One of the first associations that come to mind when we think about pirates is Jolly Roger, the black flag decorated with white skull and crossbones – the intent with a clear meaning – fear and intimidation.
Flags on ships played an important role; they allowed identifying whether a ship on the horizon was hostile or allied.
“Jolly Roger” was a common name for the famous symbol of European and American pirates and was always a hostile signal flag.
Pirate ships traditionally raised a solid black flag to identify themselves as pirates sending the message that if the ship put up no resistance, everyone on board would be given mercy.
If the ship chose to put up a fight, the black flag was replaced with a red flag, which sent the message that absolutely no mercy would be given. The color red in pirate flags symbolized bloodshed and the early pirates sailed under the Red Flags.
Both flags — a kind of psychological warfare — were intended to demonstrate the mighty power and fearlessness of the approaching pirate ship and to terrify.
Both colors had symbolic significance.
The origin of the name is not entirely clear. Some theories suggest that the flag took the name of «Old Roger» — the nickname, which was determined, by the devil, or «Roger» — term for drifters, losers and vagabonds.
Many historians believe that the term “Jolly Roger” dates further back in history, namely to the 13th century, when the image of a skull and crossbones was used by the Knights Templar and then adopted by the Knights of Malta who were known for their acts of piracy.
One popular theory (without any documented evidence) says “Jolly Roger” name derives from the French «joli rouge» (pretty red) color of the flags used by pirates first.
The designs of the pirate flags varied much.
While many pirates still continued to use plain black or red flags, some captains began to elaborate the flags’ design with symbols representing violence and death; some designs were associated with the captain’s reputation or presented messages and warnings addressed to his enemies.
For instance, John Rackham (widely known as “Calico Jack”, English pirate captain operating in the Bahamas and in Cuba during the early 18th century had a flag with a white skull over crossed swords on a black background , that become synonymous with Golden Age pirate ships.
Henry Every’s flag was black and decorated with a white image of a bandana-wearing skull in profile over crossbones.
Blackbeard (Edward Teach or Thatch), a notorious English pirate who operated around the West Indies and the eastern coast of Britain’s North American colonies, had black flag with a white image of a horned skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand and spearing a red heart with the other.
This image was clearly meant to strike fear into the hearts of everyone he approached as the hourglass sent the message that time was running out and the speared heart suggested he would show no mercy.
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