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Last modified: 2019-02-07 by rob raeside
Keywords: pirate | skull | jolly roger | jolie rouge | caribbean | no quarter |
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[Flag of Pirates] image by Antonio Martins

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An overview of Pirate Flags

The "Jolly Roger" is used to refer to the skull and crossbones flag (white on black) which is associated with Caribbean pirates. Although I think the name comes from "jolie rouge" (Fr: "pretty red") which referred to an earlier all-red flag reportedly used by some pirates.
Paul Adams 29 November 1995

There's a lot of controversy about this, but the article I read from an information column called The Straight Dope (I'm doing this from memory) said that one of the origins might be from the title "Ali Rajah" given to one of the pirates.
Dipesh Navsaria 29 November 1995

Pirate ships in the 15th to 17th Centuries which plied the Atlantic as far east as Madagascar were often run as self-contained floating democracies (the captain was usually only in undisputed charge during a battle), and each captain and ship generally bore his or its own flag. Almost all were white or white and red on black, and featured similar elements: skulls or skeletons (symbolizing death; the pirate wanted to project fearlessness in the face of death, and some flags pictured the captain toasting, dancing with, or literally conquering the skeletal Death), swords and cannon (obvious symbolism), treasure chests (ditto), hearts (often pierced, to symbolize "no mercy"), and pirates themselves. The classic "skull-and-crossbones" was almost certainly among these designs. (I don't know which pirate actually flew it. I know Calico Jack Rackham flew a skull and crossed *swords*, but that's as close as I've found in my research.)

In the early days of the so-called "Golden Age of Piracy" (mid-to-late 1500's), pirates (especially French boucaniers, or buccaneers) kept two battle flags, one plain red and one plain black. Before a battle, the captain would hoist one or the other to show whether quarter was being given (for the non-English speakers, this is an archaic expression meaning whether or not prisoners would be taken). The red flag meant "no quarter" (no prisoners, slaughter every one of the enemy). As pirate warfare became more brutal, the two different flags were generally replaced by just one, the (usually) black flag, which was defaced as above. But the flag kept the French nickname given to the red flag: joli rouge. This was anglicized by English pirates to "Jolly Roger".

Different pirates treated flags differently. Many would fly the flag of their country until battle, when the black flag was raised; this was especially true if the captain was a privateer -- one who sailed for a particular country and carried a letter of marque, or signed permission from the country's ruler, to prey on enemy ships. (Of course, the privateer often wasn't above taking a few merchantmen here and there as well when the pickings got thin...) More independent pirates, such as William Teach, better known as Blackbeard, kept a collection of flags on board and simply raised whatever was most convenient in any given situation.

I'm not as certain about the flags of pirates of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. I believe the red flag may have kept its original meaning in the Indian Ocean or at least been a symbol of piracy, owing to the British request that a plain red flag not be flown by any ships of the states in southern Arabia, resulting in the red and white designs of Bahrain, Qatar, and members of the United Arab Emirates.
Steve "Scooter" Kramer, 02 April 1997

From what I have read, the no-quarter flag was red. According to one book (I would have to make a search to get the reference for you), pirate flags were originally red (hence the "jolie rouge" theory of the origin of "Jolly Roger") then, later, two flags were kept on board. Black as an identification of the pirate vessel and red (apparently the same design but in red) if "no quarter" was offered if the victim fought.

