The Evolution of Pirate Flags Throughout History

Pirates have long been romanticized in popular culture as daring, swashbuckling rebels who plundered the high seas. One of the most iconic symbols associated with pirates is their distinctive flag. Pirate flags have evolved greatly throughout their history, reflecting the changing times, tactics, and personalities of the swashbucklers who used them. From the early days of piracy to the Golden Age and beyond, these ominous banners have struck fear into the hearts of sailors and civilians alike. In this article, we will explore the fascinating evolution of pirate flags throughout history, from the simple red flag to Blackbeard’s terrifying Skull and Crossbones. Let’s set sail and discover the secrets behind these infamous symbols of piracy.

The Early Days of Piracy

The Early Days Of Piracy
The earliest days of piracy were a tumultuous time, with no clear standard for pirate flags. While some pirates flew the red flag, symbolizing a willingness to show no mercy in battle, others opted for the black flag, signifying a more menacing intent. However, it wasn’t until the Jolly Roger was introduced that a truly iconic symbol for piracy was created. The Jolly Roger was a black flag with a white skull and crossbones in the center, striking fear into the hearts of any ship it came across. Despite its popularity, the Jolly Roger wasn’t the only design utilized by pirates in these early years. To learn more about the history and meaning behind some of the first pirate flags, check out Symbolism of Pirate Flags.

The First Pirate Flags

The first known pirate flag was flown by a French pirate named Jean Thomas Dulaien, also known as Brilliana. This flag was flown in the late 17th century and consisted of a red background with a silver hourglass in the center. The hourglass represented the limited time the enemy ship had to surrender or be attacked.

Another early pirate flag was the “No Quarter” flag, depicted a skull on a black background with an arm holding a sword. This flag indicated that the pirates would show no mercy to their enemies, and no quarter would be given.

Some pirates also used simple “Red flags” as their symbols, as it would signal to other ships that they were hostile. On the other hand, “White flags” were universally accepted as a sign of surrender.

These early pirate flags were often designed to intimidate and strike fear into their opponents, but they lacked the clear messages and symbolism that later pirate flags would become known for.

Despite the lack of consistent flag designs at that time, the use of flags was an important part of pirate communication. Flying a particular flag could be used to signal other pirates, to deceive other ships into thinking they were friendly ships, or to threaten and intimidate those they intended to attack.

There are many stories and legends associated with the early pirate flags, making them fascinating pieces of pirate history. For more information on famous pirate captains and their flags, see famous pirate captain’s flags.

The Red Flag

The Red Flag was one of the earliest pirate flags used during the early days of piracy. This flag served as a warning for the victims to surrender without a fight. The red color symbolized bloodshed and implied that if the targets resisted, they would face violence and death. The red flag was simple and easily recognizable. It consisted of a plain red field, often with no emblem or symbol. However, some variations of the flag included images of white bones or a skull and crossbones in black.

One famous pirate known to have used the red flag was the Welsh pirate Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart. Roberts’ version of the red flag featured an image of himself holding a flaming sword with the letters “ABH” and “AMH” on either side. This stood for “A Barbadian’s Head” and “A Martinican’s Head,” which were the names of the two ships he captured to obtain this flag.

Although the red flag was commonly used by pirates, it had various meanings in navy ships. It was flown as a signal for imminent engagement, particularly when the ship is about to engage in battle. It was also used as a symbol of no mercy in some navies.

The red flag may not be as well-known as the Jolly Roger or the Skull and Crossbones; however, it was an essential element in the development of pirate flags. Its message was stern and to the point. There are many stories and myths surrounding pirate flags, and the red flag is certainly one of them. If you’re interested in learning more about pirate flags and their significance, you may want to check out the Pirate Flags in Pop Culture section of this article.

The Black Flag

The Black Flag is one of the most iconic symbols of piracy. While it is commonly associated with piracy, it was not actually used by pirates until the early 18th century. It was originally used by the French as a symbol of “no mercy” during naval battles. The black flag was a symbol that no quarter would be given, and no prisoners would be taken. This was a terrifying prospect for enemy sailors, as they knew they were in for a fight to the death.

