The Jolly Roger and its not-so-merry origins

Published:

Tuesday, 7/1/2014 2:14pm

Visitors to this year’s Pirates of the Hudson event at the Tarrytown Music Hall and Philipsburg Manor will see plenty of skulls and crossbones – a highly recognizable emblem known as the Jolly Roger that's been associated with pirates for more than 300 years.  But where does this distinctive image come from? Who was Roger?

Not surprisingly, the history is a bit complicated.

We now think of a ship flying a black flag with the skull and crossed bones when imagining pirates in the high seas. However, in the 18th century, pirate flags were just as likely to be red as black. A plain red flag signified that no life would be spared if a fight broke out during the pirates’ attempt to capture a ship, whereas a black flag meant that quarter may be given. Many pirate vessels displayed false colors as they approached unsuspecting targets, and once close, hoisted the pirate flag to frighten ships into surrender.

Specific ships and captains employed a variety of other motifs on flags such as the clenched fist, the hourglass, and the sword to symbolize might and inspire fear. Flag makers adopted the skull and crossbones from ships’ logs, where the motif often appears representing a death on board. It’s no wonder that such a powerful image came into common use to strike fear into the hearts of unsuspecting targets.

The first use of the term “Jolly Roger” in print appears in 1724 in Charles Johnson’s The General History of Pyrates (now attributed to Daniel Dafoe). Some scholars believe the term is an Anglicization of the French “joli rouge” name for the terrible red flag. Others think the term “Roger” or “Old Roger” – a common 18th-century nickname for the devil – and the grinning skull inspired the name. Regardless of its origins, pirates raised their versions of the Jolly Roger long before the name entered popular use. 

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