Origin And Meaning of The Jolly Roger

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Argh! Pirates are the first ones we think of when the dreaded Jolly Roger flag is mentioned. Most notably Captain Jack Sparrow and the Pirates of the Caribbean series of films brought this back to the forefront of our minds. However, it is believed that pirates of yesteryear are not the actual first ones to fly this flag. The first sighting of this dreaded flag is around the 1100’s. David Hatcher Childress claims in his book Pirates and the Lost Temple Fleet that King Roger II of Sicily flew a red flag emblazoned with a skull when he attacked ships sympathetic to Rome.

The particular designs meant differing things amongst the brethren. No matter the design, the intent was to strike fear into the hearts of their intended victims. Most would approach with no colors, only to raise them at the last minute when there was no chance of escape. Red, blue, or black were the standards for the backgrounds. The emblem on the flag could be anything from a skull to a dagger through the heart. The harsher the symbol, the harsher the pirate would be is what most believed back in the days when pirates sailed the sea. A skull with horns almost certainly meant torture to those that saw it flying high on the main mast.

It is true that there were those pirates who were notoriously evil, but for the most part they were not the scrounge of the sea as they are perceived by the general population. They might steal your ship and anything of value, however they usually put you out on an island or in long boats to make your way to land.The actual flag with the skull and crossed bones was more of a way to get the ships they set upon to give quarter and not fight back.

While the exact origin is unknown, not only did pirates and privateers put it to use during the 1600’s to 1800’s, but in the early 1900’s Lieutenant Commander Max Horton flew the Jolly Roger as he sailed his submarine back into port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela. Throughout World War I and II, the skull and crossed bones have adorned not only submarines but also airplanes. The British Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy have both sported versions of the flag as they either went into battle or came home from one. The United States have not been outdone in this front. On March 1, 2002, the Trafalgar sailed into Plymouth Sound flying the Jolly Roger.

No matter where it started, the Jolly Roger remains a symbol that is meant to strike fear into the hearts of those on the viewing end. All across the world people understand what it means…death and destruction. While the military has incorporated its use, one might prefer to think more about the whimsical pirate Captain Jack Sparrow and his swashbuckling antics in Pirates of the Caribbean than our military blowing up the Taliban.

Captain Jack and some rum anyone?


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