surrendered peacefully.

Some pirates would just take what they wanted (including the sail) and send the victims adrift at sea. At least they had somewhat of a chance to survive if another ship happens to see them.

Some rescues came to late. And with some other rescues, the surviving victims had to resort to cannibalism and drinking sea water.

The Skull & Crossbones

This pirate flag is often mistaken as the "Jolly Roger"
This pirate flag is often mistaken as the "Jolly Roger" | Source

Did Pirates Even Fly a Flag?

Some experts believe that MOST pirates didn't raise a flag at all.

In fact, it is believed that after patronizing and later on burning down towns that were close to the harbor, pirates would leave their flag (their "jolly roger") behind. This was to inform others who was responsible for the pillaging.

Famous Pirates

"Black Sam" Bellamy & Edward England

The Most Common Pirate Flag

The common "skull & crossbones" pirate flag you see today (pictured at the right) was actually flown by only two known pirates. This flag is NOT the original "jolly roger" flag flown by other famous pirates.

"Black Sam" Bellamy

If there ever was a "nice" pirate, Samuel Bellamy (aka "Black Sam") would be it. He was also called the "Prince of Pirates" because of the generosity and mercy he placed on his victims.

Fact is, Black Sam never set out to be a pirate, but instead sort of "fell into it". He and his friend and partner, Palsgraves Williams (aka "Paulgraves") set out to salvage treasure off the shores of Cape Cod.

The story is that they heard that a Spanish ship sunk carrying loads of treasure just waiting to be plucked from the bottom of the sea. Bellamy (having a new girlfriend to take care of) and Williams wanted to find this treasure and be able to return to England as rich men.

However, it didn't work out that way.

The treasure hunt was a failure and (probably through desperation) joined with the pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Bellamy and Williams were now members of a known pirate ship called the Marianne, and also became crew mates with Edward Teach - better known as "Blackbeard".

After sailing and pillaging other ships for a while with Hornigold, the crew was getting frustrated with him. Captain Hornigold refused to rob ANY ship that flew the English flag. Since England was Hornigold homeland, he felt it unnecessary to rob from his own countrymen.

Hornigold was soon deposed as captain and was set off (along with his loyal followers including Teach) and the remaining 90 crew members nominated Bellamy as captain.

Captain Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy is known for being the most successful pirate in history. After taking over another ship, the Sultana Galley, Bellamy made his friend Williams commander of the Marianne and he would now make the Sultana Galley his flagship.

It was with these two ships that they were able to chase down a 102 foot long, 300 ton slave ship that was filled with treasure after its captain sold an approximately 500 slaves. This slave ship was called the Whyduh and it was known to sail up to 13 knots (pretty fast back in those days). But it being filled so heavily with treasure, it was easily caught up to and eventually taken over. Although the Whyduh had 18 cannons on board, Black Sam and Paulgraves had no problem defeating her.

It was Captain Beer who commanded the ship Whyduh. Now that Black Sam had his ship, and being known for his generosity, he offered Beer his ship. But the crew decided to burn it instead. Black Sam then asked Beer if he and his crew would join his, but they all declined.

The death of Black Sam came to an early age of 28. It seems during a horrendous storm, the ship Whyduh was capsized along the shores of North America. It took the life of Captain Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy and 143 of his loyal crew members, leaving only two alive.

During the same storm, the ship Marianne was also damaged and capsized leaving only seven survivors.

Out of the nine members left alive of Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy's crew, two were set free, six were hung and one (John Julian) was sold into slavery to John Quincy, the grandfather to President John Quincy Adams.

Edward England

Edward England (born Edward Setter out of Ireland) also flew the skull and crossbones, but his story wasn't nearly as exciting as Samuel Bellamy (aka "Black Sam" Bellamy). In fact, his story is quite sad...well, as it goes with pirates anyway.

England (much like Bellamy) sort of fell into piracy. He was a member of a crew on a slave ship when it was taken over by pirates. Captain Christopher Winter spared the lives of those who were willing to join his crew, so England pretty much had no choice.

Winter most likely took England to Nassau, Bahamas. This was a popular pirate base and where England probably hooked up with pirate captain Charles Vane, the meanest pirate ever. England became quartermaster to Captain Vane aboard his pirate ship the Lark.

