Jolly Roger

A Pirate Calling Card

The Jolly Roger has long been connected to the piratical brotherhood.  Since it was first used in print by Charles Johnson in his A General History of Pirates, the term Jolly Roger is as connected to the pirate as the cutlass and the eye-patch.  There are many theories as to why the flag is named what it is and I am going to put forth some of those theories below.

jollyrogerThe term Joli Rogue was the term for a French ship flying a red flag that meant it would fight to the death.  Add to that the thought the English would call the devil Old Roger and you have a flag with a grinning death’s head that became a Jolly Devil or the Jolly Roger.  Thus, the Jolly Roger became the flag for a ship that was commanded by the devil and would fight to the death.

At least two pirates are known to have called their flags the Jolly Roger:  Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts and Francis Spriggs.  Though these two may have been the only ones to call their flags the Jolly Roger, they were certainly not the only ones to fly the deaths head flag. From Edward Teach to Edward Long, all the famous European pirates flew the skull and bones in some form or another.  In fact the death’s head flag might go back to the Templars which some people aim the canon at for the first contemporary pirates.

flagIt is believed that after Pope Clement V attempted to have the Templars exterminated on October 13, 1307 (a Friday nonetheless), the Templars took the fleet of ships they had amassed and took to the seas.  While they were on the high seas and possibly became pirates themselves, they flew the skull and bones as a warning to other ships that attacking them meant death.  This Jolly Roger was either tied to the Skull of Sidon Legend or it might have been tied to the Head of Baphomet, it depends on which legends of the Templars you like better.  Either way it is known that the Templars flew the Skull and Bones though they may not have called it the Jolly Roger that Johnson later wrote down.

flag3A lot of the famous pirate captains through the Golden Age of Piracy were Masons, if you are following the conspiracy theory that I am outlining here, the Masons may have been an offshoot of the Templars at some point.  Therefore, it is no great jump in logic to assume that the pirates of olde picked up the Jolly Roger flown by the Templars.  Of course, it could be that they were looking for a flag that would make people surrender without a fight, a flag that would inspire fear, a flag that had a history in sea-based warfare, thus using the flag that had been successful for the Templars would have worked.

Whichever way you like your history, a little more conspiratorial or a little more factual, the pirates embraced this flag and made it their own.  There were plenty of naval battles that didn’t happen due to the Jolly Roger being flown and seen by potentially a much bigger adversary.  Seeing the grinning skull, they would strike their own colors and run up the white flag of surrender… I wonder where that came from…