Jolly Roger is the traditional English name for the flags flown to identify a pirate ship about to attack during the early 18th century (i.e. the later part of the "Golden Age of Piracy").
The flag most commonly identified as the Jolly Roger today, the skull and crossbones symbol on a black flag, was used during the 1710s by a number of pirate captains including Black Sam Bellamy, Edward England, and John Taylor and it went on to become the most commonly used pirate flag during the 1720s.
Use of the term Jolly Roger in reference to pirate flags goes back to at least Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, published in Britain in 1724.
Johnson specifically cites two pirates as having named their flag "Jolly Roger": Bartholomew Roberts 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, who was 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".
The origin of the name is unclear. Jolly Roger had been a generic term for a jovial, carefree man since at least the 17th century and the existing term seems to have been applied to the skeleton or grinning skull in these flags by the early 18th century. In 1703, a pirate named John Quelch was reported to have been flying the "Old Roger" off Brazil, "Old Roger" being a nickname for the devil.
It is sometimes claimed that the term derives from "Jolie Rouge" ("Pretty Red") in reference to a red flag used by French privateers. This hypothesis is considered a false etymology, as the phrase "Jolie Rouge" in reference to a pirate flag does not appear in any historical sources.
Another early reference to "Old Roger" is found in a news report in the Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, Saturday, October 19, 1723; Issue LVII, page 2, col. 1):
Parts of the West-Indies. Rhode-Island, July 26. This Day, 26 of the Pirates taken by his Majesty Ship the Greyhound, Captain Solgard, were executed here. Some of them delivered what they had to say in writing, and most of them said something at the Place of Execution, advising all People, young ones especially, to take warning by their unhappy Fate, and to avoid the crimes that brought them to it. Their black Flag, under which they had committed abundance of Pyracies and Murders, was affix'd to one Corner of the Gallows. It had in it the Portraiture of Death, with an Hour-Glass in one Hand, and a Dart in the other, striking into a Heart, and three Drops of Blood delineated as falling from it. This Flag they called Old Roger, and us'd to say, They would live and die under it.
The first recorded uses of the skull-and-crossbones symbol on naval flags date to the 17th century. It possibly originated among the Barbary pirates of the period, which would connect the black colour of the Jolly Roger to the Muslim black flag. But an early reference to Muslim corsairs flying a skull symbol, in the context of a 1625 slave raid on Cornwall, explicitly refers to the symbol being shown on a green flag. There are mentions of Francis Drake flying a black flag as early as 1585, but the historicity of this tradition has been called into question. Contemporary accounts show Peter Easton using a plain black flag in 1612; a plain black flag was also used by Captain Martel's pirates in 1716, Edward Teach aka Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Richard Worley in 1718, and Howell Davis in 1719.
An early record of the skull-and-crossbones design being used on a (red) flag by pirates is found in a December 6, 1687 entry in a log book held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The entry describes pirates using the flag, not on a ship but on land.
17th and 18th century colonial governors usually required privateers to fly a specific version of the British flag, the 1606 Union Jack with a white crest in the middle, also distinguishing them from naval vessels. Before this time, British privateers such as Sir Henry Morgan sailed under English colours. An early use of a black flag with skull, crossbones, and hourglass is attributed to pirate captain Emanuel Wynn in 1700, according to a wide variety of secondary sources. Reportedly, these secondary sources are based on the account of Captain John Cranby of 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 design existed, red flags sometimes incorporated yellow stripes or images symbolic of death. Colored pennants and ribbons could also be used alongside flags.
Marcus Rediker (1987) claims that most pirates active between 1716 and 1726 were part of one of two large interconnected groups sharing many similarities in organisation. He states that this accounts for the "comparatively rapid adoption of the piratical black flag among a group of men operating across thousands of miles of ocean", suggesting that the skull-and-crossbone design became standardized at about the same time as the term Jolly Roger was adopted as its name. By 1730, the diversity of symbols in prior use had been mostly replaced by the standard design.
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.
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.
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 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 view of these 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 executed:
An angry pirate therefore posed a greater danger to merchant ships than an angry Spanish coast guard or privateer vessel. 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 their piratical 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 seas.
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 flag.
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.