However, over time, the black flag became associated with piracy, and it was the pirate Jolly Roger that it became most closely associated with. The black flag was a simple design, with a skull and crossbones symbolizing the death and danger that pirates represented. It was a warning to other ships to surrender or face the consequences.

The black flag was not just a symbol of terror, it was also a means of communication. Pirates would fly different flags to communicate different messages to other ships. For example, the black flag with a white skull and crossbones was a sign that the pirates would show no mercy and that the crew of the other ship should surrender immediately. This was a clear message that piracy was not just about treasure and loot, it was about power and control.

The use of the black flag reached its zenith during the Golden Age of Piracy, and it was used by many of the most infamous pirates of the time such as Bartholomew Roberts, Black Bart, and Calico Jack Rackham. However, the end of the Golden Age of Piracy also meant the end of the black flag’s reign. As nations began to crack down on piracy, the black flag became less common, and pirates began using different flags to evade capture and prosecution.

Today, the black flag remains an enduring symbol of piracy, and it is often used in popular culture to represent danger and risk. Whether it is flying on the high seas or appearing on t-shirts and posters, the black flag will always be a reminder of the lawlessness and adventure of the pirate life.

The Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger is the most well-known pirate flag throughout history. The name itself is derived from the French word “jolie rouge” meaning “pretty red,” which was the term used to describe a red flag flown by privateers when they wanted to negotiate with their prey. This inspired the use of “Jolly Roger” to describe the black pirate flag with a skull and crossbones on it.

The Jolly Roger was mainly used during the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It was used by pirates to intimidate their enemies and communicate their intentions. The skull and crossbones symbolized death, warning those who saw it that the pirates meant business and were not to be taken lightly.

There are many variations of the Jolly Roger flag. Some have additional symbols, such as hourglasses or spears, while others have a different design altogether, such as the “Jolly Roger with crossed swords.” However, the most well-known version is the classic black flag with a white skull and crossbones in the center.

Despite its fame, the Jolly Roger was not the only flag used by pirates. In fact, many pirates didn’t use a specific flag at all. Instead, they would fly different flags depending on the situation, such as the English flag to lull their prey into a false sense of security before attacking.

Regardless, the Jolly Roger remains an iconic symbol of piracy even to this day. Its use has been romanticized in movies and literature, becoming emblematic of the pirate lifestyle. It has even been adapted for use in modern culture, appearing on products from t-shirts to calendars.

If you want to learn more about the role of pirate flags in communication, check out our article on pirate flag communication. Or, if you’re interested in infamous pirate flag stories, take a look at our article on infamous pirate flag stories. Lastly, if you’re curious about the fate of pirate flags after the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, our article on the fate of pirate flags may provide more information.

The Golden Age of Piracy

The Golden Age of Piracy was a time when some of the most infamous pirates roamed the sea. This era, which spanned from the late 17th century to the early 18th century, saw the rise of pirate captains who terrorized the seas with their daring attacks on wealthy merchant ships. One of the most recognizable pirate flags from this era was the flag of Blackbeard, which featured a horned skeleton holding an hourglass and a spear. Other notable pirate flags from this time included the Pirate Round’s red flag with a white arm holding a cutlass, and the Hearts of Oak’s black flag with a red heart and white wings. The Golden Age of Piracy saw the most advanced and unique pirate flags that conveyed fear androgyny and boldness.

Blackbeard’s Flag

Blackbeard, the notorious pirate who roamed the seas during the “Golden Age of Piracy,” had a flag that was just as fearsome as he was. The flag featured a white skeleton holding an hourglass, with three drops of blood dripping from the bottom.

The meaning behind this flag was clear – time was running out for those who stood in Blackbeard’s way. The hourglass represented the inevitable passage of time, while the three drops of blood were said to represent the number of victims Blackbeard had claimed in his latest conquest.

