The Jolly Roger, Old Roger, or just plain Skull and Crossbones is the definitive symbol of the
pirate. Although no one knows for certain, it is believed that the name derives from joli rouge, which means "Pretty Red" in French. This was taken to describe the blood red flags flown by particularly harsh
pirates. No matter where the name came from, the essential use of this banner was to strike fear into the hearts of the crew under
pirate attack. While pirates often flew "false colors" of any given country, inevitably they used "truer"
colors to communicate and threaten potential victims.
Around 1700 the first such flag was flown by Emmanuel Wynne as he plundered the Caribbean. In general, a white flag was flown when
pirates were in chase of a potential victim. In some cases the victim would "strike his
colors", or take down the king's flag and submit to the bandits. If the victims refused, the black and white flag was raised to indicate the intentions of the
pirates. In the event that a ship was particularly evasive, or a
pirate was particularly brutal, the red flag was raised to indicate that no quarter would be given once the ship was captured. In short no lives would be spared. The flags contained symbols designed to indicate a certain message. Of course, the skull was a sign of death in general, but a skeleton, often with horns, was to indicate a tormented death. On the other hand, a dart or spear was used to indicate a violent death in contrast to the bleeding heart denoting a slow and painful death. A raised fist or hand clutching a dagger or cutlass was to indicate a general willingness to kill and the hourglass gave a threat that time was running out or that capture was inevitable. Curiously, Blackbeard managed to incorporate practically every one of these main symbols into his flag. Jack Rackham (Calico Jack) used a graceful set of crossed swords in place of bones to boast ironically of his willingness to fight. Similarly, Thomas Tew took the image of the sword before that of death. In his flag, no symbol of death is present, but the message is no less clear regarding the fate of any who opposed his advance. Sir Thomas Tew seemed to think it more polite to suggest violence without that nasty death image. These images were, of course, interpretive, but well known in the golden age of
piracy. A flag could be a simple variation like Henry Every's (page top) skull at a profile, or it could be all inclusive like Stede Bonnet's rather bland jumble of images. As was the case often, a flag could be altered or customized to fit a particular need. In the case of Bartholomew Roberts (Black Bart) his "principle"
colors showed him toasting death with an ambiguous glass of drink or an hourglass (pun intended for sure!). After a long hard time of
pirating' Black Bart came to hate the islands of Barbados and Martinique. To show his vendetta he crafted another flag showing him astride two skulls and the letters "ABH" and "AMH". The letters were to indicate "A Barbadian's Head" and "A Martinician's Head". While it is unclear if Bart ever got his Barbadian, in 1720 he hung the governor of Martinique from his yardarm.