Following the introduction of submarines in several navies, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, the First Sea Lord of the British Royal Navy, stated that submarines were "underhanded, unfair, and damned un-English", and that he would convince the British Admiralty to have the crews of enemy submarines captured during wartime be hanged as pirates.
In September 1914, the British submarine HMS E9 successfully torpedoed the German cruiser SMS Hela. Remembering Wilson's statements, commanding officer Max Horton instructed his submariners to manufacture a Jolly Roger, which was flown from the submarine as she entered port. Each successful patrol saw Horton's submarine fly an additional Jolly Roger until there was no more room for flags, at which point Horton had a large Jolly Roger manufactured, onto which symbols indicating E9's achievements were sewn. A small number of other submarines adopted the practice: HMS E12 flew a red flag with the skull and crossbones on return from a foray into the Dardanelles in June 1915, and the first known photograph of the practice was taken in July 1916 aboard HMS H5.
The practice restarted during World War II. In October 1941, following a successful patrol by HMS Osiris, during which she sank the Italian destroyer Palestro the submarine returned to Alexandria, but was ordered to remain outside the boom net until the motorboat assigned to the leader of the 1st Submarine Flotilla had come alongside. The flotilla leader wanted to recognise the boat's achievement, so had a Jolly Roger made and delivered to Osiris.(I) After this, the commanders of submarine flotillas began to hand out the flags to successful submarines. Although some sources claim that all British submarines used the flag, the practice was not taken up by those submarine commanders who saw it as boastful and potentially inaccurate, as sinkings could not always be confirmed. During the war, British submarines were entitled to fly the Jolly Roger on the day of their return from a successful patrol: it would be hoisted as the boat passed the boom net, and remain raised until sunset.
Symbols on the flag indicated the history of the submarine, and it was the responsibility of the boat's personnel to keep the flag updated. The Royal Navy Submarine Museum (which, as of 2004, possessed fifteen Jolly Rogers) recognises 20 unique symbols. A bar denotes the torpedoing of a ship: red bars indicated warships, white bars represented merchant vessels, and black bars with a white "U" stood for U-boats. A dagger indicated a 'cloak and dagger' operation: typically the delivery or recovery of shore parties from enemy territory. Stars (sometimes surrounding crossed cannon) stood for occasions where the deck gun was fired. Minelaying operations were shown by the silhouette of a sea mine: a number inside the mine indicated how many such missions. A lighthouse or torch symbolised the boat's use as a navigational marker for an invasion force; the latter more particularly associated with Operation Torch. Rescue of personnel from downed aircraft or sunken ships was marked by a lifebuoy. Unique symbols are used to denote one-off incidents: for example, the Jolly Roger of HMS Proteus included a can-opener, referencing an incident where an Italian destroyer attempted to ram the submarine, but ended up worse off because of damage to the destroyer's hull by the submarine's hydroplanes, while HMS United added a stork and baby when the boat's commander became a father while on patrol. Flying the Jolly Roger continued in the late 20th century and on into the 21st. HMS Conqueror raised the flag decorated with the silhouette of a cruiser to recognise her successful attack on the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano during the Falklands War. Several submarines returning from missions where Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired fly Jolly Rogers with tomahawk axes depicted, with crossed tomahawks indicating an unspecified number of firings, or individual axes for each successful launch. The Jolly Roger has been adopted as the logo of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.
The practice, while commonly associated with British submarines, is not restricted to them. During World War II, Allied submariners working with Royal Navy fleets adopted the process from their British counterparts. While operating in the Mediterranean, the Polish submarines ORP Sokół and ORP Dzik were presented with Jolly Rogers by General Władysław Sikorski, and continued to update them during the war. At least one British surface ship recorded their U-boat kills through silhouettes on a Jolly Roger. The Australian submarine HMAS Onslow flew the Jolly Roger in 1980, following her successful participation in the Kangaroo 3 wargame as an opposing submarine: the flag bore the silhouettes of the seven surface ships involved, as during the exercise, Onslow had successfully 'sunk' all seven.
The Jolly Roger flag became a cliché of pirate fiction in the 19th century. The "Golden Age of Piracy" was over by the mid-18th century, and piracy was widely suppressed by the 1800s, although the problem of Barbary pirates persisted until the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. By the Victorian era, the pirate threat had receded enough for it to become a topos of boyish adventure fiction, notably influenced by Stevenson's 1883 Treasure Island. Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance introduced pirates as comedic characters, and since the later 20th century, pirates sporting the Jolly Roger flag were often depicted as cartoonish or silly characters. It was also used as the name of the pirate ship in J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy. It is also the name given to the pirate ship on ABC's "Once Upon A Time" by Captain Killian "Hook" Jones.
