The Jolly Roger
is the name given to any of
flown to identify a ship's crew
. The flag most usually identified
as the Jolly Roger today is the skull and crossbones, being a flag
consisting of a skull
above two long bones
set in an x-mark
arrangement on a black field. This design was used by four pirates,
captains Edward England
, John Taylor
and John Martel. Some Jolly Roger flags also include an
, representing that the victims'
time to surrender was running out. Despite its prominence in
popular culture, plain black flags were often employed by most
pirates in the 17th-18th century. Historically, the flag was flown
to frighten pirates' victims into surrendering without a fight,
since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who
would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of
engagement—and might, therefore, slaughter those they defeated
(since captured pirates were usually hanged, they didn't have much
to gain by asking quarter
The same message was sometimes conveyed by a red flag, as discussed
Since the decline of piracy, various military units have used the
Jolly Roger, usually in skull-and-crossbones design, as a unit
or a victory flag
to ascribe to themselves the proverbial ferocity and toughness of
pirates. Many aviation members in the U.S. military have also been
known to use this pattern as a message to others, saying the wearer
"may look at death with a smile on their face
has also unofficially been used to signify Electric Hazard and
Poisons. In this context, the background is usually red and the
skull and bones are black in color.
Origins of the term
The name "Jolly Roger" goes back at least to Charles Johnson
A General History
of the Pyrates,
published in 1724
Johnson specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag
"Jolly Roger": Bartholomew
in June, 1721
and Francis Spriggs
in December 1723. While
Spriggs and Roberts used the same name for their flags, their flag
designs were quite different, suggesting that already "Jolly Roger"
was a generic term for black pirate flags rather than a name for
any single specific design. Neither Spriggs' nor Roberts' Jolly
Roger consisted of a skull and crossbones.
Richard Hawkins, captured by pirates in 1724
reported that the pirates had a black flag bearing the figure of a
skeleton stabbing a heart with a spear, which they named "Jolly
Despite this tale, it is assumed by most that the name Jolly Roger
comes from the French words jolie rouge
, meaning "pretty
red". During the Elizabethan era "Roger" was a slang
term for beggars and vagrants who "pretended scholarship" and was
also applied to privateers who operated
in the English
" had been a popular name for Dutch privateers
since the 16th century. Another theory states that "Jolly Roger" is
an English corruption of "Ali Raja", the name of a Tamil
pirate. Yet another theory is that it was
taken from a nickname for the devil, "Old Roger". The "jolly"
appellation may be derived from the apparent grin of a skull.
Theories that the epithet comes from the names of various pirates,
such as Woodes Rogers
, are generally
In his self-published book Pirates & The Lost Templar
, David Hatcher
claims that the flag was named after the first man to
fly it, King Roger II of Sicily
). Roger was a famed Templar and the Knights Of The Temple were in conflict with
the Pope over his conquests of Apulia and Salerno in 1127.
Childress claims that, many years later,
after the Templars had been disbanded by the church, at least one
Templar fleet split into four independent flotillas dedicated to
pirating ships of any country sympathetic to Rome. If this is so,
then the flag was an inheritance, its crossed bones a reference to
the original Templar logo of a red cross with blunted ends.
However, as shown below, many Jolly Rogers did not have crossed
Origins of the design
record of the skull-and-crossed-bones design being used by pirates
is an entry in a log book held by the Bibliothèque
nationale de France.
it describes the flag's use by
pirates not on a ship but on land.
"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."
While privateers are shown in earlier Dutch paintings flying a red
flag, the first written record of what it was used for occurred in
1694 when an English Admiralty law made the flying of a red flag,
known as a "Red Jack,” mandatory for privateers to distinguish them
from Navy ships. Before this time, English privateers such as Sir
Henry Morgan sailed under English colors. [This is NOT
referenced by Cordingly on P.117 or other pages.]
18th century Colonial Governors almost always asked privateers to
fly a specific version of the British flag - 1606 Union Jack with a
white crest in the middle, distinguishing that they were not Naval
Black flags are known to have been used by pirates at least five
years before the earliest known attachment of the name "Jolly
Roger" to such flags. Contemporary accounts show Captain Martel's
pirates using a black flag in 1716
, Edward Teach
, and Richard Worley
, and Howell
. An even earlier use of a
black flag with skull, crossbones, and hourglass is attributed to
pirate captain Emanuel Wynn
, according to a wide variety of secondary sources.
