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Last modified: 2006-05-06 by phil nelson
Keywords: pirate | skull | jolly roger | jolie rouge | caribbean | no quarter |
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[Flag of Pirates] 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

Recently I did a bit of research into pirate flags, namely that of Bartholomew Roberts. "One of piracy's most feared flags belonged to the greatest captain of its Golden Age, Bartholomew Roberts. In his four-year career 'Black Bart', a Welshman, captured over 400 ships and fabulous wealth. The fruits of one violent engagement in Brazil against 42 Portuguese ships included sugar, hides, tobacco, gold plate, coins worth 80,000 pounds and a diamond-studded cross that was destined for the King of Portugal. He was fearless, innovative and a brilliant seaman. His fleet scoured the world for treasure, inspiring utter dread in governments and their navies. The Caribbean islands of Barbados and Martinique were particularly keen to see an end to his activities (in 1720 Roberts captured the Governor of Martinique and hung him from the mast), and Roberts' flag reflects the personal vendetta he had with them. 'The Jack had a man portrayed in it with a flaming Sword in his Hand, and standing on two Skulls subscribed ABH and AMH', i.e. a Barbadian's and a Martinican's Head,' described an account of the time. The man portrayed is Roberts himself. The flag he designed flew from his flagship, the Royal Fortune, a brigantine he had captured from the French. Roberts was killed in battle against HMS Swallow in 1722, on the African coast. The captain of the Swallow was subsequently knighted for ridding the world of the 'Great Pyrate' Roberts."

Other pirates who are known to have had their own flags are Christopher Condent, Thomas Tew, Stede Bonnet, Muslim corsairs, Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach, 'Calico Jack' Rackham, Captain Dulaien, Emmanuel Wynne, Henry Avery, Christopher Moody, Edward Low. There have been other famous pirates - men and women - but it's not certain what their flags were.
David Cohen, 3 April 1997

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

I am finishing up a book on the pirates of Madagascar. I believe that, at least up through the 1690s, the pirates continued to fly their national flags, as the buccaneers had done. After all, Tew and the others had spent a lot of effort and money to obtain a royal commission as a privateer precisely so that they could flag an English flag. Why bother doing that if one is going to fly a "pirate's" flag?
Jan Rogozinski, 21 May 1999

Some months ago images of pirate flags were added to FOTW-ws. I think it is good to put them into perspective. Jan Rogozinski wrote 'Dictionary of Pirates' (Original title: Pirates!, 1995), Wordsworth, Hertfordshire, 1997. First:

Pirate Flags: In popular fiction all pirates flew the jolly roger - a skull above crossed bones on a black background. However, this special flag was used only by British and British-American pirates from about 1700 to 1725. Other pirates attacked either under their own ruler's flag or under the flag of the prince 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.

While they were hunting, many pirates either flew no flag or used one that would fool their intended victim. Their battle flag was raised only when they were close enough to attack. Naval warships also used this trick. In 1815 American ships thus trapped Hamidou Reis by flying the British flag.

From 1805 to 1810 a large pirate confederation dominated the Chinese coast from Canton south to Vietnam. The raiders divided the coast into six territories, each belonging to a pirate fleet with its own banner - red, black, white, green, blue, and yellow. Since China had no national flag, every shipowner devised a banner for the vessels he owned.

Jarig Bakker, 02 July 1999

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

Flags of famous pirates

The following images are from two large JPGs scanned from some book, showing two color plates with 14 pirate flags. I have taken them into FOTW format.

Plate I:
   1st row: Stede Bunnet
            Henry Every
            Christopher Moody
   2nd row: Emanuel Wynne
            Thomas Tew
            Jack Rackam

Plate II:
   1st row: Richard Worley
            Edward England
   2nd row: Christopher Condent
   3rd row: Bartholomew Roberts
            Walter Kennedy
   4th row: Bartholomew Roberts
            Blackbeard (Edward Teach)
            Edward Low
Antonio Martins, 1998-OCT-29

Other Pirates:

I read Salgari's "Tigers of Mompracem", in which is mentioned a flag hoisted en the pirate's island of Mompracem. It is red with the head of a tiger in the center. Has such a flag been hoisted anytime? Has some relation with a real flag of piracy?
Walter D'Andrea, 18 September 2002

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