Many historians believe that Blackbeard’s flag was intended to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies and intimidate them into surrender without a fight. It was also a useful way for other pirates to identify him and know to steer clear.

Blackbeard’s flag was just one of the many iconic pirate flags from the Golden Age of Piracy. But its gruesome imagery and ominous warning made it one of the most memorable. Even today, it remains a popular symbol of piracy and is often used in movies, TV shows, and other forms of pop culture to evoke the spirit of the infamous pirate.

The Pirate Round

The Pirate Round:

The Pirate Round was a circumnavigation taken by infamous pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy. It was known by the pirates as the “Eastern Adventure”. The goal was to avoid the Royal Navy in the Caribbean and attack the East India Trading Company’s ships in the Indian Ocean. The voyage typically lasted around 18 months to two years.

The Pirate Round was not an organized operation, but rather a series of expeditions undertaken by various pirate crews. These pirates included Henry Every, Thomas Tew, William Kidd, and Edward England. The Pirate Round allowed them to target the richly laden ships of the East India Company, which carried gold, silver, silk, and spices from India and the Far East.

During the Pirate Round, many pirates flew their own unique flags. For example, Thomas Tew flew a red flag with a white arm and a cutlass, while William Kidd flew a black flag with a skull and crossbones. The Pirate Round was a dangerous journey for the pirates, as many were lost at sea or executed upon capture.

Despite the risks, the Pirate Round was a success for many of the pirates who undertook the journey. They were able to amass significant wealth by looting the East India Company’s ships. The Pirates’ success prompted the British to take action to protect their interests in the East. They established the Bombay Marine, a naval force to protect their ships from pirate attack. This resulted in the loss of the pirates’ base of operations and the end of the Pirate Round.

The Hearts of Oak

During the Golden Age of Piracy, the Hearts of Oak was a pirate flag that was used by several different pirate crews. This flag was characterized by a red background and a white oak tree in the middle with the letters “H.O.” on either side of it.

The origins of the Hearts of Oak flag are not well documented, but it is believed that it was named after a British naval song of the same name. The song was written in the mid-18th century and referred to the sturdy oak trees that were used to build British warships. It is possible that pirates began using this flag as a way to mock the British navy, or to show their own strength and resilience.

The Hearts of Oak flag was used by several notable pirates, including Samuel Bellamy and Edward England. Bellamy was known for his charismatic leadership style and his successful career as a pirate, which included capturing more than 50 ships in just one year. England, on the other hand, was known for his brutality and his use of the Hearts of Oak flag to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies.

The Hearts of Oak flag was also used by the pirate crews that operated in the Caribbean during the 18th century. These pirates were known as the “Brethren of the Coast” and they were a loose confederation of pirates who worked together to carry out successful raids on Spanish and British ships.

The Hearts of Oak flag was a symbol of strength and resilience. It represented the pirate’s ability to face adversity head-on, just like the sturdy oak trees that were used to build warships. Even today, the Hearts of Oak flag is still recognized as one of the most iconic symbols of piracy during the Golden Age of Piracy.

Pirate Flags Beyond the Golden Age

After the golden age of piracy, many new and interesting pirate flags emerged. One of the most distinctive ones was the Yellow Flag, which had a picture of a yellow-colored ship with a black crew on it. This flag was used by pirate captains to warn other vessels that they had an infectious disease onboard. Another notable flag was the Brethren of the Coast flag, which was used by a group of pirates who formed an alliance in the Caribbean. It featured a skull and crossed cutlasses on a black background with the words “ABH” and “AMH” written on it, standing for “A Brotherhood of the Coast” and “A Master of the High Seas” respectively. Lastly, the Skull and Crossbones in Popular Culture flag became synonymous with pirates and continues to be a popular symbol in modern times.

The Yellow Flag

During the Age of Sail, a yellow flag with a red-coloured image of a snake was used by pirates to indicate that they had been bitten, likely by a member of their crew, and any ship they encountered should proceed with caution. This practice was believed to have originated in the Caribbean, where poisonous snakes were common. The yellow flag was also used as a signal of quarantine in times of illness aboard a ship.