A red flag as a sign of no quarter was not unique to pirates. Gen. Santa Anna raised the red flag at the Alamo for the same reason in the 19th century.
William E. (Bill) Hitchins, 04 October 1999


It was recorded in a document of about 1300 that Norman ships hoisted "streamers of red sendal called baucans" as a sign that no quarter would be given, when they attacked a fleet of English, Irish and Gascon ships off the coast of Brittany. However later a red flag was known as the Flag of Defiance, Bloedvlag or Bloody Flag and was merely a signal for battle. A black flag, as often used by pirates, was more often taken to mean "war to the death".
David Prothero, 12 November 1998

I'm afraid I can find any "baucan", nor "baukan" (which are intended to mean the same word in the paragraphs below) in my dictionary - even in my naval dictionary. If such a word meant "streamer", the modern word for baucan would be "flamme" or "banderole" (flamme in vexillology).The word "baucan" could be a variation of "boucan" (which gave "buccaneer" to English), although it hasn't much to do with vexillology. The boucan was the action of smoking meat and skin tanning by adventurers in the Caribbean; the meaning of the word extended to mean the grill on which such smoking was performed. Then the word "boucanier" (buccaneer) depicted these adventurers, on land and sea, and became a synonym for pirate. Perhaps this could be a hint, but this is just my guess.

This was written at a time when spelling of French was not uniformly fixed, and various regional spellings were commonly accepted too (and the texts below are most likely to have been written by French Flemish subjects). Although this is understandable old French, it is really different from modern French.

I'm giving you a French version in modern spelling and grammar (but still old "flavour"), and the English translation.

Lesqueles banères sount appelés baucans et la gent d'Engleterre les appelent stremers et celes baneres signefient mort sans remède et mortele guerre en tous les lious où mariners sont.

Lesquelles bannières sont appellées baucans et les gens d'Angleterre les appellent "streamers" et ces bannières signifient la mort sans remède et guerre mortelle en tous lieux où sont ces marins.

Such banners are called baucans and the people of England call them streamers, these banners mean death beyond remedy and mortal war wherever place those sailors are.

2e Nous ne sums tenus faire restitution ne amende si nulle chose eit esté fait ou prise par nous en ladite guerre; quar il est usage et ley de meer que de choses faites ou prises sur meer en guerre meisement ou ledit baukan soit levée ne doit estre fait restitution n'amende d'une pertie ne d'autre.

Nous ne sommes tenus de faire restitution ou amende de nulle chose qui ait été faite ou prise par nous en ladite guerre; car c'est usage et loi de mer que les choses faites ou prises sur mer en guerre alors que ledit baucan est hissé ne doivent être l'objet d'une restitution ou amende d'une par tie ou de l'autre.

We are not required to restitute nor to make amends, for anything we might have done or taken in the said war; for it is such custom and law of sea that things done or taken at sea on times where the said streamer is hoisted, should not be restituted nor amended from any part to the other.

Pierre Gay, 22 November 1998

Red Pirate flag

I was down the pub on June 21 (2007) having a discussion about flags with some vague acquaintances, correcting the usual urban myths and so on, when this article was drawn to my attention, from a UK newspaper which I would never usually read, due to its terrible right-wing reactionary bias.

The newspaper version of the article actually contained a black and white photograph of the flag, which is a bit like the flag above, save that it of course, has a red background and the skull was actually touching the crossed bones, rather than floating above them. It also has teeth, but no jaw bone. There is a better photograph on the Daily Mail - also a right-wing reactionary newspaper which also states that the flag most probably originally formed part of a garment.

All of this has implications, as it confirms the historical existence of a crimson or red skull and cross bones flag.

Sources: (1) The Daily Telegraph, web site, <>, stated to be last updated 22 June 2007 and consulted 22 June 2007
(2) Daily Mail, web site, <>, stated to be last updated 20 June 2007 and consulted 22 June 2007
(3) British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) News, web site, <>, stated to be last updated 20 June 2007 and consulted 22 June 2007

I know of the international reputation of the Textile Conservation Centre, through a professional connection, but wondered if there is anyone else on the list who knows about flag conservation and whether it is the usual practice to mount a flag on board, in the manner which is described, or whether that is usually only done if the flag is to be displayed?
Colin Dobson, 22 June 2007

