Jolly Roger is the name which is used to refer to several flags which were flown in order to distinguish a ship’s crew members as pirates. Today the most popular Jolly Roger flag is the ‘Skull And Crossbones’, which consists of a skull over two long crossed bones with a black background. Despite the popularity of skull and cross bones, this design of the flag was only under the use of four pirates, namely, Edward England, John Taylor, Sam Bellamy and John Martel. And during the 17th and 18th century, mostly pirates used plain black flags to mark themselves as pirates.

The most obvious purpose of flying Jolly Roger was to instill fear in the enemies and force them to surrender without any resistance as the flag declared the crew members complete outlaws who would not observe any rules followed by gentlemen sailors and would butcher their captives once they were defeated. Usually, pirates were sentenced to death by hanging over their acts of piracy, and for this reason they did not have any interest in pleading mercy or asking ‘quarter’ in the event of their defeat.

Ever since the declination of piracy, many military units have flown Jolly Roger in the traditional ‘skulls and crossbones’ design to distinguish their unit and attribute the same vehemence and formidability which one relates to pirates of the 17th and 18th century. Electric danger and lethal poisons are also unofficially indicated by Jolly Roger in ‘skulls and crossbones’ design.

History & Origin of Name:

The footsteps of the name ‘Jolly Roger’ can be traced back in A General History of the Pyrates published in 1724 and written by Captain Charles Johnson, also thought to be none other than the famous novelist Daniel Defoe. Johnson has given accounts of the lives of many famous pirates and he has particularly mentioned the names of two famous pirates who had named their flags as ‘Jolly Roger’: Bartholomew Roberts in June 1721 and Francis Spriggs in December of 1723.

The flags of both Roberts and Spriggs were called ‘Jolly Roger’, but they were, in fact, quite different in design and did not have any skulls and crossbones; this only points to the fact that ‘Jolly Roger’ was a general name which referred to any pirate flag irrespective of its design.

Richard Hawkins also reports that during his capture in 1724, the pirates were flying a flag which was named ‘Jolly Roger’ and had a skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear.

It is popularly believed that the term ‘Jolly Roger’ was derived from the French term ‘Jolie rogue’ which meant ‘pretty red’. This theory is backed by the fact that during the ‘Elizabethan Era’, the term ‘Roger’, which is derived from French word ‘Rogue’, was used to describe vagabonds and beggars who “pretended scholarships”. This name was also used to refer to privateers sailing in the English Channel, while Dutch privateers were also commonly called ‘Sea Beggars’ ever since the 16th century.

Yet another theory suggests that ‘Jolly Roger’ is a deformed version of ‘Ali Raja’, the name of a famous Tamil pirate. Some also believe that ‘Jolly Roger’ was inspired by the common nickname for the devil, “Old Roger”. It is believed that ‘Jolly’ designation arises due to the grin of the skull in the traditional Jolly Roger design, while historians have discarded the idea that the name was inspired by some of the famous pirates like English privateer Woodes Rogers.

Famous American author David Hatcher Childress writes in his book, Pirates & The Lost Templar Fleet, that the flag was named ‘Jolly Roger’ after King Roger II of Sicily, the man who flew it for the very first time. Roger was one of the famous Knights Templar, and had a dispute with the Pope over his subjugation’s of Apulia and Salerno in 1127. The author claims that after Knights Templar was dissolved, one of the Templar fleets started pursuing acts of piracy against the vessels of any country which had alliance with the Pope. And so he claims that the flag was an inheritance and the crossbones were none other than a reference to the logo of the Templar, that is, a red cross with blunted ends. But this theory is not supported owing to the fact that, majority of flags flown by pirates did not have crossbones.

Origin of the Many Designs:

Earlier Paintings depict Dutch privateers flying a red flag and the first written allusion to this fact can be traced back to 1694, when English Admiralty law imposed a compulsory condition to sailors and privateers that they should fly red flags or “Red Jack” so as to separate themselves from the navy. The traces of use of a black flag by pirates can be found in the year 1694, where records mention that after a ship refused to surrender, pirates used to replace the red flag with the black one in order to suggest that no mercy will be shown to captives. Records also mention the use of a yellow flag, but till this day no one is certain about the message it conveyed to enemies.

As the Spanish War of Succession ended in 1714, most of the privateers took up piracy and started using both red and black flags with varying designs.

The famous English privateer turned pirate Edward England used to fly three different flags simultaneously. He flew a black flag from his mainmast, a similar but red flag from his foremast and his ensign staff flew the English National flag.

The first mentioning of the use of skull and crossbones flag by pirates comes up in a log book under the custody of Bibliothèque nationale de France; the entry dates back to December 6, 1687 and relates that the flag was used on land, rather than sea.

“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.”

It is known that approximately five years before the name ‘Jolly Roger’ got connected to pirate flags, black flags were being flown over pirate ships. Records of that era mention that Captain Martel used it in 1716, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Charles Wane and Richard Worley in 1718 while the Welsh pirate Howell Davis used it in 1719. Several secondary sources mention that Emanuel Wynn used a flag with skull, crossbones and an hourglass in as early as 1700. These sources are grounded on the reports of Captain John Cranby of HMS Poole, while they are affirmed at the London Public Record Office.



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