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For other uses, see Jolly Roger (disambiguation)

Hector Barbossa's jolly roger among other flags of the Pirate Armada.

"Now we pause to appreciate the beginning of the raid proper. First we will unlock the main gate...then lower the flag and replace it with a Jolly Roger. That's the signal to our rickett-ridden crew, and they'd best be watching for it. Ready, lad? Yo ho!"
Jack Sparrow to Will Turner[src]

The Jolly Roger was the name for any of various flags that pirates flown to identify themselves, usually before attacking another ship. The most famous and traditional variation of the Jolly Roger was the skull and crossbones, a flag consisting of a human skull above two long bones (although swords were also common) set in an X-mark arrangement, usually depicted crossing each other directly under the skull, on a black background. This design was used by several pirates, including Captains "Black Sam" Bellamy and Edward England, but pirates often add special features to reflect their personalities.

Despite its prominence, plain black flags were often employed by most pirates in the 17th-18th century. Some Jolly Roger flags also include an hourglass, another common symbol representing death in 17th- and 18th-century Europe. Historically, the flag was flown to frighten pirates' victims into surrendering without a fight, since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of engagement—and might, therefore, slaughter those they defeated. The same message was sometimes conveyed by a red flag, though meant that the crew would fight to the death.


"I thought it would be nice to run up me flag on our maiden voyage. Will you do the honors?"
"Aye, Cap'n!
Jack Sparrow and Kwame[src]

Every pirate ship flies a trademark variation of the skull-and-crossbones theme,[1] and so every pirate captain flies his own variation of the Jolly Roger flag.[2] The most notable flag of Edward Low was a red skeletal figure on a black background.[3]

Pirates were also known to change their flags, and use false flags. For different reasons at different times, different flags were chosen. For instance, Sao Feng had two notable flags:[4] one flag was purple and featured a golden hand holding a sword with Chinese letters next to it,[5][6] while the other flag followed Edward Low's design of a black flag featuring a red skeleton dangling in the center.[7][8]

Blackbeard's jolly roger flying on the Queen Anne's Revenge.

At the beginning of his pirate career, Blackbeard used the typical skull and crossbones flag.[9][10] He later used a flag designed to intimidate his enemies, one that depicted a demonic horned skeleton holding a goblet in one hand and a spear pointing to a bleeding heart in the other,[11] as if he's toasting his victims.[12] At some point prior to the voyage to the Fountain of Youth, Blackbeard flew a new variation, featuring a skull with flames that revealed his passion for forbidden dark magic.[2]



"Shiver me timbers!"
"You said it, Cotton—let's haul up the Jolly Roger!
Cotton's Parrot and Joshamee Gibbs[src]

As early as 1704, pirates were referring to their flags as Rogers and in 1703, one captain referred to his flag as "Old Roger". The name Roger derives from the word rogue, meaning a wandering thief or vagabond. The name "Old Roger" was another name for the devil.

The earliest known mention of the Jolly Roger is in Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, published in 1724. The book mentions that both Bartholomew Roberts and Francis Spriggs called their flag the Jolly Roger, though the flags were different and neither were the popular skull and crossbones design.

Less popular theories include the name being derived from the French term "Joli Rouge" (meaning "Pretty Red") or from the name Ali Raja, a famous Indian pirate.


"So I orders me crew to run up me black flag. The moment we raised our true colors, that sloop, he run up his flag, too. A red flag, with a black demon skull on it. 'Twas then I knew for certain that he was another pirate. We all had a good laugh, me and me crew."
Hector Barbossa[src]

Bones and skulls have been a sign of death since early Rome. Skulls and long bones have been displayed in catacombs, crypts, and graveyards since the Middle Ages. Bones were used because they lasted long after the rest of the body was gone. Later, carvings of the skull and bones were used to remind people who entered that they would one day die also.

The use of plain black flags was more common than flags with the skull and crossbones. When the skull and crossbones was used, they were often modified by the captain. The Welsh privateer Henry Morgan was the first captain who flew the typical skull and crossbones on a red background.[13] Three and a half decades later, the pirate captain Edward England used the same flag, but with the black background, a design which was later adopted by many other members of the Brethren of the Coast.[14] The same flag, but with the reversed colours, was used among pirates to signal parlay.[15] For unknown reasons, many pirates believed that England's design was allegedly the first used and standardized pirate flag.[14]

Gallery of notable Jolly Rogers[]

Behind the scenes[]



External links[]

Notes and references[]

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Complete Visual Guide, pg. 30
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: The Visual Guide, p30-31: "Queen Anne's Revenge"
  3. In real-world history, a red skeleton with a black background was one of Edward Low's flags.
  4. 4.0 4.1 "Pirates were known to change their flags, and use false flags. Rather than presume a mistake, I would go with the explanation that for different reasons at different times, different flags were chosen. Certainly the examples of treachery in At World's End supports the idea of choosing different flags to emphasize different situations and alliances." - Terry Rossio
  5. 5.0 5.1 DisneyPirates.com: Pirate Lords Map: Sao Feng
  6. The Secret Files of the East India Trading Company
  7. The Pirates' Guidelines
  8. Legends of the Brethren Court: Rising in the East
  9. The Queen Anne's Revenge as shown in A General History of the Pyrates.
  10. Concept art of the Queen Anne's Revenge.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (junior novelization), p.48
  12. 12.0 12.1 POTC4 Presskit
  13. Captain Morgan holds the red Jolly Roger.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 The Captain Jack Sparrow Handbook, p54.
  15. The Price of Freedom, Chapter 14: "Hard Bargains"
  16. The Art of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, pg. 55