Black and Red Pirate Flags: A History and Exploration

As we think of pirates, one of the first things that come to mind is the image of the infamous Jolly Roger, a black and white flag donned atop a pirate ship. However, what about the lesser-known black and red pirate flags? What is the origin of these colors and why were they chosen to be represented on pirate flags? In this article, we will delve into the history of pirate flags and the significance of colors amongst pirates. We will also explore several theories behind the use of black and red on pirate flags, shedding light on this intriguing aspect of pirate culture.

The History of Pirate Flags

The History Of Pirate Flags
Pirate flags have been an integral part of pirate legends and folklore for centuries. The use of flags by pirates dates back to the 17th century and were used to intimidate, signal, and identify pirate ships. One of the most well-known pirate flags is the Jolly Roger, a symbol of piracy that strikes fear into the hearts of those who see it. Other examples of pirate flags include the Skull and Crossbones, symbolizing death, the Hourglass, representing the inevitability of time running out, and the Heart, symbolizing love of the pirate life. Each flag had its own unique meaning and purpose, adding to the mystique and feared reputation of the pirate. Theory suggests that pirates started using flags to distinguish themselves from the Royal Navy’s flags, which were used to signal and communicate with other ships. As piracy spread, so did the use of pirate flags, with each pirate crew designing their own unique flag to identify themselves and intimidate their enemies.

Origins of Pirate Flags

The origins of pirate flags traced back to ancient times when Greek and Roman ships flew flags to communicate with other ships. Later on, in the medieval period, knights flew flags to show who they were affiliated with. As piracy started to become more prevalent, pirates began to use their flags to strike fear into their enemies and build their reputation. In the early days of piracy, pirates would often steal flags from the ships they’d captured and use them as their own.

Eventually, pirates began to develop their own unique flags which would become known as Jolly Rogers. These flags would often feature symbols like crossed swords or bones, or an hourglass symbolizing that time was running out for their victims.

Some of the earliest accounts of pirate flags come from the 1600s, which featured red or black backgrounds with white designs. One such design was the skull and crossbones, which has become synonymous with piracy. The use of this symbol conveyed a message that they would show no mercy to their victims and was a clear signal for sailors to surrender.

The origins of pirate flags are steeped in centuries of history and tradition, and the flags themselves have become iconic symbols of piracy. They have evolved over time, taking on different designs, colors, and symbols, but they continue to fascinate and inspire to this day.

Colors Used in Pirate Flags

One of the most important aspects of pirate flags is the color scheme used. Typically, pirates opted for a black flag, but various other colors were also common. Red, white and blue were popular choices as well.

Black was an obvious choice because it made it easier for pirate ships to blend in with the dark of night. Red was thought to signify blood and death, which would instill fear in any onlookers. White, on the other hand, was a symbol of surrender. A white flag was often flown to show that a pirate ship would not attack or harm another vessel.

Some pirate flags also featured additional colors, such as gold or green. These colors were often used to add more cultural symbolism and meaning to the flag. For example, green could symbolize bounty, while gold represented wealth and riches.

The colors used on pirate flags played a significant role in pirate culture. They provided a visual message that could be understood by anyone who saw them. These colors helped to establish a pirate ship’s reputation and instill fear in other sailors, making them more likely to surrender or flee.

Evolution of Pirate Flags

The has been a long and fascinating process. As the Golden Age of piracy progressed, flags grew larger and more prominent. They were intended to intimidate, and as such, became more elaborate in their design.

Some early pirate flags featured plain designs like a solid red or black field, while others were more intricate like a skull and crossbones. As maritime laws developed, pirate flags became more standardized. The skull and crossbones design became more popular and was used by different pirate crews. Another popular design was a combination of a skull, crossbones, and an hourglass, symbolizing the fleeting nature of time.

Eventually, the pirate flag evolved to incorporate more elaborate designs, such as the famous Jolly Roger. This design is believed to have originated in the Caribbean, specifically among pirate crews operating in the Bahamas. The earliest known use of the Jolly Roger dates back to the early 1700s.

Over time, the Jolly Roger became more elaborate and varied. Some variations included a white skull and crossbones on a black field, while others featured additional images such as a heart or swords. These variations likely had different meanings to different pirate crews.

As piracy began to decline in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the use of pirate flags dwindled. Today, pirate flags are mostly used as a cultural symbol, often in a tongue-in-cheek way. However, the designs and images that emerged during the Golden Age of piracy continue to captivate and inspire people centuries later. For more information on the Jolly Roger, its history, and symbolism, visit our article on Jolly Roger Flag History and Symbolism.

