Consisting of a white skull and crossbones on a black background, the Jolly Roger flag has become synonymous with pirates. It’s displayed at amusement parks, themed restaurants and even inside homes. Most people immediately associate with Jolly Roger with pirates of the sea. While you’ve probably seen the Jolly Roger flag before, though, you might be surprised to learn the following facts about it.
#1) Dates Back to the 17th Century
The Jolly Roger flag has origins dating back to at least the 17th century. Around this time, pirate ships were seen displaying the now-icon flag. Some of the famous pirate captains who displayed the Jolly Roger flag include Black Sam Bellamy, Francis Spriggs, Bartholomew Roberts, John Taylor and Edward England. They brought attention to the Jolly Roger flag, thus making it more popular.
#2) Meant to Deter
There’s a reason why the Jolly Roger flag looks so menacing: It was meant to deter against attacks. Pirate ships were often attacked, either by government navies or by other pirates. To prevent their ships from being attacked, pirate captains would display the Jolly Roger flag. With its skull and crossbones, it was a form of intimidation. Displaying the Jolly Roger flag struck fear into the hearts and minds of pirates’ enemies while deterring potential attacks.
#3) Warning to Surrender
Historians believe that the Jolly Roger flag’s black background was a warning to surrender. Before the Jolly Roger flag was invented and displayed on pirate ships, captains would often display either white or black flags. A black flag was displayed as a warning for another ship to surrender. A white flag was displayed as a sign of agreeing to surrender.
#4) Not Displays At All Times
Contrary to popular belief, pirate ships didn’t display the Jolly Roger flag at all times. As thieves of the sea, pirates didn’t want to scare away their victims. Therefore, they would keep the Jolly Roger down when venturing near merchant ships. When they were close enough to attack, pirate ships would then raise the Jolly Roger flag.
#5) Multiple Versions
While they all feature a white skull and crossbones on a black background, the Jolly Roger flag is available in many different versions. Over the course of several centuries, pirates have designed dozens of Jolly Roger flags. Some of them feature the skull above the crossbones, whereas others feature the skill over the crossbones. There are also versions of the Jolly Roger flag that feature a sword.