One famous pirate who used the yellow flag was Captain Kidd. In 1698, Kidd sailed into the Caribbean with a crew of over 150 men. He had a yellow flag with the image of a winking skull and crossbones sewn onto it. This flag was flown in Kidd’s ship, the Adventure Galley, as he plundered ships in the region. The yellow flag with the snake was also flown by Kidd’s crew, likely as a warning to other ships to stay away from them.

Interestingly, the use of a yellow flag to signify disease quarantine also has origins that date back to ancient times. During the Black Death outbreak in Europe in the mid-14th century, ships arriving at port were required to fly a yellow flag if they had any cases of the disease on board. This practice carried over to the New World and was used during outbreaks of yellow fever and other illnesses.

In modern times, the yellow flag is commonly used in motorsports, particularly in auto racing, as a signal to indicate caution. When the yellow flag is raised, drivers must slow down and prepare to stop if necessary. The use of the yellow flag in this context likely derives from its historical use as a cautionary signal in maritime activities.

The history of the yellow flag is intriguing as it has been used for a variety of purposes, from warning of poison and illness, to indicating a pirate’s dangerous presence, and now as a signal for caution in motorsports. Its legacy continues to be felt in the world today.

The Brethren of the Coast

The Brethren of the Coast were a group of pirates who operated in the Caribbean Sea during the late 17th century. They were known for their democratic and egalitarian system of governance, which was a departure from the hierarchical systems used by other pirate crews.

One of the ways they showcased their unity and solidarity was through the use of a shared flag. The Brethren of the Coast flag featured a picture of a man wearing a hat with a sword in one hand and a skull in the other. Below the image was the phrase “A Pirate’s Life for Me”. This flag was meant to symbolize the camaraderie and brotherhood that existed among the pirates.

The Brethren of the Coast were not just a group of pirates, but also a loose confederation of like-minded individuals who valued freedom, independence and the pursuit of wealth. To maintain these ideals, they enforced strict rules and regulations that governed their behavior, including distribution of loot and resolution of disputes.

The Brethren of the Coast were also known for their use of camouflage and disguises to evade capture. They would often fly false flags or dress up as merchants to get close to their targets undetected. This strategy allowed them to launch surprise attacks that often resulted in the seizure of valuable cargo.

Despite their reputation for being ruthless pirates, the Brethren of the Coast were also renowned for their legendary parties and celebrations. They would often hold elaborate feasts and festivities to celebrate their victories and boost morale among the crew.

The Brethren of the Coast were a unique group of pirates whose flag symbolized their values of unity, democracy, and the pursuit of wealth and adventure. Their legacy has inspired countless pirate stories and continues to captivate the imaginations of people around the world.

The Skull and Crossbones in Popular Culture

The skull and crossbones have become a symbol of piracy that’s recognized worldwide, but it’s not just limited to the high seas. Its use has also extended into popular culture, including movies, TV shows, and literature.

Movies: One of the most well-known examples of the skull and crossbones in movies is in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. This movie series has brought the infamous Jolly Roger to the big screen. The iconic black flag with the skull and crossbones is seen on the mast of the Black Pearl and other pirate ships featured in the movies.

TV Shows: The television industry has also capitalized on the popularity of the skull and crossbones. One example is the popular children’s show “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.” The main antagonist of the show, Captain Hook, has a ship with his own version of the Jolly Roger flag, featuring his own likeness and colors.

Literature: The pirate flag has also made its way into literature. A classic example is from the novel “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson. The protagonist, Jim Hawkins, describes the Jolly Roger as “a black flag with a white death’s head on it.” This image has become synonymous with piracy and is a staple in pirate-themed literature.

Popular culture has taken the pirate flag from its origins on the high seas and brought it into the mainstream. Its use as a symbol of danger and lawlessness has made it a popular choice for movies, TV shows, and literature. The skull and crossbones have transcended the world of piracy and have become a cultural icon.