The Meaning Behind the Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger is the most famous pirate flag in history, but its meaning is shrouded in mystery and misconceptions. According to some experts, the name Jolly Roger might come from a French term jolie rouge (pretty red), which was used to describe a red flag flown by privateers. The Jolly Roger was a black flag with a skull and crossbones symbol, which was designed to strike fear into the hearts of the pirates’ victims. However, the Jolly Roger had several variations, including a red version and a green version. The red Jolly Roger was reportedly flown by pirate captains who were willing to show no mercy to their enemies, while the green Jolly Roger was flown by pirates who offered quarter to those who surrendered. There are also theories that the Jolly Roger had symbolic meaning, with the skull representing death, the crossbones representing mortality, and the hourglass symbolizing the fleeting nature of life. Regardless of its exact meaning, the Jolly Roger has become an enduring symbol of piracy and rebellion and has inspired countless depictions in popular culture.

Historical Context of the Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger is a famous and iconic symbol associated with the golden age of piracy. It was a black flag with a white skull and crossbones design. The origins of the Jolly Roger can be traced back to the early 18th century when pirates began using various designs and symbols on their flags to intimidate their victims and strike fear into their hearts. The Jolly Roger, in particular, was used by notorious pirates such as Blackbeard and Calico Jack Rackham.

One theory behind the origin of the name “Jolly Roger” is that it comes from the French phrase Joli Rouge, which means “pretty red.” The enemy sailors would see the black flag with the white skull and crossbones and think that a lot of blood would be spilled, hence the reference to “red.”

However, there is also a theory that the name comes from the pirate Bartholomew Roberts, who flew a flag with the same design and was nicknamed “Black Bart.” According to legend, Roberts’ crew put together a set of articles or rules, one of which was that they would have a devil or a skeleton on their flags instead of a religious symbol, such as a cross. The articles reportedly referred to the skull and crossbones as “Jolly Roger.”

Regardless of the origin of its name, the Jolly Roger quickly became a well-recognized symbol of piracy. It was used not only to intimidate victims but also to signify that the pirate ship had no allegiance to any particular country or navy. The use of the Jolly Roger also allowed pirates to communicate with each other without betraying their true intentions to potential victims.

Although the Jolly Roger is the most famous and recognizable pirate flag, there were many other designs used by pirates. For example, some pirates flew a red flag with an hourglass on it, symbolizing that time was running out for their victims. Others used a heart symbol on their flags, possibly indicating a desire for love and treasure. Some of these other pirate flag designs can be seen at /pirate-flag-heart-symbolism/ and /hourglass-pirate-flags/.

The historical context of the Jolly Roger is centered around its use as a symbol of piracy and fear. It became an instantly recognisable icon of the Golden Age of Piracy and its design has inspired many other pirate flag designs in the centuries since its creation.

Symbolism of the Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger flag is one of the most recognizable symbols of piracy, but what many people don’t know is that it actually has a deeper meaning beyond just a skull and crossbones. The symbol itself was intended to communicate a message to other ships and communities that pirates encountered. Here are some of the key symbols in the Jolly Roger:

Symbol Meaning
Skull and Crossbones Most people associate this symbol with death. For pirates, it was a way of communicating that they were willing to fight to the death if necessary.
Skeleton Symbolized the pirates’ willingness to show no mercy, as the skeleton represents a lifeless body that has been picked clean.
Cutlass One of the primary weapons used by pirates. Symbolized the pirates’ readiness to engage in hand-to-hand combat.
Eyepatch While there is no historical evidence that pirates actually wore eyepatches, the symbol was used to communicate that the pirates had suffered a serious injury in battle and had earned their reputation as fierce fighters.
Horns Believed to represent the devil and warning other ships that the pirates had no allegiance to any government or religion.

The Jolly Roger was meant to convey a message of fear and terror to other ships. By using a combination of symbols that represented death, violence, and rebellion, pirates were able to strike fear into their enemies and compel them to surrender without a fight. If you want to learn more about pirate flags and the Jolly Roger in particular, check out our article on skull and crossbones pirate flags.

Variations of the Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger, with its skull and crossbones design, has become the quintessential symbol of the pirate. Over time, many variations of the Jolly Roger have emerged, with each design holding its own significance.

