Tag Archives: Jolly Roger

Which pirate first flew the Jolly Roger?

8 Mar

Hollywood has managed to romanticise pirates during the last few years, mainly thanks to the efforts of Johnny Depp, who makes one of cinema’s finest ever entrances in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

He makes the whole game seem like such fun, but frankly, I have my doubts. I mean imagine the splinters from a wooden leg or the constant risk of being forced to walk the plank. Makes my job seem slightly less stressful.

Anyway, one pirate accessory I do love is the Jolly Roger, so I set out to see if I could learn its origins. And it turns out I had a lot to learn about pirate flags – including the fact they weren’t all the same.

According to historians, the first well known pirate to hoist the skull and crossbones was Emanuel Wynne, who began his career off the coast of Carolina before moving across to the Caribbean, where he attacked English and Spanish ships alike. As well as the skull and crossbones, his design included an hourglass that was designed, as you might suspect, to let his victims know their time was fast running out.

Yet Emanuel wasn’t the first or only pirate to boast a flag. Early (and later) contemporaries used everything from national symbols to solid blocks of colour, sometimes black (which meant standard battle) and sometimes red (which meant death to all).

In fact some people believe the term Jolly Roger is drawn from the French phrase ‘joli rouge’, which roughly translated means beautiful red. Another theory says it was a play on the Devil’s nickname of Old Roger.

Now here’s three other pirate fast flag facts I discovered…

* Jolly Roger is the general name given to pirate flags. It includes a black background, white skull and two crossed bones.
* Blackbeard’s flag featured a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand, a spear in the other hand and standing beside a bleeding heart.
* Pirates would sometimes hoist a white flag while chasing a ship. But in their case it meant ‘you must surrender’ rather than ‘we surrender’.