The Jolly Roger or Pirate’s Flag of a glaring Skull over Crossed Bones or Cutlasses goes back to the very roots of nautical tattooing and a life at sea. The Jolly Roger is symbolic of the very essence of a life of swashbuckling and maritime adventure on the high seas.
Originally, French pirates flew their ‘lie rouge’ flag – pretty red – when they intended to take no prisoners. No quarter would be given and it would be a fight, quite literally, to the death. It was meant to instill enough fear in a potential prize that when a ship spotted the pirate’s ‘Jolie Rouge’, the ship’s Captain and crew would immediately give up their cargo without a fight.
When British American pirates began flying the skull and crossbones in the early 18th century, the Anglicized term, ‘Jolly Roger’, had stuck. Its message and symbolism were direct and to the point – the flag declared ferocity and toughness meant to induce a quick surrender. Give up or die. Over time there were a number of different designs of the Jolly Roger as pirates and buccaneers created their own variations of the flag in order to set themselves apart.
It is important to remember that originally, many pirates and buccaneers were working at the behest of governments or Royal decrees – when countries were at war or feuding, they often contracted independent Captains as privateers to attack and harry enemy shipping while their own Naval fleets were engaged. The Spanish considered Sir Francis Drake a pirate, and there was a price on his head if captured, but he was authorized by a letter from Queen Elizabeth I of England to act as a privateer – and she expected to get her fair share of the spoils of war! In England, Sir Francis Drake was knighted, considered a hero, elected to Parliament and arguably, one of the richest men in the entire realm because of all the gold and silver he had plundered in the Caribbean and South America. Not a bad career for a man considered by the Spanish to be a pirate. As in most battles, whether sanctioned by the state or not, the skull and crossbones was a symbol, not only of death, but fearlessness in the face of it.
Ultimately, many privateers became pirates and did not distinguish between the countries of origin of the ships they attacked. Acting independently, these pirates indiscriminately attacked and plundered every ship they came across. Such behavior could quickly earn a pirate a price on his head, but some were so successful, and so difficult to catch, that they were offered pardons if they ceased their ways. So the Jolly Roger also symbolizes a certain independence in the face of authority!
Much later, in WW1 and WW2, the Jolly Roger was seen on British submarines to announce the completion of a successful combat mission. It is now the emblem of the British Royal Navy Submarine Service. In the USA, the skull and crossbones is associated with aviation and appeared on fighter squadrons in WWII and on missiles in 1955.