Here are some of the more notable variations of the Jolly Roger:

Variation Description
Plain Black Flag A simple black flag with no symbols or designs. This was a common design used by pirates in the early 1700s.
Hourglass Flag Also known as the “time’s up” flag, the hourglass symbolized that the intended victim had a limited time to surrender or be attacked.
Red or Blood Red Flag A flag with a red background was used by some pirates after the turn of the 18th century. Its meaning is uncertain, but it may have been a signal to immediate attack or it may have been a symbol of the pirate’s bloodthirstiness.
White Pirate Flag The white flag was used by some pirates to indicate that they intended to take no prisoners.
Calico Jack Flag This was the flag used by Calico Jack Rackham, a notorious pirate in the early 18th century. It featured a skull with crossed swords underneath.
Rackham’s Flag (also known as the Jolly Roger) Calico Jack’s most famous flag was the traditional pirate design of a skull and crossbones on a black background.

These variations of the Jolly Roger were used in a variety of ways by pirates. Some would use different flags depending on the intended target or situation, while others would stick with a certain design to establish their reputation. Regardless of the variation used, the Jolly Roger remains a powerful symbol of piracy and rebellion to this day.

Pirates and the Use of Color

Pirates And The Use Of Color
Pirates were known for their use of color in their flags, clothing, and accessories. The psychology of color played a significant role in pirate culture. The use of black, for example, was to strike fear in their enemies, as it was associated with death and darkness. Red was also a popular color, as it symbolized bloodshed and violence. However, beyond intimidation, color was also used for communication among pirates. Just like modern-day gangs, pirates used color to identify themselves and their affiliation. For instance, Calico Jack Rackham’s crew wore red coats and black pants, while Blackbeard’s crew donned black hats and coats. Pirates also used color to show rank and hierarchy, with captains often wearing more colorful and ornate clothing. Color played a vital role in pirate culture, going beyond aesthetics and serving purposes of communication and intimidation.

Psychology of Color in Pirate Culture

The psychology of color in pirate culture is a fascinating topic that sheds light on the mindset and behavior of pirates. Colors were not just arbitrary choices for pirate flags but were carefully selected to convey specific meanings and messages.

Black, for example, was not only chosen because it was associated with death and danger, but also because it made pirates more intimidating and terrifying to their targets. Black cloth was also commonly available and easy to obtain, which made it a practical choice for pirate flags.

Red, on the other hand, was often used to symbolize bloodshed and violence. The color red is known to evoke strong emotional responses, including anger and aggression, which made it an ideal color choice for pirates who wanted to strike fear into the hearts of their victims.

Another color that was commonly used in pirate culture was white, which represented surrender and mercy. Pirates would sometimes fly a white flag when they wanted to signal to their targets that they were willing to negotiate and spare their lives.

Interestingly, some pirates also believed in the power of certain colors to bring them good luck. For example, some pirates believed that wearing a red shirt into battle could protect them from harm, while others believed that green was a lucky color that could improve their fortunes at sea.

The psychology of color in pirate culture was a complex and nuanced topic that played a significant role in shaping the behavior and reputation of pirates. Colors were carefully selected not only for their symbolic meanings but also for their practical uses, making them an essential aspect of pirate culture.

Use of Color in Communication Among Pirates

The use of color was an important means of communication among pirates. With limited ability to communicate via written or spoken word, they used flags and symbols to convey messages. The color of a flag was one of the most important factors in this communication.

Black Flag:

A black flag was commonly used to signal an intention to attack. When a ship saw a black flag flying from an approaching vessel, they knew to prepare for a battle.

Red Flag:

A red flag was used to indicate that no quarter would be given and no mercy would be shown. This was a signal that the pirates intended to kill everyone on board the ship they were attacking.

White Flag:

A white flag was used to show surrender or a desire to parley. If a pirate ship saw a white flag flying from an approaching vessel, they knew that the crew was willing to negotiate.

Yellow Flag:

A yellow flag was used to indicate that a ship had been hit by disease. Any ship flying a yellow flag was to be avoided, as the crew may be carrying a contagion.

Green Flag:

A green flag was used to signal that a ship was carrying valuable cargo. Pirates would often use this signal to communicate with each other about the potential targets.

Color played a critical role in pirate communication. It allowed them to convey important messages without the need for extensive verbal communication. As such, flag choice became an important aspect of pirate culture.

The Origin of Black and Red on Pirate Flags

The origin of the black and red on pirate flags has been a topic of debate among historians and researchers. Several theories attempt to explain the use of these colors on pirate flags. The first theory suggests that black and red were chosen for their dark and deadly reputation. The color black symbolizes death, while red represents bloodshed and violence, which were common occurrences during pirate attacks. Another theory proposes that the practical reasons for black and red were the colors of choice because they were readily available and inexpensive to produce. Additionally, these colors were used in naval flags, which may have inspired pirates to use them as well. A third theory explores the symbolism of colors in pirate culture, where black represents piracy and red signifies the willingness to fight to the death. Whatever the reason may be, the use of black and red on pirate flags has become iconic and remains a symbol of piracy to this day.

