The Jolly Roger is the name now given to any of various flags flown to identify the user as a pirate. The most famous Jolly Roger today is the Skull and Crossbones, a skull over two long bones set in an X arrangement on a black field. Historically, the flag was flown to induce pirates' victims to surrender readily.

Since the decline of piracy, various military units have used the Jolly Roger, usually in skull-and-crossbones design, as a unit identification insignia or a victory flag. Such use of the Jolly Roger is not intended to identify the users as piratical, but to ascribe to themselves the proverbial ferocity and toughness of pirates.

Origins Of The Term

The name "Jolly Roger" goes back at least to Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724. Johnson specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag "Jolly Roger": Bartholomew Roberts in June, 1721 and Francis Spriggs in July, 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 Roger".
A generic version of the Jolly Roger. Many pirates created their own individualized versions - Click To Enlarge
Calico Jack Rackham's Flag - Click To Enlarge
Emanuel Wynne's Flag - Click To Enlarge
"Blackbeard" Edward Teach's Flag - Click To Enlarge
Henry Every's Flag - Click To Enlarge
Thomas Tew's Flag - Click To Enlarge
Stede Bonnet's Flag - Click To Enlarge
Flag of Edward England - Click To Enlarge
Flag of Christopher Moody - Click To Enlarge
First Flag of Bartholomew Roberts - Click To Enlarge
Second Flag of Bartholomew Roberts - Click To Enlarge
Flag of Edward Lowe - Click To Enlarge
About twenty years earlier, pirates were already flying the Roger, but it was not yet Jolly. John Quelch gave the name "Old Roger" to his pirate flag in 1703, which showed a figure piercing a heart with a spear.

This would support the theory that the name "Jolly Roger" derives from the English word "roger", whence "rogue", meaning a wandering vagabond. "Old Roger" was a term for the devil.

There are many other theories purporting to explain the derivation of the term "Jolly Roger". One theory is that it comes from the French term "joli rouge", ("pretty red") which the English corrupted into "Jolly Roger". While it is true that there were a series of "red flags" that were feared as much, or more, than "black flags", this seems unlikely for three reasons: firstly, the earliest known name for the black flag is "Old Roger", "Jolly" appearing later; secondly, the red flag was not adopted from the French and it is not likely that the black flag was either; thirdly, there is no evidence that the name "Joli Rouge" was ever used for either the "Bloody Red", the Red Ensign, or any other flag.

Yet another theory states that "Jolly Roger" is an English corruption of "Ali Raja," the name of a Tamil pirate.

Origins of the design

The piratical use of black flags, with skull and crossbones or other motifs upon them, predates the appearance of the term "Jolly Roger" by at least twenty years. The first known pirate use of the black flag with skull and crossbones is by Emanuel Wynne about 1700. Henry Every is frequently shown in secondary sources using the skull and crossbones on black in 1695 or 1696, but contemporary evidence for this is lacking. A piratical black flag is also attributed to Thomas Tew, who plundered Mughal shipping in 1693, but this design did not feature skull or crossbones, and its authenticity is dubious.

From early Roman times on through the Middle Ages, skulls and long bones were associated with death, long before they became symbols of piracy. Skulls and long bones were displayed in catacombs, monasteries, churches, church crypts and graveyards. They are the bones that resist decay the longest, and remain long after the corpse has gone. They were then carefully laid out respecting the dead. Later, skull and long bones crossed were depicted or sculpted in said places, especially above the entrances to churches and graveyards. They served as a Memento Mori, meaning "remind yourself of your own death." It was a general warning against the sin of vanity, reminding bypassers of their mortality. Thus, it became at once a common symbol of death and decay and a warning against the vagaries of fortune, as well as a first hint of an emerging sense of egalitarianism: in death, we are all equal. Thus, when appearing on pirate flags, the allusion to death would be instantly understood by any observer.

After 1700, the use of black flags by pirates proliferated; Johnson refers to at least a dozen pirate crews flying black flags. The piratical use of black flags was evidently far more common than the use of the skull and crossbones device upon them. Walter Kenedy is the only pirate documented by Johnson as using the skull and crossbones design without further adornment. From other sources it is known that Edward England and some 19th century Algerian corsairs used the skull and crossbones. Richard Worley may also have used the device; Johnson says that he "made a black Ensign, with a white Death’s Head in the middle of it, and other Colours suitable to it," which is consistent with, though not fully corroborative of, the skull on crossbones device traditionally attributed to Worley in secondary sources.