Reportedly, these secondary sources are based
on the account of Captain John Cranby of the HMS Poole and
are verified at the London Public Record Office.
With the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, many
privateers turned to piracy. They still used red and black flags,
but now they decorated them with their own designs. Edward England,
for example, flew three different flags: from his mainmast the
black flag depicted above; from his foremast a red version of the
same; and from his ensign staff the English National flag.
Just as variations on the Jolly Roger’s design existed, red flags
sometimes incorporated yellow stripes or images symbolic of death.
Colored pennants and ribbons could also be used alongside
While pirates used the red, or bloody, flag as well as black flags,
there was a distinction between the two. In the mid-18th century,
Captain Richard Hawkins confirmed that pirates gave quarter beneath
the black flag, while no quarter was given beneath the red
Jolly Rogers Gallery
The gallery below showing pirate flags in use from 1693 (Thomas Tew
's) to 1724 (Edward Low
's) appears in multiple extant works on
the history of piracy. All the secondary sources cited in the
gallery below are in agreement except as to the background color of
Every's flag.File:Flag of Edward England.svg|Flag flown by "Black Sam" Bellamy
and Edward England
's mainmast flag.
File:Pirate Flag of Blackbeard (Edward Teach).svg|A Pirate flag
often called the "Jolly Roger." This flag is usually attributed to
Jolly Roger ensign (which was identical to the flag of Jean Thomas
Dulaien).File:Edward Low Flag.svg|A pirate flag used by Edward Low
shows him and Death
hourglass.File:Bartholomew Roberts Flag1.svg|Roberts'
new flag showed him standing on two skulls, representing the heads
of a Barbadian and a Martinican.
File:Pirate Flag of Stede
Bonnet.svg|Traditional depiction of Stede
's flag.File:Flag of Christopher Condent.svg|Flag of
.File:Flag of Henry Every red.svg|Popular version of
's Jolly Roger. Reportedly,
Every also flew a version with a black background.File:Pirate Flag
of Rack Rackham.svg|Jolly Roger flown by Calico Jack Rackham
.File:Pirate Flag of
Thomas Tew.svg|Possible flag of Thomas
File:Richard Worley Flag.svg|Richard Worley's
flag.File:Pirate Flag of
Emanuel Wynne.svg|Emanuel Wynn
Other Jolly Rogers
Sources exist describing the Jolly Rogers of other pirates than the
ones above; also, the pirates described above sometimes used other
Jolly Rogers than those shown above. However, no pictures of these
alternate Jolly Rogers are easily located.
Phillips. At the hanging of two of John Phillips'
pirates, the Boston News-Letter
reported "At one end of the gallows was their own dark flag, in the
middle of which an anatomy, and at one side of it a dart in the
heart, with drops of blood proceeding from it; and on the other
side an hour-glass."
- Edward Low. Low used
at least two other flags besides his famous red skeleton. One was
"a white Skeliton in the Middle of it, with a Dart in one Hand
striking bleeding Heart, and in the other, an Hour-Glass." The
other was described by George Roberts, a prisoner of Low, as a call
to council among Low's ships: "a green silk flag with a yellow
figure of a man blowing a trumpet on it."
- Francis Spriggs
is reported to have flown a Jolly Roger identical to one of Low's,
from whom he had deserted: "a white Skeliton in the Middle of it,
with a Dart in one Hand striking bleeding Heart, and in the other,
- Walter Kennedy. The Jolly Roger flag pictured
above for Kennedy was flown at his ensign staff, i.e. at the stern
of his ship. Kennedy also flew a jack (at the bow of the ship) and
a pennant (a long narrow flag flown from the top of a mast). Both
Kennedy's jack and his pennant had "only the head and cross
- Florida Strait pirates. On May 2, 1822, the
Massachusetts brigantine Belvidere fended off an attack by
a pirate schooner in the Florida Strait. The pirates "hoisted a red
flag with death's head and cross under it." Neither the pirate
schooner's name nor her captain was identified by the
Use in practice
Pirates did not fly the Jolly Roger at all times. Like other
vessels, pirate ships usually stocked a variety of different flags,
and would normally fly false colors
no colors until they had their prey within firing range. When the
pirates' intended victim was within range, the Jolly Roger would be
raised, often simultaneously with a warning shot.
