A Brief History of the Jolly Roger

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One of the most common symbols we see today is The Jolly Roger, which is found on children’s toys, holiday decorations, and even sports team logos, such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and which replaced the crossbones with swords and a football to represent their team in a unique way.

While it is very common to see the traditional white skull and crossbones on the black background, many people do not know the history of the iconic flag. This version, however, is not the only variation of the flag there is.

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An early version of the flag, usually attributed to Blackbeard, shows a skeletal demon and a heart. The figure is shown holding a cup in its right hand, and a spear in its left, aiming it at a heart, which meant a torturous death. The cup indicates him toasting the devil, while the three red dots below the heart represent three blood drops. Similar flags to Blackbeard’s were allegedly flown by Edward Lowe, an English pirate, and Francis Spriggs, another British pirate.

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John Quelch, an English pirate, had a profitable but very brief career of only one year. An old myth says that John Quelch flew a pirate flag called “Old Roger.” This flag, attributed to John Quelch and John Phillips, depicts a figure in the middle, piercing a heart on one side with a spear dripping with blood and holding an hourglass on the other. Coexisting descriptions of Phillips’ flag match this design; however, there is an insufficient amount of information saying John Quelch actually used this design himself, indicating his theme was borrowed by Blackbeard – but this myth has yet to be proven.

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Edward Lowe, mentioned above as an English pirate, was also known for being vicious, savage, and brutal. Lowe was known as a thief at an early age.  His flag, unlike John Quelch’s and Blackbeard’s, revealed a blood red skeleton on a black flag. He flew his very first flag in late July 1723.

Since Edward Lowe – who was born into poverty in Westminster, London – had so much built-up anger and guilt, he decided one day to pull out his loaded musket out of frustration. But, instead of the bullet aiming for the captain, which was his intention, it struck another pirate, puncturing his throat and killing him instantly.

After their failed attempt, Lowe and his crew were forced to leave the ship, but that didn’t stop them. Edward Lowe, Francis Spriggs, and the rest of the crew stole another ship, which resulted in killing another man. After all of the destruction that was caused, the sailors became angry and evil, resulting in Edward Lowe’s version of the Jolly Roger.

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Bartholomew Roberts was a Welsh pirate known for raiding ships off the Americas and West Africa between 1719 and 1722. Roberts, also known as Black Bart, (which name was never used in his lifetime), was the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Roberts’ flag symbolized himself standing on two skulls. The skulls represented the heads of a Barbadian and a Martiniquan. The letters under the figure, ABH, stood for “A Barbadians Head,” while AMH stood for “A Martiniquan’s Head.”

The Caribbean Islands of Barbados and Martinique  were eager to see Roberts’ life come to an end after he captured the Governor of Martinique in 1720 and hung him from the mast. Roberts was killed in the battle against Captain Chaloner Ogle of the HMS Swallow, by grapeshot, which struck him in the throat while on the ship. Many people considered Bartholomew Roberts invincible. Some even considered him a hero.

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John “Jack” Rackham was an English pirate operating in the Bahamas and Cuba during the early 18th century. Rackham got his nickname “Calico Jack” from the clothing that he wore. It was made from brightly colored Indian Calico cloth. His version of the Jolly Roger is arguably the most iconic version of the flag.

His flag, just like the original, had the white skull on the black background, but instead had two swords crossing each other underneath. Calico Jack and his crew were convicted of piracy and sentenced to hang on November 16, 1720 at an Admiralty court in St. Jago de la Vega, Jamaica. He was hung on November 18, 1720 at Gallows Point in Port Royal. Eventually his body was taken down and hung in chains from a gibbet, or a gallows.

These are just five examples of different pirate flags that exist. But there are still theories on where the term “Jolly Roger” came from. The first and most likely theory says the term comes from the French word for the red flag “Joli Rouge” which means “pretty red.” The name could have been mispronounced and stayed when the red pirate flag switched to black.

The second theory says that the term comes from a derivation of the word rouge, which means “thief.”

The third theory says it comes from a derivation from the old English term “Old Roger,” which is slang for “The Devil.”

The last theory, which is also the most unlikely theory, says the term “Jolly Roger” came from King Roger II of Sicily. It implies that King Roger was the first person to actually fly the classic skull and crossbones flag, resulting in it being named after him.

 

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