When Vane's pirate ship was finally defeated by the Royal Navy, England and the rest of the crew (who were still alive, along with Captain Vane) were captured. However, they were released on the condition that they go to Nassau, Bahamas and inform the other pirates that if they quit their piracy they would all be given pardons from the King.

Yeah, right.

Edward England may have been okay with that deal, but Captain Vane wasn't. So weeks later, Captain Vane and his crew once again went to piracy. Vane, entrusting England to command one of Vane's ships, both went their separate ways and were to meet up again later.

England was eventually deposed from his position as Captain as he showed mercy to their victims. He was then marooned on a deserted island with two other crew members where they eventually made it to Madagascar.

He survived for a while by begging for food, but then died shortly afterward at the end of 1720.

Skull & Two Swords

 Calico Jack Rackham was known to have flown this flag.
Calico Jack Rackham was known to have flown this flag. | Source

Charles Vane

The Meanest Pirate Ever

Not much is known about Captain Charles Vane in his early life, only that his reign of terror lasted from the years 1716 to 1719. He was a liar, cheater, back stabber, showed no mercy (even when he promised), treated his crew cruelly and above all, he broke the "pirates code".

FYI: The "Pirates Code" is that all treasure was to be divided equally among the crew.

He was a feared man, even among other pirates. He was infamously known for torturing the crew from vessels he had captured, even when they had surrendered peacefully and were promised they'd be left unharmed.
It was even enough to make Vane's crew wonder about his mental stability.

The only true friend Charles Vane had and who didn't fear him was another pirate named "Blackbeard". It's rumored that when the King of England released Vane after being captured, only to promise to give up piracy and convince other pirates to do the same, Vane visited Blackbeard and asked him to join his crew and continue the life as a pirate. Blackbeard declined, and accepted the King's pardon.

It's not really known what flag Captain Vane flew (if he flew one at all), but after he decided to turn and run from a French warship instead of fight, his crew turned on him and was deposed, along with 15 loyal followers. His first-mate, Calico Jack Rackham took over as captain on Vane's pirate ship the Ranger and sent Vane and his men away.

It was Calico Jack Rackham that flew the skull over two swords with a black background when he was captain.

Vane eventually made it back up in the "pirate ranks" by seizing even larger ships, but after a storm in 1719 and supposedly being the only survivor, his body washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island in the Bay of Honduras.

He was seen, and almost rescued by an old acquaintance and former buccaneer Captain Holford. Holford knew that Vane would NOT accept the King's pardon and would not permit Vane on board for fear that he would try to take over his ship, but instead warned him. In one months time, when Holford returns to this island, if Vane was still there he would hang him.

Vane got off the island, but only to get caught by Holford anyway. It seems the captain of the ship Vane was on was friends with Holford and invited him on board to dine. Holford recognized Vane and informed the captain who he had on board. The captain of the vessel released Vane into Holford's custody where he was eventually hung.

His body was then hung at Gun Cay, at Port Royal, as a warning against piracy.

Edward Teach


The Most Popular Pirate

Although "Blackbeard" wasn't the most successful pirate, he certainly is the most popular. His real name was Edward Teach, but that isn't really known for sure, because most pirates never gave their real name so that they wouldn't tarnish their real family's name.

Edward Teach got the name "Blackbeard" from his obvious thick black beard. The name "Blackbeard" just sort of happened.

He may not had the charisma of "Black Sam" or the ferociousness of Captain Vane, but "Blackbeard" had other qualities that made him who he was.

He was very intelligent and possibly well educated. He was able to manipulate even the most intellectual of people. One method he used to manipulate his enemies was to have lit fuses tucked under his hat scaring his enemies thinking he was some sort of suicidal bomber.

It is also documented that he had a letter addressed to him on his person at the time of his death from the Chief Justice and Secretary of the Province of Carolina. This might be evidence that "Blackbeard" came from a respectful and wealthy family.

It's also reported that "Blackbeard" never harmed or killed a held captive.

The Flag of Blackbeard

This is the "Jolly Roger" flag
This is the "Jolly Roger" flag | Source

To Be or Not To Be

Would you ever consider becoming a pirate?

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