However, not all pirates used black flags, even during the 18th century. Red was also a frequently used color, as will be seen below, and during the buccaneering period of the 17th century, red flags were far more associated with pirates than black ones were.

Origins of red pirate flags

The origin of the red flag is likely that English privateers flew the red jack by order of the Admiralty in 1694. After England signed a separate peace in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, many British privateers turned to piracy and some retained the red flag, as red symbolized blood. No matter how much seamen dreaded the black pirate standard, all prayed they never encountered the "Bloody Red". This red flag boldly declared the pirates' intentions: that no life would be spared. In combat practice many merchants were surprised when a fast ship changed a fellow national flag for the more portentous Jolly Roger, which was the desired effect.

One idea to be presented goes back to the nature of flags during the age of the sail. A red flag was often flown as a sign to show that a particular signal had been denied or refused. For example a fleet would signal its flagship that it would like to stop for a meeting, if the Admiral was disagreeable his ship flew a red flag to show the request was denied. In a case of a surrendering ship a red flag meant no quarter would be given, meaning that, even though the ship was surrendering, her crew would not be spared. Executed pirates' bodies were often hung at the entrances to harbors so their bones would serve as a warning of the fate that awaited captured pirates. It is most likely the skull and crossbones motif was taken to show that there were pirates on board, placed on the red flag to show no quarter given to all ships. This is a possible origin of the "joli rouge" of France, because the skull was often smiling and placed on a red flag. Since the white cross began to be confused with the English Red Ensign, the flag was purportedly changed to black to show the nature of a pirate ship. While this hasn't been confirmed by historical documents, most historians believe this progression of flags.

Templar hypothesis

In his book Pirates & The Lost Templar Fleet, David Hatcher Childress claims that the flag was named after the first man to fly it, King Roger II of Sicily (c.1095-1154). 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 were disbanded by the church, at least one Templar fleet split into four independent flotillas dedicating themselves to pirating ships of any country sympathetic to Rome. The flag was thus an inheritance, and its crossed bones a reference to the original Templar logo of a red cross with blunted ends. But this seems unlikely, as the Knights Templar used a Greek cross and not the Andrew's cross (Χ) used on pirates' flags. In any case, neither Childress nor anybody else has ever produced the slightest actual evidence that the Templars ever flew such a flag, that the Templar fleet was ever seen again after the suppression of the Order, or that there is any connection whatever between the Templars and "Golden Age" piracy.

It has been suggested that the skull and cross bones were intended as an insult to the Vatican and as a warning to sympathisers by mocking the Cardinal's Hat and Cross Keys symbol of the Vatican. The cross keys was certainly in use by vessels of the Vatican by the 17th Century. Many voyages to and from the 'New World' were sponsored by the Pope and European monarchs with the express purpose of acquiring gold. It must be remembered that some countries of Europe were in great religious turmoil by this time and it is possible that pirates were keen to display their neutrality to countries opposed to Rome whilst mocking the Vatican itself. The problem with this argument is that every contemporary reference to the skull and crossbones makes it clear that the sight was deservedly feared by Protestants as well as by Catholics.

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 or no colors until they had their prey in firing range. When the pirates' intended victim was within range, the Jolly Roger would be raised, often simultaneously with a warning shot.

At first sight, it might seem a bad idea to forewarn your quarry by flying the Jolly Roger. However, its use may be seen as an early form of psychological warfare. A pirate's primary aim is to capture the target ship intact along with any cargo it may be carrying. With a sufficiently bloodthirsty reputation, a pirate flying the Jolly Roger could intimidate the crew of a target ship into surrender, allowing the ship to be captured without firing a shot. 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. Typically, if a ship then decided to resist, the Jolly Roger was taken down and a red flag was then flown, indicating that the pirates intend to take the ship by force and without mercy, according to several historians and the History Channel; this idea appears largely based on Richard Hawkins' report that "When they fight under Jolly Roger, they give quarter, which they do not when they fight under the red or bloody flag."

Flying the Jolly Roger too early as the only flag has its drawbacks. The quarry might have sufficient warning to attempt an escape. Also, warships were often under standing orders to fire at will at a ship flying this flag according to National Geographic. Nevertheless, when fighting naval or militia ships, it is frequently reported that pirates hoisted the Jolly Roger during the battle, presumably to intimidate their opponents or inspire their own men.

