The Meaning Behind the Jolly Roger Pirate Flag

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The Jolly Roger is a classic flag, usually depicted with a skull and crossbones, that has become a part of all our favorite pirate movies and shows. 

While today it no longer strikes fear into those who see it, it truly was a terrifying image on the high seas. While the symbol of the skull and crossbones is iconic today, you might be surprised to learn that the Jolly Roger came in a multitude of different forms. Known to depict, hearts, devils or swords, they each had their unique meaning or message.

The meaning behind the Jolly Roger has become diluted over the years, but its core remains the same. To learn more about this iconic part of history, read on. 

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The History of the Jolly Roger Flag  

Like all flags, the Jolly Roger is used to announce the presence of a particular nation or people. Each Jolly Roger was usually designed to announce the presence of a specific pirate, this would help spread their name and reputation across the seas.

One of the first pirates to use the Jolly Roger was Emanuel Wynn, a French pirate, in 1987. His design consisted of an hourglass resting below the classic skull and crossbones on his black background. In 1703 a naval report mentioned a pirate sailing under the ‘Old Roger’, another name for the Devil and, in this instance, the Jolly Roger flag.

The first reference to the Jolly Roger can be found in a book published by Charles Johnson in 1723, A General History of the Pyrates. Though this is the first recording of its use, it is not of course, its origination. 

Charles’ book explains that select pirates have called their flag a Jolly Roger, referring to their black flags with unique symbols, making it clear that the Jolly Roger does not always have to be the iconic skull and crossbones.

Though it comes in many different designs, the Jolly Roger has one unified meaning, Piracy. 


The Different Meanings of the Jolly Roger 

The color of the Jolly Roger truly sets it apart from other flags. The black background unifies them as pirates, allowing each ship or captain to create unique symbols that differentiate them from each other without sacrificing meaning.

The Jolly Roger was only flown right before battle to avoid giving themselves away to potential enemies, while sending a message to their intended victims.

By flying the Jolly Roger before battle, they gave a warning to their targets either to prepare for battle or surrender. If their target chose battle, a red Jolly Roger would then be flown to tell them that they would not be shown mercy.

Despite this unity in meaning, pirates were also well known for their individuality. Pirates would decorate their flags with unique symbols, usually different ways of depicting skulls, skeletons, hourglasses or wounded hearts. These symbols were common at the time and usually meant death or pain. Unique weapons were also a popular symbol to put on their Jolly Rogers. With many different ways of making their flags stand out, it’s no wonder so many pirates become famous. With some names still well-known today, like Blackbeard or Calico Jack. 

While the Jolly Roger had a distinct purpose, it came in many original forms. Working to strike fear into the people who saw them while also increasing the reputation of pirates everywhere. 

The Jolly Roger was a unique and concise way for pirates to send out the message of battle to unsuspecting merchants, navy or passenger ships that sailed the same oceans as them.


The Jolly Roger Today 

The Jolly Roger is a flag that has withstood the test of time, becoming an iconic part of our history and a representation of rebels everywhere. Striking fear into the hearts of their enemies, you can’t say that pirates didn’t have an eye for design. While the Jolly Roger had a personal meaning to all who used it, its universal meaning was loud and clear.

The Jolly Roger still inspires people today, just in a different way. Though we no longer fear these unique flags, today, they tell us stories about rebellion and adventure, capturing the imagination of people across the centuries. 

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