Pull away, me lads o’ the Cardiff Rose
And hoist the Jolly Roger
Roger McGuinn’s song was the pirate song I grew up with. And the Jolly Roger – the skull and crossbones against a black background – still waves supreme over American pirate lore.
So imagine my surprise when I moved to Germany and learned a new pirate shanty, the German folksong Wir lieben die Stürme (We Love the Storms):
Unser Schiff gleitet stolz durch die schäumenden Wellen.
Es strafft der Wind unsre Segel mit Macht.
Seht ihr hoch droben die Fahne sich wenden,
die blutrote Fahne, ihr Seeleut habt acht!
(Our ship slices proudly through fierce churning whitecaps. The wind whips our sails and drives up our speed. Look high aloft how our banner is waving, the blood red banner, you sailors take heed!)
A blood red pirate flag? Really?
Unbelieving, I asked my German husband, who assured me that the pirate flags of German lore are indeed red. Maybe, he suggested, the Jolly Roger is just an Anglo-American invention.
His comment drove me to the history books.
As so often the case, we were both right. Red pirate flags are just as entrenched in pirate history as are black ones. Here are some interesting facts I found:
Black pirate flags have an ancient history. Francis Drake, an English privateer, usually flew the flag of St. George, although in 1585, he flew black banners and streamers.
Red pirate flags also have a history. In 1681, buccaneers off the islands of Juan Fernández flew a “bloody flag.”
Red and black have two different meanings. A French flag book from 1721, containing colored engravings of both black and red pirate flags, labeled the red flag as “flag called no quarter.” Captain Richard Hawkins confirmed this meaning in 1724. His pirate ship flew the black Jolly Roger when he was willing to give quarter and the red banner when he wasn’t.
The Jolly Roger doesn’t have to be the skull and crossbones. Captain Richard Hawkins described his “Jolly Roger” as a full skeleton with an hourglass in one hand, indicating limited time, and a dart in the other hand, indicating violence. Other captains flew pirate flags with similar symbols.
Origins of Jolly Roger
The term “Jolly Roger” might have come from the French jolie rouge, or “red flag.” It might also derive from “Old Roger,” which means “devil.”
Skull and Crossbones
The skull and crossbones became popular among English, French, and Spanish pirates by 1730.
A 1684 book, Buccaneers of America, doesn’t mention black flags or skulls at all. English buccaneers in America sailed under English colors.
Red in Santa María
A sailor’s journal described 300 buccaneers marching on the town of Santa María in 1680. The various companies flew pirate flags of pure red, pure green, and red and yellow stripes. Red was the most common color.
Blackbeard and his flags
Of Blackbeard’s squadron of five ships in 1718, two flew black flags and three flew red.
Pirate flags in fiction
Both colors appear in English fiction. Daniel Defoe’s description of pirates in his 1720 story Captain Singleton has them flying both black and red flags.
What symbols do you associate with pirates?
Literature on point:
David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 1996, 1st Harvest House ed.) 114-119.