While the Jolly Roger flag is romanticized in modern times, its original meaning may shiver your timbers—let’s look at why pirate flags have a black background, which pirate flew the classic skull-and-crossbones flag, and more!
There are several different theories on this one; here are four of the most popular:
- Pirates often flew a red flag (more on that later), which the French called the Joli Rouge. This term may have been corrupted into English as “Jolly Roger,” which became a generic term for black pirate flags over time.
- “Jolly Roger” might be a play on the term “Old Roger”—a term for the devil—combined with “Jolly” because of the skull’s grin.
- In Elizabethan English, “roger” (coming from the word “rogue”) was a slang term for beggars and vagabonds. This could be the source, since pirates were often referred to as sea beggars.
- “Jolly Roger” could be a corruption of the Tamil title Ali Raja, which means King of the Sea.
All said, no one really knows why it’s called the Jolly Roger. But we do have evidence showing that pirate flags have been called Jolly Rogers for quite some time.
Traditionally, a black flag signifies quarantine and disease. Pirates likely chose it as their flag’s base to strike fear into their adversaries. Many pirates even opted for a plain black flag without a design at all.
While the most well-known pirate flag is the white skull and crossbones on a black background, not all pirate flags had a black background. In fact, many used red instead.
The difference between the two? It’s said that pirates would give quarter when flying under a black flag, but not when flying under a red. Whatever the case, the flag’s color held a lot of meaning.
Many pirates were known for their flags, but the classic skull and crossbones are typically associated with Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and Edward England.
Samuel Bellamy was an English pirate who captured at least 53 ships during little more than a year of piracy. This made him the wealthiest pirate in history, before his death at age 28. His nickname, Black Sam, comes from his decision to forgo a powdered wig in favor of growing out his long black hair. Bellamy was known for showing mercy and generosity to those he captured, earning the nickname “Prince of Pirates.” He imagined himself as Robin Hood.
Edward England was also known for his good nature and unusual kindness, and didn’t believe in torture except as a last resort. However, his good nature didn’t sit well with his crew, who eventually marooned him on an island with three others. Despite escaping the island after four months—on a boat he built himself—England soon died, most likely from a tropical disease.
Patriot Wood’s handmade wooden Jolly Roger flag is the perfect piece of wall art for anyone interested in pirate lore. Head to the Jolly Roger flag page to see more high-quality photos and learn more!