The flag was probably intended as communication of the pirates'
identity, which may have given target ships an opportunity to
change their mind and surrender without a fight. For example in June
1720 when Bartholomew Roberts
sailed into the harbour at Trepassey, Newfoundland with black flags flying, the crews of all 22
vessels in the harbour abandoned them in panic.
If a ship
then decided to resist, the Jolly Roger was taken down and a red
flag was flown, indicating that the pirates intended to take the
ship by force and without mercy. Richard Hawkins reports that "When
they fight under Jolly Roger, they give quarter
, which they do not when they fight under
the red or bloody flag."
In this view of models, it was important for a prey ship to know
that its assailant was a pirate, and not a privateer or government
vessel, as the latter two generally had to abide by a rule that if
a crew resisted, but then surrendered, it could not be
"An angry pirate therefore posed a greater danger to
merchant ships than an angry Spanish coast guard or privateer
Because of this, although, like pirate ships, Spanish
coast guard vessels and privateers were almost always stronger than
the merchant ships they attacked, merchant ships may have been more
willing to attempt resisting these "legitimate" attackers than
counterparts. To achieve their goal of taking prizes without a
costly fight, it was therefore important for pirates to distinguish
themselves from these other ships also taking prizes on the
Flying a Jolly Roger was a reliable way of proving oneself a
pirate. Just possessing or using a Jolly Roger was considered proof
that one was a criminal pirate rather than something more
legitimate; only a pirate would dare fly the Jolly Roger, as he was
already under threat of execution.
Use by Royal Navy Submarine Service
Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson
, the Controller of the Royal Navy
, summed up the opinion of the many in
at the time when in 1901 he
said submarines were "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ...
treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews."
In response, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton
first flew the Jolly Roger on return
to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS
and the destroyer SMS
in 1914 while in command of the E class submarine HMS E9
During World War I
, the submarine
service came of age, receiving five of the Royal Navy's fourteen
, the first by
Lieutenant Norman Holbrook
Commanding Officer of HMS
In World War II
it became common
practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly
Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some
action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth
rather than of lawlessness. The Jolly Roger is now the emblem of
the Royal Navy Submarine
The Jolly Roger was brought to the attention of a post-
World-War-II public when HMS
flew the Jolly Roger on her return to the UK
from the Falklands War
, having sunk
the cruiser ARA General
1991, during the Gulf War, Oberon class submarines HMS Opossum and her sister
Otus returned to
the submarine base HMS Dolphin in Gosport from patrol
in the Persian
They flew Jolly Rogers for their part in
. In 1999 HMS Splendid
the Kosovo Conflict
and became the
first Royal Navy submarine to fire a cruise missile
return to Faslane, on July 9 1999, Splendid
flew the Jolly Roger.
Operation Veritas, the attack on
Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces following the 9/11
attacks in the United States, HMS
Trafalgar entered Plymouth Sound flying the Jolly Roger on March
She was welcomed back by
Admiral Sir Alan West
of the fleet, and it emerged she was the first Royal Navy submarine
to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against Afghanistan. HMS Triumph
was also involved in
the initial strikes, and on returning to port displayed a Jolly
Roger emblazoned with two crossed Tomahawks to indicate her first
missile salvos fired in the "War on
More recently (on April 16
, the first Royal Navy vessel to return home
from the war against Iraq, arrived in Plymouth flying the Jolly
Roger after launching thirty Tomahawk cruise missiles
Use in United States Military Aviation
Four squadrons of the 90th
of the Fifth Air
under GeneralGeorge C.
, commanded by Colonel
were known as the Jolly
Rogers. Easily distinguished by the white skull and crossed bones,
from 1943, the four squadrons all displayed the insignia on the
twin tail fins of their B-24
(heavies) with different color backgrounds for each squadron. The
319th's tail fin background was blue, the 320th's red, the 321st,
green, and the 400th, the most graphic of the four, black.The 90th
Bombardment Group, commanded by Col. Rogers, known as the Jolly
Rogers, used the Skull and Crossed BOMBS insignia. The Skull and
Crossed BONES was used by an outfit called Russell's Raiders.