The song "Jolly Roger" appears on the Adam and the Ants album Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980).
Kenny Chesney's single "Pirate Flag", from his fourteenth studio album Life on a Rock (2013).
On the cover of the Iron Maiden album, A Matter of Life and Death (2006), a version of a Jolly Roger depicting a helmeted Eddie the Head and two assault rifles instead of bones is displayed hanging from a tank.
Also on the cover of Michael Jackson's Dangerous (1991) album it can be seen on the left side with the alteration of a skull over two swords.
The re-issued version of the Megadeth album, Killing Is My Business... and Business Is Good! (1985), shows a stylized Vic Rattlehead skull on top of crossed swords and crossed bones. This was based on Mustaine's original drawing for the cover which the band did not have enough money to produce at the time.
The "pirate" metal band Running Wild often references the Jolly Roger and other pirate related themes in their music.
The Pirates, a spinoff of the band Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, released an album called Out of their Skulls featuring a skull with crossed guitars below it.
British DJ Eddie Richards released the acid house hit "Acid Man" in 1988 under Jolly Roger alias.
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 carnelian red background instead of the black, being that of the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with an American football over the crossing area of the two swords.
The supporters of FC St. Pauli, a sports club from Hamburg, Germany, best known for its association football team, have adopted a variation of Richard Worley's flag as their own unofficial emblem. Also, the Jolly Roger is the popular icon of all University College Cork (Ireland) sports teams.
"Raise the Jolly Roger!" is also used in a statement by the Major League Baseball's team Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Greg Brown when the Pirates win a game. Brown has become known for the phrase, his signature call, similar to other sports broadcasters, such as the Cincinnati Reds' announcer Marty Brennamen's phrase ('This one belongs to the Reds'), and former Pirates announcers Lanny Frattare ("There was no doubt about it!") and Bob Prince, who liked to end Pirates wins with similarly jovial statements.
Another such variation is the Oakland Raiders, it uses a head with facial features, wearing an eye patch and a helmet, crossed swords behind the helmet completes the image.
All these variations are seen as the logos of sporting teams in (Scotland):
The South African Football Association soccer team Orlando Pirates also has the classic Jolly Roger as their logo.
The athletic teams of East Carolina University use a stylized Jolly Roger as one of their logos. This particular variation includes an earringed and eyepatch-wearing skull donning a tricorn of purple and gold (the school's colors) emblazoned over two crossbones. This logo appears on the helmets of the school's football team, and an elaborate pre-game ritual takes place prior to each home contest wherein a flag bearing the university's Jolly Roger logo is raised on a special flagpole located behind the west end zone prior to the opening kickoff. Immediately prior to the start of the fourth quarter, the normal (black) Jolly Roger is lowered and replaced with a flag bearing the ECU Jolly Roger on a red background, indicating that the Pirates will grant their opponents "no quarter".
The Blackshirts, the starting defensive unit players for the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team, are represented by a Jolly Roger, somewhat similar to Richard Worley's flag but with the skull encased in the team's football helmet. Additionally, the players and fans often celebrate by "throwing the bones", where they cross the forearms in front of the chest in a 'X' imitating the logo, and the student section at Memorial Stadium, Lincoln is known as the 'Boneyard', where the logo is often displayed on banners, signs, and flags in an act of intimidation.
When Viktor Korchnoi opposed Anatoly Karpov for the World Chess Championship 1978, he was a defector from the Soviet Union and mementarily stateless; so he played with a miniature Jolly Roger at the chess table.
The flag of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is modeled to look like a classic Jolly Roger, with some alterations. the flag has a whale and a dolphin on the skull's forehead (the skull is shown with no lower mandibile), and the crossed longbones are replaced with a crossed trident and a shepherd's crook.
The early development team of the Apple Macintosh used a pirate flag to maintain a "rebellious" spirit.
Before changing to a stylized 'P', the Pirate Party used the Jolly Roger as its symbol; it is still used extensively in the Pirate movement. The Piratbyrån 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 Music.