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Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger is the traditional flag of European and American pirates, envisioned today as a skull over crossed bones (see skull and cross bones), on a black field. However, there were many variations and additional emblems on actual Jolly Rogers. Calico Jack Rackham and Thomas Tew used variations with swords. Edward Teach (a.k.a. Blackbeard) used a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand and a spear or dart in the other while standing beside a bleeding heart. Bartholomew Roberts (a.k.a. Black Bart) had two variations: a man and a skeleton, who held a spear or dart in one hand, holding either an hourglass or a cup while toasting death or an armed man standing on two skulls over the letters ABH and AMH (a warning to residents of Barbados and Martinique that death awaited them). Dancing skeletons signified that the pirates cared little for their fate.

Origins Of Term "Jolly Roger"

The origins of the term "Jolly Roger" are unclear.

One theory is that it comes from the French term "joli rouge," which the English corrupted into "Jolly Roger". This may be likely as there were a series of "red flags" that were feared as much, or more, than "black flags". The origin of the red flag is likely that English privateers flew the red jack by order of the Admiralty in 1694. When the War of Spanish Succession ended in 1714, many privateers turned to piracy and some retained the red flag, for red symbolized blood. No matter how much seamen dreaded the black pirate standard all prayed they never encountered the jolie rouge. This red flag boldly declared the pirates’ intentions. No life would be spared. No quarter given.

The term was subsequently used for the black flag with skull and bones which appeared in use around 1700.

There is another theory, also using "jolie rouge" as the origin for the name. Apparently a Catholic order of fierce warrior monks, known as the "Poor Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon", first used the "jolie rouge", the red flag. The link between the monks and pirates is provided by the fact, that they were fighting for their cause on the open seas, effectively becoming pirates. In combat practice many merchants were suprised when a fast ship changed a fellow national flag for the more portentuous Jolly Roger, which was the desired effect.

Another theory proposes that the leader of a group of Asian pirates was entitled Ali Raja, "king of sea", English pirates appropriated and corrupted the term. A further theory is that the name may derive from the English word "roger", meaning a wandering vagabond: "Old Roger" was a term for the devil.

Contemporary submariners of the English and Australian navies use the flag, more as an indicator of bravado and stealth than lawlessness.

Flying the Jolly Roger (too early) as the only flag has its drawbacks. Warships were often under standing orders to fire at will at a ship flying this flag.