Theory 1: Dark and Deadly Reputation

According to , the use of black and red on pirate flags is linked to their notorious reputation. Pirates were known for their violent and deadly methods, which often involved bloodshed. The color red was associated with danger and blood. On the other hand, black symbolized death and darkness. Combining both colors on the pirate flag sent a clear message to anyone who saw it – that the crew was dangerous, ruthless, and not to be messed with.

During the Golden Age of Piracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates not only robbed and plundered ships, but they also engaged in brutal acts of violence. This included killing and torturing crew members to get information or just for fun. They also had a reputation for leaving no survivors, which added to their fearsome image.

By using black and red on their flags, pirates were able to communicate their violent and terrifying reputation to potential victims and authorities alike. The stark contrast of the colors on the flag was eye-catching, and it was difficult to miss when a pirate flag was hoisted on the high seas.

However, not all pirates used black and red on their flags. Some had flags with different designs or colors, which could indicate their allegiance or specific pirate group. This suggests that while black and red may have been associated with pirate violence, it was not the only factor in designing a pirate flag. Other factors such as individual creativity, superstition, and practicality could have influenced the design of pirate flags.

While Theory 1: Dark and Deadly Reputation suggests that black and red were used on pirate flags to convey their violent and ruthless reputation, it may not have been the sole reason. Nonetheless, the use of black and red on pirate flags became a pervasive symbol of piracy during the Golden Age, inspiring fear and awe in equal measure.

Theory 2: Practical Reasons for Black and Red

One theory behind why black and red were commonly used in pirate flags is the practicality of these colors. Black could have been useful as it allowed pirates to blend in with the night or to hide in the shadows during a surprise attack. Using black sails and flags provided a tactical advantage in terms of being stealthy during nighttime raids. In addition, red dye was cheaper and more readily available than other colors at the time. It was also able to withstand harsh weather conditions, making it a practical choice for pirate flags which were exposed to the elements on ships for long periods of time.

Pirates were known for their resourcefulness and ability to take advantage of whatever materials were at their disposal. They would often capture merchant ships and steal their cargo, which could include fabric and dyes. Black and red could have been the most commonly available materials at the time, and therefore pirates turned to them to make their flags and sails.

Another practical reason why black and red were used in pirate flags was to intimidate their victims. Pirates wanted to strike fear into the hearts of those they were attacking, and the bold, striking colors of black and red were able to accomplish this. The flags were also designed to be easily recognizable from a distance, so that potential targets would know immediately that they were dealing with pirates.

While this theory may not fully explain why black and red were used in pirate flags, it provides some logical reasoning behind their practicality and effectiveness. The combination of practicality and intimidation likely contributed to the widespread use of black and red in pirate flags, as they provided both a tactical advantage and a way to strike fear into the hearts of those they were attacking.

Theory 3: Inspiration from Naval Flags

As per the third theory, the inspiration behind the use of black and red color on pirate flags came from naval flags. The military had been using flags to identify their ships and to send messages across the sea long before pirates started using them. The military would often use black flags to represent death, while red flags represented bloodshed. When pirates would attack ships, they would often confiscate naval flags from them. With time, pirates started making modifications to these flags to make them their own.

There is a possibility that pirates used red and black because they were the colors used in enemy flags, so using these colors would help disguise their identity and make it easier to sneak up on other ships. In addition to this, the use of black could symbolize the nighttime and their preference for attacking under the cover of darkness.

The naval influence on the Jolly Roger also cannot be ignored. The skull and crossbones symbol was used by the military to represent death and danger. Pirates may have taken that symbol and used it as their own to intimidate their prey.

While there is no concrete evidence to support this theory, it is an intriguing possibility. The use of black and red in military flags may have served as an inspiration to pirates to use these colors in their own unique way.

Theory 4: Symbolism of Colors in Pirate Culture

Theory 4 suggests that the color choices on pirate flags were not based on practical reasons, but rather on the symbolism behind the colors. Red has long been associated with danger and passion, while black has been associated with death and darkness. These symbols were prevalent in pirate culture, and so it makes sense that they would choose to use them on their flags.

There are a few different interpretations of the symbolism of the colors in pirate culture. Some suggest that the black represents death and the end of the old life, while the red represents the blood spilled during a pirate raid, and the birth of the new life. This interpretation ties in with the idea of piracy as a way of escaping the strict social hierarchy and oppression of the government and naval authorities.