Literature references to pirate flags

In David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag, an authoritative book about pirates, the author mentions a "consultation signal" flag used when a pirate captain wants to speak with another pirate captain on a nearby vessel. "A green silk flag with a yellow figure of a man blowing a trumpet has hoisted at the mizzen peak, and as the flag was raised, the pirates in the other ships came across in their boats."
Sean McKinniss, 26 December 2004

I have been reading Life Amongst The Pirates by David Cordingly published by Abacus, ISBN 0-349-11314-9

On page 135 Cordingly refers to the research of Marcus Rediker who claimed that 70% of pirates between 1716 an 1726 were members of two interconnected groups, one gathered around Hornigold in the Bahamas and the other around Lowther and Low. He claims that the striking widespread similarity in their articles of association etc is accounted for by this mutual intercourse, which led to the "...comparatively rapid adoption of the piratical black flag among a group of men operating across thousands of miles of ocean, and it led to a form of teamwork which, however fragile and liable to fragmentation, could produce squadrons of pirates which were considerably more formidable than pirate crews operating on their own." The skull and crossbones as a corporate symbol no less? By 1730 it had been adopted throughout the West Indies by Spanish and French as well as English pirates, whereas beforehand the black flag had been decorated with a variety of other symbols, many of them peculiar to individual pirate captains, and previously the red flag had been more common.

On page 138 Cordingly starts a six page essay on the 18C pirates' use of flags, mentioning a few earlier instances. Pirates often flew their own nation's flag, either with a red or black flag or suddenly hoisting one of those to replace it. They also flew false colours to deceive others or to lure them into a trap e.g., off Martinique Roberts pretended to be a Dutch slave ship and signaled to French sloops inviting them to examine his goods and then robbed them. The use of red flags and black flags to denote aggressive intentions has a history that goes back before piracy e.g. Francis Drake raided Cartagena in 1585 "flying black banners and streamers, menacing war and death". The red flag was widely understood to offer no quarter to the victims, the black flag offered quarter to them. Cordingly quotes Captain Richard Hawkins description of being captured by pirates in 1724: "...they all came on deck and hoisted the Jolly Rodger (for so they call the black ensign, in the middle of which is a large white skeleton with a dart in one hand, striking a bleeding heart, and in the other hand an hourglass). When they fight under Jolly Roger, they give quarter which they do not when they fight under the red or bloody flag."

Cordingly quotes an incidence of a white flag with a black skull on it and belonging to a 'French Pyratt', recorded in a handwritten inscription dated Sept 28th 1717 on the flyleaf of a copy of Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying. Earlier, he points out that since medieval times the skull and crossed bones has been a widespread symbol for death in Europe and mentions it carved upon monuments (but doesn't mention real ones displayed in ossuaries and catacombs) and used in ship's logbooks to record the death of a member of the crew.

Before the black flag became prevalent (presumably as a result of a more enlightened sort of piracy?) the red flag was standard and many believe that 'Jolly Roger' is derived from 'Jolie Rouge', although other theories include it being derived from the name of a Tamil pirate 'Ali Raja', or it simply being a nick name for the Devil - 'Old Roger', as the flag was sometimes called. In April 1680 several crews of buccaneers marched with their flags to attack the town of Santa Maria, described by Basil Ringrose thus : "First, Captain Bartholomew Sharp with his company had a red flag, with a bunch of white and green ribbons. The second division, led by Captain Richard Sawkins with his men, had a red flag striped with yellow. The third and fourth, led by Captain Peter Harris, had two green flags, his company being divided into several divisions. The fifth and sixth, led by Captain John Coxon..made two divisions and each of them had a red flag. The seventh as led by Captain Edmund Cook, with red colours striped with yellow, with a hand and sword for his device. All or most of them were armed with a fuzee, pistol and hanger."
David B Lawrence, 6 May 2008