It is not certain what material most pirates fashioned the Jolly Roger from, although Bartholomew Roberts had one made from silk. Howell Davis, however, was at one point required to fashion his flag from a tarpaulin. Pirates often flew multiple Jolly Rogers, often of different designs, on the same ship. Roberts, for example, was seen off Africa displaying various kinds of Jolly Rogers at his jackstaff (on the bow of the ship), at the mizzenmast peak, and at the top of the mainmast, while also showing an English flag at the ensign staff on the stern. Kennedy flew Jolly Rogers simultaneously from his ensign staff, jackstaff, and mainmast.

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 (A Barbadian's Head) and AMH (A Martiniquais' Head -- a warning to residents of Barbados and Martinique that death awaited them). Dancing skeletons signified that the pirates cared little for their fate.

Use By Submarines

Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, summed up the opinion of the many in the Admiralty at the time when he said in 1901 "Submarines are underhand, unfair and damned un-English. The crews of all submarines captured should be treated as pirates and hanged." In response Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116 in 1914.

In the course of World War I, the submarine service came of age, winning five of the Royal Navy's fourteen Victoria Crosses, the first by Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of HMS B11.

In World War II it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy and Royal Australian 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 Service.

The Jolly Roger was brought to the attention of a post World War II public when HMS Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger on her return from the Falklands War having sunk ARA General Belgrano. In May 1991 Oberon class submarines HMS Opossum and her sister HMS Otus returned to the submarine base HMS Dolphin in Gosport from patrol in the Persian Gulf flying Jolly Rogers, the only indication that they had been involved in alleged SAS and SBS reconnaissance operations. In 1999 HMS Splendid participated in the Kosovo Conflict and became the first Royal Navy submarine to fire a cruise missile in anger. On her return to Faslane, on July 9, 1999, Splendid flew the Jolly Roger.

After 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 1, 2002. She was welcomed back by Admiral Sir Alan West, Commander-in-Chief 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 had a Jolly Roger emblazoned with two crossed Tomahawks to indicate her opening missiles salvoes in the "war against terrorism" and HMS Superb's whose flag had a dagger, for force protection, a bee for her nickname (the Super B), and two communications flashes.

More recently, on April 16, 2003, HMS Turbulent, 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 by United States Army Air Corps

Four squadrons of the 90th Bombardment Group of the Fifth Air Force under General George C. Kenney, commanded by Colonel Art Rogers were known as the Jolly Rogers. Easily distinguished by the white skull and crossed bombs, from 1943, the four squadrons all displayed the insignia on the twin tail fins of their B-24 heavy bombers (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. In 1945 with the close of World War II, the squadrons were decommissioned. Some ten years later the United States Air Force 400th missile squadron, adopted their ancestral insignia and re-instituted the white Jolly Roger logo on a black background.

Sometimes referred to as the most colorful air group with the most distinguished war record behind the Flying Tigers, the squadrons of the 90th Bombardment Group saw action across the South Pacific. Notably, they were most effective in action in the air war against Japanese positions in and around New Guinea and the the surrounding islands, the Dutch East Indies, Borneo, and the Philippines. Some units also took part in the China campaign as well as battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

One of their most successful air operations (directed by Kenney) was the destruction of a major Japanese reinforcement fleet during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in 1943. The loss of this huge armada, loaded with supplies and troops, ended Japanese hopes of retaining control of New Guinea.

Use by United States Navy aviators

In the U.S. Navy, the Jolly Roger is associated with aviation. The use of the Jolly Roger by U.S. naval aviation dates back to the formation of VF-17 in January of 1943. Flying the Chance Vought F4U "Corsair," VF-17 produced more aces than any other squadron and many top aces. VF-17 initiated the use of the Jolly Roger, and it is still in use at present. For several decades, the "Bones" used a distinctive black-and-gold paint scheme that was instantly identifiable from a great distance, and feared by their foes. During the 1990s, under official orders, the Bones experimented with a low-visibility paint scheme, trading their bold colors for subdued greys. However, they eventually returned their fighters to their classic colors. VFA-103 is the current "Bones" fighter squadron of the U.S. Navy. The Fighting Eighty-Four carried the Jolly Rogers name for 40 years before being deactivated on September 29, 1995. Two days later, the Fighting 103 (formerly the Sluggers) would become the fourth fighter squadron to carry the Skull and Crossbones.

Jolly Roger Squadron history:


Other uses




Pirate Flags: The Jolly Roger