Several Naval Aviation
used the Jolly Roger insignia, VF-17/VF-5B/VF-61, VF-84
redesignated as VFA-103
Use in Fiction
The 1982 anime series Macross
the Americanized version, Robotech
featured a transformable aerospace fighter
a passing resemblance to the F-14
aircraft bore a paint scheme inspired by VF-84
. Elite pilots were members of "Skull Squadron,"
and the vertical stabilizers their aircraft bore a white jolly
roger on a black field with a yellow strip along the top and a
white stripe on the leading edge.
Usage by the pirate movement
Before changing to a stylized 'P', the Pirate Party
used the Jolly Roger as its
symbol; it is still so used extensively in the Pirate movement. The
and The Pirate Bay
also use either the skull and
crossbones symbol, or derivatives of it, such as the logo of
Home taping is killing
Use in professional sports
A number of sports teams have been known to use variations of the
Jolly Roger, with one of the best known in current use, an
adaptation of Calico Jack
's pirate flag,
with a red background instead of the black, being that of the
National Football League
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
, with an
American football over the crossing area of the two swords.Also,
the Jolly Roger is the popular icon of all University College Cork
(Ireland) sports teams.
- Oxford English Dictionary, Second
Edition 1989, under "Roger, n.2.4" records the first usage as:
Dict. Vulgar T. s.v. Roger, Jolly roger, a flag hoisted by
- Regular black flags mostly employed by pirates.
- Charles Johnson (1724), A General History of the Robberies
and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, p. 250.
- Johnson (1724), pp. 411-12.
- Bartholomew Roberts' Jolly Roger in June 1721 is simply
described as "their black flag," which may or may not be the same
Roberts is described as flying earlier on pp. 243-44, the man
standing on a Barbadian's head and a Martinican's head (see the
gallery). Spriggs' Jolly Roger is described as follows: "a black
Ensign was made, which they called Jolly Roger, with the
same device that Captain Low carried, viz. a white
Skeliton in the Middle of it, with a Dart in one Hand striking a
bleeding Heart, and in the other, an Hour-Glass."
- David Cordingly (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance
and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House,
- Jolie Rouge as origin of term jolly roger.
- origin of jolly roger term.
- David Cordingly (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance
and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House,
Dafoe. The Knights Templar, www.templarhistory.com. Accessed 30 December 2007.
- Pirate Flags Pirate Mythtory.
- David Cordingly (1995). Under the Black Flag: The Romance and
Reality of Life Among the Pirates, New York: Random House, p.
- Johnson, p. 66.
- Johnson, pp. 72, 147, 344.
- Johnson, p. 187.
- See, e.g., Angus Konstam, Pirates: 1660-1730;
Douglas Botting, The Pirates;
- See, inter alia, Douglas Botting (1978), The
Pirates, Alexandria, VA: TimeLife Books, Inc., pp. 48-49;
Konstam (1999), The History of Piracy, ISBN
1-55821-969-2, Italy: Lyons Press, pp. 98-101. Some of these flags
are verified by contemporary accounts such as Johnson's. As to
Low's flag, for instance, Johnson writes, "Low goes aboard of this
ship, [the Merry Christmas], assumes the title of admiral,
and hoists a black flag, with the figure of death in red, at the
main-topmast head." Charles Johnson (1724), A General History
of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates,
ed. by David Cordingly (2002), Globe Pequot, ISBN 1585745588, p.
307. Likewise, Bartholomew Roberts' flag is described in the same
edition of Johnson, p. 202, thus: "The jack had a man portrayed in
it, with a flaming sword in his hand, and standing on two skulls,
subscribed A.B.H. and A.M.H." Roberts' other flag, showing a man
and a skeleton holding up an hourglass, appears in an engraving on
p. 278 of Johnson's original 1724 text (reproduced here). Kennedy's flag is as
described by one of his victims, Captain J. Evans of the
Greyhound Galley, according to a letter written to Johnson
in the second edition of the History (1726), on p. 331 (note,
however, that this capture was in 1716, and thus probably does not
refer to the same Walter Kennedy who sailed first with
Roberts and then on his own account from
1720-23). For Wynn's flag, see the preceding footnote. The origin
of the flags for Blackbeard, Tew, Every, Condent, Worley and Bonnet
are far more obscure. Ed Foxe believes that the versions of the
latter six pirates' Jolly Rogers shown in the secondary sources are
taken from an undated, unsourced manuscript in Britain's National
Maritime Museum. 
- Pirate Mythtory, Ed Foxe, 2004
- Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 98.
- Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 100-01.
- Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 99; Johnson (1726), p. 331.
- Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 101.
- Botting, p. 49; Konstam, p. 100; Johnson (1724), p. 278.
- Botting, p. 48; Konstam, p. 99.
- Botting, p. 49, Konstam, p. 98; Frank Sherry, Raiders and
Rebels, New York: Hearst Marine Books, 1986, ISBN
0-688-04684-3, illustrated p. 97, ascribed p. 98.
- The red version of this flag appears in Angus Konstam,
Pirates: 1660-1730, Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1998,
ISBN 1-85532-706-6, p. 44. Black versions appear in Botting, p. 48;
Konstam, The History of Pirates, p. 99; Sherry,
illustrated p. 97, ascribed p. 96.
- Botting, p. 48, Konstam, The History of Pirates, p.
- Botting, p. 48; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p.
101; Sherry, illustrated p. 97, ascribed p. 96.
- Botting, p. 49; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p.
100. Johnson (1724), p. 344, says only that Worley "made a black
Ensign, with a white Death's Head in the Middle of it, and other
Colours suitable to it," without specifying whether these "other
Coulours" were the crossed bones that appear in Botting and
- Botting, p. 48; Konstam, The History of Pirates, p.
100, see also Origins of the
- John R. Stephens (2006), Captured by Pirates: 22 Firsthand
Accounts of Murder and Mayhem on the High Seas," ISBN
0-7607-8537-6, p. 305.
- Johnson (1724), p. 411-12.
- Stephens, p. 168.
- Stephens, p. 144.
- Stephens, p. 140.
- This practice is considered deceitful today, but in the period
of sail it was the standard practice for all ships. There was no
other way to approach an enemy or victim on the open sea if they
didn't want to fight.
- Burl, Aubery Black Bart pp. 133-4.
- Cordingly, p. 117. Cordingly cites only one source for pages
116-119 of his text: Calendar of State Papers, Colonial, America
and West Indies, volume 1719-20, no. 34.
- p. 10, "Pirational Choice: The Economics of Infamous Pirate
Practices", Peter T. Leeson.
- "Ships attacking under the death head's toothy grin were
therefore considered criminal and could be prosecuted as pirates.
Since pirates were criminals anyway, for them, flying the Jolly
Roger was costless. If they were captured and found guilty, the
penalty they faced was the same whether they used the Jolly Roger
in taking merchant ships or not – the hangman's noose... For
legitimate ships, however, things were different. To retain at
least a veneer of legitimacy, privateers and Spanish coast guard
ships could not sail under pirate colors. If they did, they could
be hunted and hanged as pirates." p. 12, Leeson 2008.
- "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English."(Stephen Wentworth
Roskill (1968). Naval Policy Between the Wars, Walker,
ISBN 0870218484 p. 231. cites A. J. Marder, Fear God and Dread
Nought, vol. I (Oxford UP, 1961), p. 333 and also Williams
Jameson, The Most Formidable Thing (Hart-Davis, 1965) pp.
- "underhand, ... and damned Un-English. ... treat all submarines
as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews." (J. R. Hill (1989).
Arms Control at Sea, Routledge, ISBN 0415012805. p. 35
cites Marder, From the Dreadnoughts to Scapa Flow p. 332).
- Staff, The Jolly Roger on a webpage of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.
- HMS Triumph and HMS Superb.
- General information on the Royal Navy Submarine Service use and
history of the Jolly Roger * Royal Navy Submarines "A Tribute to the Past" *
Royal Navy Submarine Museum: WWII flashes added to
a Jolly Roger * Royal Navy Submarine Museum: Jolly Roger Examples
- Hansard 13 May 1991.
- Ian W Hillbeck. Newsletter: Issue 24, Submariners Association
- Ian W Hillbeck. Submarine Camouflage Schemes, Submariners Association
- Barton Gellman U.S., NATO Launch Attacks on Yugoslavia Washington Post
25 March 1999.
- Swiftsure Class Nuclear Fleet Submarines.
- Trafalgar Returns March 1, 2002.
- Home and away over Christmas, Navy News, 24 December 2001
- Cruise missile sub (HMS Turbulent) back in UK
by Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian April 17, 2003.
- * Birdsall, Steve. Flying Buccaneers. Garden City, New
York: Doubleday & Company, 1977. ISBN 0385032188.
- Macross Mecha Manual