The Jolly Roger flag is most readily identified with the golden age of piracy. But a number of different flags and designs were used, and not just the iconic skull and crossbones. 

The practice of flying a Jolly Roger flag first appeared in the 1710s. It signified that a pirate ship was about to attack. 


The Beginnings of the Jolly Roger Flag

There is some disagreement between historians about the history of the term “Jolly Roger.” The first use of the term in print appears in 1724 in Charles Johnson’s The General History of Pyrates. (The book is now attributed to Daniel Dafoe, who wrote Robinson Crusoe).

Some historians point to the French “joli rouge” as the name’s origin. There are others who believe the term “Roger” or “Old Roger,” comes from the common 18th-century nickname for the devil — and the grinning skull inspired the name.

Jolly Roger pirate flag
The classic Jolly Roger design. (Wikimedia Commons)

The red flag was used widely during the pirate era. A red flag would indicate that no quarter would be given 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 ships would display false colors as they approached unsuspecting targets. Once close, they would hoist the pirate flag to frighten ships into surrender. 

Pirates have been preying upon the seagoing merchant fleets since the earliest days of trade.

During the Roman Republic, the trade routes of the Aegean and Mediterranean were preyed upon by Cilician pirates. These pirates were not only tolerated by the Romans, but they also traded slaves with them. However, once the Cilicians threatened Rome’s grain supply in 67BC, they were severely dealt with.