Famous Pirate Flags
The late 17th and early 18th centuries — a time when high seas piracy was at its peak — is known as the Golden Age of Piracy. It was during this time that pirate flags began to bear symbols of violence and death, such as the skull and crossbones, designed to frighten and intimidate a pirate's intended victims.
Here's a look at the pirate flags of that era, with explanations of symbols commonly seen on these flags, and examples of flags used by some of the most famous pirates in history.
History of Pirate Flags
The earliest pirate flags of that era actually bore no designs, but were flags of solid red or black. The origin of the red flag can be traced back to the English privateers of the late 1600s, who were required to fly red flags to distinguish their vessels from those of the Royal Navy. Many of these privateers later turned to piracy, and continued to use the red flag.
Other pirates chose to fly a black flag. Black, of course, has long been associated with death, and black flags were often flown at the time by ships containing plague victims, as a warning to stay away. By flying a black flag, a pirate was saying that his ship, too, was a "death ship".
The red flag, when used by pirates, came to mean "no quarter given", meaning that no mercy would be shown, and no life would be spared, while a black flag usually meant that those who surrendered without a fight would be allowed to live.
How They Were Used
A pirate vessel usually did not fly the pirate flag at all times. A vessel at sea can be seen from a long distance away, so pirates would usually fly the "friendly" colors of one nation or another, enabling them to approach another vessel without raising suspicion. Only when they were close to a vessel that they intended to take would they raise their own flag.
Pirates who raised a black flag were usually hoping to intimidate their prey into surrendering without a fight. Although pirates were usually excellent in combat (those who weren't didn't last long), they generally preferred to take a vessel without a battle. Fighting was risky, and might damage the contents of the ship being taken - the pirate's booty.
Symbols Used and Their Meanings
Many pirates continued to fly plain black or red flags, but some captains began to embellish their flags with symbols representing violence, death, and even the devil himself. These objects were usually white, although red, representing blood or the devil, was sometimes used. Yellow was also used occasionally, most likely because it could easily be seen against a black or red background.
Skull, skeleton or bones
A particularly violent and bloody death
Skeleton with horns
A slow, painful death
Weapons (swords, spears, daggers)
Violence, a pirate's willingness to fight
Hourglass (sometimes with wings)
Time is running out or flying away
May refer to the captain, or to his enemies
A toast to death or to the devil
Usually represented the pirate captain
A pirate's lack of shame
The skull and crossbones design was used by pirates such as Edward England and "Black Sam" Belamy, but other designs have become associated with specific pirate captains. There are no surviving pirate flags from the 17th and 18th centuries, so many of these designs are based on eyewitness accounts. Some designs have become associated with certain captains over time, but not all of these have actually been confirmed as having been flown by the pirates in question.
The flag designed by "Calico Jack" Rackham, an English pirate who was active during the early 1700s, was a variation on the basic skull and crossbones design, substituting two cutlass swords for the bones beneath the skull.
Among the earliest pirates to put designs on their flags was the French pirate Emanuel Wynn. Eye-witnesses described a flag containing a skull, crossed bones and an hourglass being flown on Wynne's vessel around the year 1700.
One of the most distinctive pirate flags was flown by Christopher Moody during the 18th century. The flag's red color, along with the winged hourglass, arm holding a dagger and the skull and crossbones told Moody's prey that their time was running out, and no lives would be spared.
An arm holding a weapon is also seen on the flag widely associated with Thomas Tew, an English pirate from the late 17th century (although It has not actually been been confirmed that Tew flew this flag). Unlike Moody's flag, the black background on this flag suggests that violence could be avoided.
John Phillips and John Quelch
A flag with a figure in the center, a pierced heart dripping blood on one side and an hourglass on the other, has been attributed to 18th century pirates John Phillips and John Quelch. Contemporary descriptions of Phillips' flag match this design, but less evidence exists that Quelch also actually used this design.
Edward Low, a pirate known for being particularly brutal and savage, displayed a blood-red skeleton on a black flag. Those who saw this flag knew that a particularly grisly death would be theirs if they refused to surrender at once.
The flag of "Black Bart" Roberts, who had particular animosity toward the islands of Barbados and Martinique, had a figure of himself standing on two skulls, with the letters ABH (A Barbadian's Head) and AMH (a Martinician's Head) beneath the skulls.
Last, but not least, is the flag of Blackbeard himself. One of the most dramatic of all pirate flags, Blackbeard's flag featured a horned skeleton holding a spear aimed at a heart that is dripping blood in one hand, while raising a toast to death with the other.
Flags with elaborate designs such as these were actually used for a relatively short period of time, with the first skull and crossbones appearing around 1700, and the Golden Age of Piracy ending by about 1740. The designs are so powerful, however, that they continue to be associated with piracy to this day.
- Elizabethan Era, Pirate Flags. http://www.elizabethan-era.org.uk/pirate-flags.htm
- Wikipedia, Jolly Roger, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jolly_Roger
- The Piurate's Realm, Pirate Flags. http://www.thepiratesrealm.com/pirate%20flags.html
- Konstam, Angus (Author), McBride, Angus (Illustrator). Pirates, 1660-1730. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, Limited, 1998.
- Rose, Jamaica and MacLeod, Michael. The Book of Pirates: A Guide to Plundering, Pillaging and Other Pursuits. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2010.
- Selinger, Gail and Smith, W. Thomas. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pirates. New York: The Penguin Group, 2006.