P 255 of David Cordingly's Life Amongst The Pirates, describes the commission and instructions given to Jonathan Barnet by Lord Hamilton the Governor of Jamaica in 1715. As captain of the Tyger, a 90 ton snow ( a fairly modest vessel ), which is described as a Private Man of War, Barnet was authorised ' force of arms to seize, take and apprehend all pyratical ships and vessels with their commander officers and crew.' He was told to fly a Union Jack of the same design as used by naval ships but differenced from theirs by a white escutcheon, i.e., a white square or rectangle in the middle of the flag ( which in 1715 would be of the 1606 pattern, without the counterchanged red saltire of Ireland ). Jonathan Barnet later became famous in 1720 for capturing "Calico Jack" Rackam, amongst whose crew were the female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny.
David B Lawrence, 9 May 2008

According to Tim Wilson (Flags at Sea [wil99a]) pp. 47 - 48, this was "a shortlived variant" established in 1701 "as a jack for vessels commissioned by colonial governors for official business".

According to the illustration of this flag in Tim Wilson's Flags at Sea it was a 1606 pattern Union Flag bearing a plain white escutcheon (in the form of a shield approx one-half of flag width high) in its centre. If I have understood Pepys correctly, jacks in the late-Stuart period had slightly bluffer proportions than the equivalent ensigns, so the illustrated ratio of 2:3 should be about right?
Christopher Southworth, 10 May 2008

By chance I next picked up a book that has a flag mentioned in it that might well be best mentioned along with the skull and crossbones?

I have been reading White Gold - The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves by Giles Milton ISBN 0-340-7940-4. On page 9 he describes the arrival of a slaving / pirate fleet off the south coast of Cornwall in the south west of England: "The flags on their mainmasts depicted a human skull on a dark green background - the menacing symbol of a new and terrible enemy. It was the third week of July 1625, and England was about to be attacked by the Islamic corsairs of Barbary." A second fleet then appeared off the northern coast of Cornwall and "...captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and raised the standard of Islam." These fleets took hundreds of captives and according to Giles Milton they were taken back to Salé in Morocco, which was a pirate stronghold ruled by the descendants of the Hornacheros, Moriscos expelled from Spain who were waging a sea-borne Jihad against all Christendom. To the English they became known as the Sallee Rovers, to Moslems they were known as al-ghuzat, and they formed alliances with pirates in Algiers and Tunis and also with european pirates resorting to those ports, so I guess that the possibility exists of the skull being transferred onto a black flag by them?

One of the notes to this chapter says "The account of the 1625 attack on the West Country has been drawn largely from letters, notes and memoranda to be found in the various Calendars of State Papers. See particularly the Domestic Series, 1625-6, John Bruce (ed) 1858."
David B Lawrence, 17 May 2008

Chinese Pirates

There is one literary reference I know of - 'A Universal History of Infamy' (1935) by Jorges Luis Borges, chapter 'The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate'. In my (French) translation I read that her fleet was composed of six squadrons each flying a flag of a different colour: red, yellow, green, black, purple; the flagship flew one bearing a serpent. Sorry for not being able to quote directly from the English.

Wikipedia says: "A semi-fictionalized account of Ching Shih's piracy appeared in Jorge Luis Borges's short story The Widow Ching, Lady Pirate (part of A Universal History of Infamy, first edited in 1954), where she is described as "a lady pirate who operated in Asian waters, all the way from the Yellow Sea to the rivers of the Annam coast", and who, after surrendering to the imperial forces, is pardoned and allowed to live the rest of her life as an opium smuggler. Borges acknowledged the 1932 book The History of Piracy, by Philip Gosse (grandson of the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse), as the source of the tale."
Found here:
Jan Mertens, 6 November 2008

And Gosses cites from Neumann, C.F.: The History of the Pirates, who infested the China Sea from 1807 to 1810. Translated from the Chinese by C.F. Neumann, London, 1831. In my Dutch edition of Gosses (Geschiedenis van de Zeeroverij, 1932) the flags of the pirates of Cheng I Sao's Red Fleet are not described.
Jarig Bakker, 6 November 2008

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