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Pirate Flags

      For almost three centuries a black flag with a white skull and crossbones (Jolly Roger) has been the symbol for pirates throught-out the western world. The flag was meant to strike fear into victims and encourage a hasty surrender. In popular fiction all pirates flew the Jolly Roger. However, this special flag was first used mainly by British and British-American pirates beginning around 1700. Other pirates attacked either under their own ruler's flag or under the flag of the official issuing their privateering commission. By flying a national flag, pirates made a symbolic statement (often false) that the attack was legal under that country's laws. Some nations sponsored piracy and lived off pirate booty, including Barbary states, the Knights of Malta, and 17th-century England. In law, corsairs operating from one of these havens had to fly its flag. This showed that the raiders recognized and paid taxes to the ruler's law courts.

      The true origin of the pirate flag has been lost. It probably dates back to the plain black flag that a ship would fly to warn another to surrender at once, or else it would be replaced by the red flag, or 'Jolie Rouge' in French, meaning no quarter given (no mercy would be given to the crew). This French name may be where the term 'Jolly Roger' originated. Another possiblity comes from the word 'Roger'. In late 17th century England the word 'rouge' was used in association with the rogue laws, limiting vagrancy in England. 'Roger' sprang from this, and was used as a slang word for a vagabond, beggar or vagrant. Also another possibility comes from the fact that the devil was sometimes referred to as 'Old Roger', so the flag suggested the wrath of the devil.

      Most pirate flags show skulls and crossbones or skeletons, meant to warn of death if the victim did not surrender. Many of these symbols were probably borrowed from gravestones of the time. A few of the flags also contain an hour glass, meaning that time is running out for the victim to surrender peacefully. The pirates wanted to project fearlessness in the face of death, and some flags pictured the captain toasting, dancing with, or literally conquering the skeletal dead. Hearts to were often pierced to symbolize "no mercy". In an era where symbolism in art and everyday life was commonplace, each symbol had a distinct and immediately recognisable meaning. Many of these flags were made by the pirate ship's sailmaker or any member of the crew who was handy with a needle and thread.

      Pirates probable adopted the use of these death symbols on their flags to distinguish themselves from privateers or government vessels that might also hoist a plain black flag as a warning to heave-to. Generally these "legitimate" attackers had to abide by a rule that if a crew resisted, but then later surrendered, it could not be executed. Merchant ships may have been more willing to attempt resisting these "legitimate" threats than their piratical counterparts, as angry pirates would pose a greater danger to them if they resisted. For the pirates to achieve their goal of taking prizes without a costly fight, it was important for their prey ship to know that its assailant was truly a pirate, and only a pirate would dare fly the Jolly Roger. Pirate flags were a very important form of psychological warfare, especially when combined with a reputation of not showing any mercy if opposed. If pirates could intimidate an enemy to heave-to and surrender without offering any resistance, then the harm they faced would be greatly reduced.

Images of Famous Pirate Flags


Flags Used by Famous Pirates

      To date there are no original pirate flags in existence from the Golden Age of Piracy(1650-1730). Furthermore, to my knowledge no real drawings of them by actual eyewitnesses have ever been published. Only three authentic pirate flags are known to exist. Two of them were taken from Barbary corsairs in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A third is at the pirate museum in St. Augustine, but this flag's origin has been difficult to determine. Even modern authentic depictions of pirate flags from the period are invariably somewhat conjectural. Most of these are loosely based on descriptions given within just a few books, articles, and documents written shortly after that period. The accuracy of several of those sources is disputable at best. Some pirate flags are simply just 20th century fabrications. Keep this in mind while reading the accounts of the historical flags listed below and elsewhere.

      Supposedly, one of the first pirates to use the basic skull and crossed bones was Henry Every in 1696. His flag was said to show a skull turned to the side. Originally his flag had a red background and later this was changed to black. Around 1700 French privateer Emmanuelle Wynne flew a black flag embellished with a skull, crossbones and an hourglass. Shortly afterwards, additional symbols on the basic red or black flag were increasingly associated with piracy, and these custom flags were in turn associated with individual pirate captains. The most common symbol was the skull, the symbol of death. It was also frequently depicted in association with crossed bones, another death symbol. Pirate Edward England is believed to have flown the skull and crossed bones in it's pure form. While Christopher Condent's banner repeated the same skull and crossed bones emblem three times.

      Later pirates often combined symbols. Such as Christopher Moody who is said to have used a skull and crossed bones, a raised sword and a winged hourglass on his flag. Bartholomew Roberts flag showed a pirate holding an hourglass, alongside a skeleton clutching a spear. He also bore a grudge against the island colonies of Barbados and Martinique, so in their waters he is credited with using a flag showing a pirate figure (presumably Roberts himself) standing on two skulls. Under one were the letters 'ABH' (standing for 'A Barbadian's Head'), and under the other was 'AMH' (for 'A Martiniquan's Head'). His threat was clear that sailors from those colonies could expect no mercy. Edward Teach aka Blackbeard, was said to have flown a flag depicting a horned skeleton holding an hourglass and a spear next to a bleeding heart. In 1718 Charles Vane flew the English flag from one mast and a black pirate flag from another. To summarize once again, those custom flags associated with individual pirate captains, may in reality have looked much different then the modern depictions we take for granted as being original today.

