Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace
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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Run Up the Signals - The Jolly Roger

Hoist the colors, mates!

The Jolly Roger is known worldwide and as far back as the early 18th century as the flag of pirates. Thanks to movies and literature, the skull with crossed bones on a black flag is the standard ensign for pirates. But let’s take a closer look at pirate flags.
  
Jolly Roger - What're you grinnin' 'bout?
The Jolly Roger didn’t start out as a black flag with a skull and crossbones. Plain red or black flags were used prior to having the design. Plain red flags, also known as the bloody flag or the Red Jack,  indicated bloodshed. Inventive, I know, but effective. Black was associated with death. Black flags were known to be flown on vessels affected by plague and served as a warning to other ships. See the correlation?

Blackbeard's flag
There are several theories for the term Jolly Roger but one is more widely recognized than the others. In the beginning, many early pirates were French buccaneers (hunters who slaughtered and smoked meat) turned pirate. Buccaneers’ original banners in the early 17th century just may have been their blood-splattered shirts. The French term joli rouge translates literally to pretty red. English speakers bastardized the words, as they often do, into Jolly Roger. In a roundabout way, it makes sense considering the English’s penchant for nicknames. We know that jolly means merry and festive and Roger is a generic term for a male person. Put together, Jolly Roger is a type of slang for fellow. It is suggested that the grinning skull(s) on the standards were satirically dubbed with the name Jolly Roger. Roger could also mean rogue or vagabond, and Old Roger was a reference to the devil. Seems Jolly Roger was an apt symbolic moniker for a pirate flag.
Jack Rackham's flag
jovial

Throughout maritime history, flags were used to communicate to passing ships and those on shore, particularly the allegiance of country. Pirates were no different, except they claimed no allegiance to any country. Their flags carried a message, as well. One that struck fear into the hearts of sailors, soldiers, and commoners alike.

Thomas Tew's flag
Solid black flags gave their mark a chance to surrender without spilling blood. Remember, pirates would rather their prey surrender than go to battle. Battle meant lost of limb and life, and quite certainly damaging the targeted quarry or their own ship. And of course, combat was costly. Ammunitions wasn’t free...unless it was taken from the enemy.

But at the slightest resistance, pirates may swap out the black flag for a red one. The red flag instilled  terror unlike any other. Once the Red Jack was hoisted, pirates meant to take the prize by force. More importantly, they meant to show no quarter, no mercy. No one would be spared.

Black Bart's flag
Pirates had a collection of other flags from varying countries, too. While under sail, they often flew “false colors” or no flag at all. This was to protect their identities or trick other vessels until the opportune time. Flying flags from ally countries in waters frequently used  as trade routes allowed pirates to get within firing range of their prey. At the point of no return, they might raise the Jolly Roger, sometimes at the same time as firing a warning shot.

Before the adoption of the skull and crossbones, pirate flags evolved from solid colors to something more...personal. Many
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designs were from the imaginings of the pirate captains, themselves. Skeletons, swords, hourglasses, hearts—these were some of the widely used images meant to inspire a level of fear which gave pirates ultimate power. These insignias also identified who would be behind the horrors to come, what ghastly devil would be credited for the carnage should the victims be unlucky enough.

Once piracy became loosely organized crime during the Golden Age of Piracy with interconnecting brotherhoods, the skull and crossbones, along with the name Jolly Roger, replaced the diverse designs and became the accepted pirate flag we are familiar with today. Talk about the ultimate branding tool.

Appearances do matter. And the appearance of the Jolly Roger on the horizon meant trouble and would not be a welcome sight. Well, unless it was Captain Jack Sparrow at the helm.

About the Author


Jennifer is the award-winning author of the Romancing the Pirate series. Visit her at www.jbrayweber.com or join her mailing list for sneak peeks, excerpts, and giveaways.

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