The evolution of pirate flags throughout history is a fascinating topic that offers a glimpse into the world of seafaring outlaws. From the simple red and black flags of the early pirate days to the iconic Jolly Roger and Blackbeard’s skull and crossbones, these flags were not just symbols of piracy, but also of rebellion and resistance against the established order.

Throughout the Golden Age of Piracy, pirate flags became more elaborate, reflecting the growing power and influence of these seafaring outlaws. The Pirate Round, the Hearts of Oak, and Blackbeard’s flag were just a few of the many pirate flags that were flown during this period.

Even after the Golden Age of Piracy had ended, pirate flags continued to be flown by various groups and individuals. The Yellow Flag was used by pirates in the Mediterranean, while the Brethren of the Coast flew the Jolly Roger during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Today, the skull and crossbones remains a popular symbol of piracy and rebellion in popular culture. It has been used in movies, books, and even as a logo for sports teams. The history and legacy of pirate flags continue to capture the imagination of people all over the world, providing a glimpse into a bygone era of seafaring adventure and lawlessness.

In conclusion, the evolution of pirate flags throughout history is a testament to the ingenuity and creativity of seafaring outlaws. These flags were not just symbols of piracy, but also of resistance and rebellion against the established order. The legacy of these flags continues to capture the imagination of people all over the world, reminding us of a time when the high seas were ruled by swashbuckling pirates and adventure awaited around every corner.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the origin of the term “Jolly Roger”?

The origin of the term “Jolly Roger” is unsure. Some believe it’s derived from “Old Roger,” a nickname for the devil, while others believe it’s from a French or Spanish term such as “joli rouge” or “jolie rouge” meaning pretty red which referred to a red pirate flag.

Did all pirates use black flags?

No, not all pirates used black flags. Some used red or yellow flags depending on their beliefs or affiliations. The use of black flags became popular among pirates during the golden age of piracy in the 1710s and 1720s.

What was the significance of the different colors in pirate flags?

The colors in pirate flags often represented different things. Red flags were used to indicate no mercy, while yellow flags symbolized plague or illness on board. Black flags, on the other hand, signaled that the ship being attacked would not be shown any mercy and that the pirates intended to kill or capture everyone on board.

Who designed Blackbeard’s flag?

There are no records about who designed Blackbeard’s flag, but it’s believed that it was either designed by him or one of his crew members. The flag featured a horned skeleton holding a spear with an hourglass in one hand and a heart in the other.

What was the significance of Blackbeard’s flag?

Blackbeard’s flag was designed to intimidate and strike fear into his enemies. The horned skeleton symbolized death, while the hourglass represented the limited time the crew had to surrender or face their impending doom. The heart represented the pirates’ love for treasure and their willingness to do anything to obtain it.

Who were the Brethren of the Coast?

The Brethren of the Coast were a group of pirates who worked together in the Caribbean during the late 1600s and early 1700s. They were known for their democracy and unity, as they shared loot and made decisions together. They flew a red flag with a white skull and crossbones.

Why did pirates use flags at all?

Pirates used flags to announce their presence and intentions to other ships. They were also used to intimidate and strike fear into those they were attacking. Using a flag was a way for pirates to establish their identity, as well as their reputation for being ruthless and feared.

What was the Pirate Round?

The Pirate Round was a route taken by many pirates in the 1690s and early 1700s which took them from the coast of West Africa to the Indian Ocean. The route allowed pirates to attack and loot numerous ships on the way, making it a popular choice for those looking to make a fortune on the high seas.

What was the Hearts of Oak flag?

The Hearts of Oak was a flag used by the pirate Henry Every during his time as a pirate. The flag featured three images: an arm holding a sword, a heart, and a hand holding a goblet. It was said to represent Every’s love of fighting, treasure, and drinking.

Why did pirates stop using flags?

Pirates stopped using flags as naval authorities became increasingly successful in cracking down on piracy. The use of a flag made it easier for authorities to identify and track down pirates, so many decided to abandon the practice altogether.


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