      While they were hunting, many pirates either flew no flag or used one that was meant to fool their intended victim. Normally their battle flag was raised only when they were close enough to attack. On one occasion the famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts was able to deceive the shipping off the island of Martinique by flying Dutch flags and making signals normally used by Dutch ships arriving from the Guinea coast of Africa with black slaves. This ruse enabled him to capture fourteen French sloops which came out to meet him with large sums of money on board for trading in slaves. Naval warships also used these tricks. In 1815 American ships thus trapped the 'Hamidou Reis' by flying the British flag. Some pirates, such as Blackbeard kept a collection of flags on board and simply raised whatever was most convenient in any given situation.

Pirate Superstitions

    The behavior of cats abroad a ship was thought to help predict luck and weather. It was believed that if a cat came up to a pirate, it was a sign of good luck, but if it came part way then turned around, bad luck would result. Also, it was considered very bad luck to throw a cat overboard, as foul weather and misfortune would follow. Other beliefs included; if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hailstorm was coming; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was frisky it meant wind.

    A feather in the hat, like many other pirate accessories, was driven by superstition. It was thought to protect against shipwreck. Very lucky was the pirate that donned a feather from a wren slaughtered on New Year's Day, for it was said to work it's magic for a year.

    A legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a omen of doom. It's myth is likely to have originated from the 17th-century golden age of the Dutch East India Company.

    If a ships bell rang untouched, it was believed a sure sign of imminent death for someone aboard. Likewise, a wine glass that made sound on it's own was thought to be a sign the ship and it's crew would soon perish.

    Once the anchor was hoisted and a ship was headed off on it's next plunder, a pirate never looked back towards the shore as it was believed to be bad luck A glance back to shore would imply a pirate was not ready for the journey ahead and bring about misfortune.

    When setting sail for their next plunder, pirates would toss gold cions into the water as an offering to Neptune, the god of the sea, to ensure a safe voyage. If Neptune was appeased calm seas would prevail.

    Good luck for a voyage could be welcomed by pouring some wine on the deck. Though pirates loved their libations, a little was gladly offered for this purpose.

    Sailors have had several patron saints. According to his hagiography, Saint Nicholas calmed a storm by prayer. Saint Elmo, may have become the patron of sailors because he is said to have continued preaching even after a thunderbolt struck the ground beside him. This prompted sailors, who were in danger from sudden storms and lightning, to claim his prayers. The electrical discharges at the mastheads of ships were read as a sign of his protection and came to be called "Saint Elmo's Fire". Thus, Saint Elmo's Fire was usually good luck in traditional sailor's lore, but persistent discharges of electricity in the air were thought to interfere with compass readings, and sailors sometimes regarded it as an omen of bad luck and stormy weather. The mariner's cross, also referred to as St. Clement's Cross, is worn by many sailor's to bring blessings.

    Many pirate's would cease to cut their hair and nails during voyages in an attempt not to anger Neptune. This cutting was considered an offering to the goddess Proserpine, and a pirate dare not make an offering to another god or goddess while sailing Neptune's sea, lest they make him jealous an bring about foul weather.

    A pirate always made sure to start a voyage off on the right foot, literally. Stepping aboard a ship with the left foot first was considered unlucky and could invite disaster, or even death. Even worse was to sneeze to the left while stepping aboard. Doomed was the pirate who did both.

    The presence of certain sea animals swimming alongside a pirate ship were regarded as either a good or bad omen. Dolphins were praised as heralds or good luck, while sharks were feared as harbingers of imminent death.

    Most seamen held fast to the belief that it was unlucky to change the name of a ship. Once she was christened, a ships name should remain unchanged for fear that replacing it would bring about disaster and grief to the ship and her crew. However, pirates often changed the name of their captured ships, probably attempting to hide the fact it was stolen booty.

    To ensure a successful voyage, silver coins were placed under the mast of ships. This was thought to bring good luck as well as offer protection to the ship and crew.

    A pirate's look had more to do with the power of superstition than what was considered fashionable. Pirate's believed that tattoos and piercings would help protect them from evil spirits or bring good luck, and would adorn their bodies as such. Sailors, at the constant mercy of the elements, often feel the need for religious images on their bodies to appease the angry powers that caused storms and drowning far from home. The images of a pig and a hen were good luck; both animals are not capable of swimming, but they believed that God would look down upon a shipwreck and see an animal not capable of swimming and would take them into his hand and place them on land. Another example of superstitions is the North Star (Nautical Star or Compass Rose); sailors had the belief that by wearing this symbol it would help them to find his or her way home. Sailors designed mariner motifs of their own, according to their travel experiences in the ocean. By the 19th century, acceptance of superstition was so widespread, that about 90% of all United States Navy sailors had tattoos.

    There is no greater friend or foe to those who brave the seas than the weather. It was believed whistling softly after sticking a knife in the mast could call forth a favorable wind when none was present. However, whistling while the wind was blowing was thought to stir up ill winds, conjuring dangerous storms. On boats and ships where whistling was taboo, the cook was usually excused, because as long as he was whistling, he was not stealing the food.

    A figurehead of a bare-breasted woman was not uncommon on the mastheads of many ships, as a woman naked to the elements was thought to help calm the seas. Her open eyes were believed to serve as a clear guide for safe passage. Yet, having an actual woman aboard was regarded as bad luck. Many a joke has been made as to why.

Pirates and Their Flags

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