The western world has recognized Jolly Roger – the mighty yet largely feared black flag hasa white skull on it with crossbones underneath it – as the symbol of pirates for more than three hundred years. This black flag once ruled the way and terrorized the people who were carrying goods for traders and merchants. The main purpose of this flag was to inculcate fear in people to the point that they would yield to the pirates, neat and quick. This purpose got satisfied most of the time and the pirates would come out successful in plundering with the help of this black flag. Jolly Roger has been flown by all pirates in fictional literature.
Looking at the history tells us that in around 1700, the British and British-American pirates were the primary users of this dark flag. Other pirates, however, either fought under the banner of their ruler or under the flag of the authority commanding their privateering mission. Sometimes the pirates would fly a country’s flag to show that their attack had been legalized inthat country, which was usually a pretense. Although surprising, it is true that the pirates were sometimes supervised and aided by government officials for their service and revenue generation. Some nations like the 17thcentury England, Barbary States and the Knights of Malta headed piracy missions for the sake of pirate booty. The flying of these nations' flags indicated that the ship's pirates recognized the state's laws and paid its due taxes.
The exact origin of Jolly Roger evades memory, but it probably goes back to the times when pirates would fly black flag to ask the other ship to surrender, or else they would fly a red flag, the Jolie Rogue, which in French meant ‘no quarter given’ symbolizing a ruthless treatment on part of pirates. That red flag when replaced the black one was a nightmare formany. It's very likely that it was this French term which gave birth to the phrase Jolly Roger.
Another possible theory is that in the second half of 17thcentury in England, the term ‘Rogue’ was in common use owing to the rogue laws which aimed at diminishing vagrancy. This became a slang and was used to refer to someone who begged or was a nomad. Added to this is another myth that Jolly Roger bore warning of the rage of the devil since the devilwas talked of as ‘Old Roger’.
The symbols on the pirate flags like skulls, crossbones or skeletons warned of death in the event if someone did not yield to the pirates. The inspiration for these symbols probably came from their use on gravestones at that time. Even more interesting was the use of hourglass on flags to indicate the victim that he was short of time, so he must surrender peacefully and quickly.
Moreover, the pirates wanted to show theirvalorand an unafraid soul, to depict which their flags carried symbols of the chief pirate merrily dancing with the dead skeleton or even toasting with it. They sometimes also conveyed the message of showing no mercy by drawing pierced hearts in their flags. Since symbolism was very common in those days, all the messages in symbols seemed very clear and could be easily fathomed. They did not need to hire someone for making their flags, either the captain or someone from the crew who knew his way through threads and needles performed this task.
This idea might have sparked in the heads of pirates to distinguish themselves from privateers or government by drawing symbols in the black flags, which the privateers and the government used to halt people by flying a black flag to give the message of ‘heaving to’ the authorities. The privateers wereauthorized to attack vessels were bound by a rule that they had to pardon the lives of a crew which surrendered to them, even if the surrender was after some resistance on the vessel crew's part. Traders and merchant ships were much prone to Boeing to the wishes of these ‘legitimate attackers' as compared to the pirates. The pirates, however, did not always bow down to their wishes and had the tendency to resist, since they were much more powerful and had the potential of causing a greater harm to the privateers or government ships than the ones that they were going to cause them. It was never wise to mess with an angry pirate since their anger could bring down devil's wrath upon these authorized attackers.
It was integral for the pirates to make a clean and quick job of attacking and plundering other ships. For this, it was crucial that the victim ship's crew and captain were aware of the fact that the attacking ship was truly that of pirates. It wasonly true pirates at that time who were courageous enough to put up and fly Jolly Roger proudly, giving off warning and spreading fear among their victims. This was a terrific psychological trick of warfare on the part of piratessince it clearly warned the opponents that they will be shown no mercy if they resisted the pirates and wasted their time in doing sobecause eventually, they were going to yield to the pirates.
This was a common practice for the pirates to show no mercy, but if a ship's crew offered no resistance and made the job of pirates easy for them then they would not torture the victims that much and might even go light on them so far that they would forgive them and pardon their lives. After all, the only thing pirates were interested in was the booty and prizes they would be getting from the other ship. When the job was done easily and smoothly, the pirates would be happy and a happy pirate was always better than a madly angry pirate, right? Jolly Roger made this easier by terrorizing the victims to the point that they would surrender at their earliest in the hope of shown mercy and be forgiven.