Another interpretation suggests that the black represents the unknown and the danger that comes with piracy, while the red represents the passion and daring that drive pirates to risk their lives on the high seas. This interpretation ties in with the idea of pirates as rebels and outcasts who reject the norms of society and live by their own rules.

It’s also worth noting that the combination of black and red has been used in other contexts throughout history to signify danger or warning. For example, the black and red flag was flown by the French navy in the 18th and 19th centuries to indicate that a ship was not to be trusted.

The symbolism of the colors in pirate culture is complex and multifaceted. While the choice of black and red on pirate flags may have been influenced by practical considerations such as visibility and intimidation, it’s clear that the symbolism of these colors played an important role in pirate culture and helped to craft the image of piracy that exists in popular culture today.

Pros Cons
The use of symbolism added depth and meaning to pirate flags. Theory 4 is based on interpretation and speculation rather than definitive historical evidence.
The black and red color combination was already established as a warning sign in other contexts. The use of symbolism may have been a secondary consideration to practical concerns such as visibility.
Pirate culture was heavily influenced by rebellion and non-conformity, making symbolism a natural fit. Without definitive historical evidence, it’s difficult to say for certain what motivated pirates to choose black and red as their colors.


After exploring the history, meaning, and use of pirate flags and the significance of black and red in pirate culture, it’s clear that the origins of black and red on pirate flags are complex and multifaceted. While there are several theories about why black and red were chosen, no definitive answer can be ascertained. It’s possible that pirate flags with black and red were inspired by naval flags, symbolized the dark and deadly reputation of pirates, or were chosen for practical reasons such as being easy to make or maintain.

What is certain, however, is that the Jolly Roger and other pirate flags continue to capture our imagination and fascination with their bold designs and mysterious symbolism. The use of color in pirate culture further highlights the creativity and resourcefulness of these seafaring criminals who relied on nonverbal communication and intimidation tactics to survive.

While piracy may seem like a relic of the past, the impact of pirates on popular culture remains as strong as ever. From the swashbuckling tales in literature and film to the iconic symbols that pirates created, these historical figures continue to inspire and entertain us.

In conclusion, the origins of black and red on pirate flags may never be fully understood, but their impact on our culture and imagination is undeniable. The legacy of pirates and their flags will continue to be celebrated and examined by historians and enthusiasts alike.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How did pirates come up with the idea of using flags?

Pirates used flags to intimidate their enemies. They did not want to waste time engaging in a battle with ships that they could easily overpower. Instead, they flew their infamous flags as a warning sign to other ships.

2. What is the most popular color used in pirate flags?

Black is the most common color used in pirate flags. It represents death, danger, and rebellion, which were characteristics of pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries.

3. Did all pirate flags have the same design?

No, pirate flags varied in design and symbolism. Some were simple black flags with skull and crossbones, while others had intricate designs with multiple symbols. Each pirate flag had its own meaning and represented the crew that flew it.

4. What was the purpose of the Jolly Roger?

The Jolly Roger was a specific pirate flag with a skull and crossbones design. It served as a warning to other ships that the pirates were ruthless and would show no mercy. The Jolly Roger was also used to intimidate captive crews during pirate raids.

5. Why did pirates use black and red on their flags?

There are multiple theories as to why pirates use black and red on their flags. Some suggest that the colors represented death and bloodshed, while others believe it was to intimidate their enemies. It is also possible that pirates were inspired by naval flags and used similar color schemes.

6. What is the psychology of color in pirate culture?

The psychology of color in pirate culture is complex. Black represents danger and rebellion, while red symbolizes blood and death. Together, they create a powerful image of fear and intimidation that pirates used to their advantage.

7. Did pirates use flags for communication among their crews?

Yes, pirates used flags for communication among their crews. They would raise specific flags to signal different messages, such as calling for a vote or signaling an attack.

8. What inspired the variation in Jolly Roger designs?

The variation in Jolly Roger designs was inspired by different pirate crews and their individual symbolism. Some crews added swords and daggers to their design to represent their strength, while others included hourglasses to symbolize the fleeting nature of life.

9. Was there a specific pirate who invented the flag?

There is no specific pirate who invented the flag. The use of flags dates back to ancient times, and pirates adopted their use as a means of communication and intimidation.

10. Are pirate flags still used today?

Pirate flags are not used today by modern pirates. However, they remain a popular symbol of piracy and are often used in movies, books, and other forms of media to represent the pirate lifestyle.


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