Arrggghhhhh! We be settin’ sail today for treacherous waters. Don’t be surprised if we run into a ship full of scallywags. Who might they be? Pirates, of course!
How will we recognize them? We’ll know pirates by the flag they fly from their ships. Even more important than eye patches, peg legs and parrots, flags have always helped define pirate ships as the scourge of the sea.
In the earliest days of pirates, pirate ships usually flew red flags. At that time, red flags were often flown by ships engaged in naval warfare as a sign that no quarter (mercy) would be given. In other words, they would fight to the death.
The French called these red flags joli rouge (“pretty red”). Although other theories have been suggested over time, most people believe it is this French term that was later brought into English as “Jolly Roger.”
Eventually, pirates began to design and make their own personal flags. Their goal was to terrify other ships into making a quick surrender. Don’t forget: pirates were ruthless thieves who survived by looting (stealing from) other ships at sea.
If they could loot a ship without a fight, they would not risk death or injury and the ship’s contents would not be damaged. Intimidating flags helped send the message that the pirates were outlaws who would not respect the usual rules of warfare.
Instead of red flags, they began to use black flags. Black flags were also scary, because they usually meant the ship was under quarantine because of disease. To make them even scarier, pirates began to add the common symbol for death: the skull and crossbones.
Other pirates used common symbols of the time. For example, many pirate flags featured an hourglass, which also represented running out of time or death. Other similar symbols included skeletons, swords and bleeding hearts.
In case you were wondering, pirates still exist today. In certain parts of the world, outlaws still take to the seas to terrorize and steal from other ships. Unlike pirates of the past, though, these modern-day pirates usually don’t fly flags like pirates of old did. Instead, many modern pirates lure ships to them by pretending they are in need of help. Flying a flag would allow target ships to identify pirates and flee.