The year is 1715. At sea. anywhere close to the Bahamas. A ship emerges from the seas. It raises a black flag bearing a white skull above two crossed bones as its symbol. Pirates. It does seem like something from a legendary movie, but it actually happened, just not the way the movies necessarily depicted it.
The Jolly Roger existed in actuality. For decades, it terrorised mariners and contributed to the definition of one of the most fascinating criminal businesses in history.
The height of piracy
The cutlass-wielding, rum-swilling pirates from movies and television were indeed cruising the Caribbean from the 1650s until the 1730s, and later they ventured farther afield.
The time period was dubbed the “golden age of pirate.” In the first the Caribbean, then farther afield.
The time period was dubbed the “golden age of pirate.” The Caribbean was a mostly lawless region. Due to its distance from Europe, it was difficult for the various European nations to impose any sort of law and order until some of the more colonial nations built up strong navies. They were other riches worth taking because there were relatively recent European colonies in the region, like the gold and silver that came from Spanish mines. Pirates had their sights set on a variety of other colonial goods arriving from the Caribbean, such as sugar and tobacco, in addition to precious metals. Perhaps tea for the sophisticated pirate, but I suppose it was a free for all as the Spanish were looting all the rich Inca and Aztec cultures which had been mining the gold for decades.The pirates would also be aware of the worth of a red dye called cochineal that comes from a bug from Oaxaca, Mexico, so I imagine it was a free for all while the Spanish were looting the Aztec and Inca colonies of all their treasure. It generates a highly valuable dye that is vivid crimson.
Just like today’s celebrities, the pirates loved the recognition and celebrity and prefered to be readily recognisable.
Red and black flags
Pirate ships flew flags in the 17th century, though not always the ones we now identify with them. A warning sign indicated that they would not provide mercy or clemency. They’ll engage in a life-or-death struggle. A black flag, on the other hand, signified that they would provide quarter, meaning that they would negotiate when needed.It may have been this use of red that led to the name Jolly Roger. Some experts think that maybe Roger came from ‘rouge’, the French word for red, which makes sense because that would also be from the buccaneering period, where it was mostly French pirates So ‘joli rouge’ [meaning pretty red].There are also some people who say that Roger was a term for ‘the devil at sea’.
The pirate flags would sometimes feature a skull and crossbones, this was actually a symbol that had been used since the Middle Ages, basically to symbolise death. And it was often used in maritime logbooks, next to a name of someone who had died.As the years went on, pirates got more creative meaning there was not one Jolly Roger but all sorts of variations for each vessel.
Skeletons, hearts and hourglasses
By the 18th century, the red flag was not as popular, Simon says. Instead, pirates stuck to black flags with different insignias.
Different crews would riff on the theme, sometimes with full skeleton bodies, sometimes skeletons engaged in activities like holding a sword or a flame. There were hearts that were stabbed with little blood drops falling out. Occasionally hourglasses were shown to indicate to the merchant ships that pirates were attacking and the time was running out. For example, Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts sometimes used a flag that had his own self-portrait on it with a bleeding heart, so he could symbolise himself as this all-powerful pirate. The crew was responsible for making their ship’s flags.Pirates, being sailors, would have been fairly skilled at sewing, because you had to do your own sewing on the ship repairing clothes, repairing sails, they would have been capable of making these elaborate designs.”
‘They were business people’
So why did pirates go to all the effort of making Jolly Roger flags?, it was one of intimidation and fear in that pirate vessels would carry all sorts of flags, including “false flags”, much like the text messages today with its emojis.
When they were hunting their prey, which were merchant ships, typically they would fly false flags of different national governments. Pirates would get as reasonably close as they could once they got in close enough, it was time to actually communicate to their prey that they were in fact a piratical vessel. At that time, the Jolly Roger would go up. This wasn’t just pirate theatrics it was a cunning business plan at work, a vessel suitably scared by a terrifying black flag might not fight back.
Pirates were very keen on trying to reduce the cost of their piratical enterprise as much as possible. Because at the end of the day they were business people. Criminal business people, but they were business people nonetheless.
Pirates often wanted to avoid a violent melee with the ships that they attacked in order to keep their costs down, they wanted to take their prey as peacefully as possible. So pirates adopted a policy where they promised that any merchant ships who peacefully acquiesced to them the crew would live. The other option: They would basically kill everyone who resisted them.
Very media savvy
Terrifying merchant ships into submission only works if you have a suitably ominous reputation.
So when pirates did attack and plunder a ship, they would always make sure there were one or two survivors, they would then go back and tell the tale of what happens when you resist pirates and how fearsome this particular crew was and describe the flag in detail.
Pirates didn’t want their exploits known only on the docks and in the occasional bar but the
Pirates were very media savvy [Survivors] would also tell the tale to journalists and journalists would then dutifully report the fearsome experience that these merchant sailors described.
Pirates were aware that this stuff was being reported in the newspaper so they cultivated a particular public image.
Despite being among the most famous outlaws of all time, pirates operated according to a defined set of rules.
Simon says crew members had a democratic say in terms of how things were run.
Everyone had to put in a vote to make any major decisions. Pirate crews also made councils in order to determine what sort of appropriate punishments could be doled out. And no punishment could be done unless it had a unanimous vote.
Simon also says if a captain wasn’t doing a good job, they could be voted out, usually to be replaced with the second-in-command.
And crucially, pirates got equal shares in the spoils.
This kept people pretty happy, because they knew that they would always get the money they were owed and nothing would get withheld.
Pirates even had an early system of workers compensation, with the crew maintaining a central fund to help injured pirates.
Pirates would “first pull aside the amount from the spoils that was required to make insurance payments to pirates who had been injured in the line of work.
The end of the ‘golden age’
By the 1720s, things were starting to change.
There’s a few factors that end the golden age of piracy,
Britain had started conducting what became known as a ‘war on piracy’ at the turn of the 18th century Then Britain really ramped up its campaign.
Also, as the political map of the region changed, the British started to have a lot of governors in the Caribbean, in North America who were really being forced to really fight against pirates.
Then the British government started offering pardons to a lot of pirates in order to get them to stop pirating.These factors meant that it was just not very lucrative to be a pirate anymore.
By the 1730s, many pirates had taken a pardon and become “privateers”, which meant they were employed by various European governments to supplement their navies.
Then regular navies became more sizeable and more powerful, putting an end to the privateers.
The state started to have the monopoly on violence, on force, taking it out of the hands of private actors.
As the 18th century progressed, the seas largely transformed from lawlessness to order signalling the end of the once fearsome Jolly Roger.