Perhaps no symbol is more iconic than the eerie skull and crossbones of a Jolly Roger flag or pirate flag as it is often referred to. There is more to this infamous image than meets the eye; for the flag of a pirate was far more complex than what popular culture portrays. Here's some interesting flag facts and trivia about pirate flags that you might not know!
Pirates Used Flags to be Sneaky
The pirate flag was not flown at all times. Pirate ships would fly flags of other nations to trick incoming vessels, and when the ships were close enough, only then would the crew raise their Jolly Roger as a warning to surrender.
Execution Due to Flag-Ownership
Can you imagine a flag being so influential and feared that a person could be sentenced to death just by owning one? During the Golden Age of Piracy, simply owning a pirate flag was illegal. Since there was no reason for someone who wasn't a pirate to own the flag, the individual in question would be assumed a pirate, a crime for which the punishment was death.
Before the Skull and Crossbones
Early versions of pirate flags were actually solid red or black. Privateers would traditionally fly a red flag to let incoming ships know they were not associated with the Royal Navy. Since many of these privateers eventually became pirates, it was only natural that they would choose to keep the red flag. Pirates were known to use red flags as a sign that they would show no mercy to their enemies.
Black flags, on the other hand, were a more welcoming sight to the pirates' victims. Although being attacked by pirates was never a good thing, a black flag signified that the pirates would allow their victims a peaceful surrender.
Pirates Had Personalized Flags
We're all familiar with the skull and crossbones, but did you know there were multiple renditions of pirate flags? Almost every pirate ship had a unique flag design suited to the captain's particular taste, and it was extremely rare for two pirates to have the same flag. With the most common symbols being skulls and skeletons, other popular themes were blood, swords, and hourglasses (symbolizing the enemy's incoming death). All struck fear in their victims, making them more likely to surrender their booty.