The Jolly Roger is the name given to any of various flags flown to identify a ship’s crew as pirates. The flag most usually identified as the Jolly Roger today is the skull and crossbones, being a flag consisting of a skull above two long bones set in an x-mark arrangement on a black field. This design was used by four pirates- captains Edward England, John Taylor, Sam Bellamy and John Martel. Despite its appearance in popular culture, plain black flags were often employed by most pirates in the 17th-18th century.
Historically, the flag was flown to frighten pirates’ victims into surrendering without a fight, since it conveyed the message that the attackers were outlaws who would not consider themselves bound by the usual rules of engagement — and might, therefore, slaughter those they defeated. The same message was sometimes conveyed by a red flag.
Since the decline of piracy, various military units have used the Jolly Roger, usually in skull-and-crossbones design, as a unit identification insignia or a victory flag to ascribe to themselves the proverbial ferocity and toughness of pirates. It has also, at times, unofficially been used to signify an Electric Hazard. The original background was blood red and the Skull and Bones were black in color. Since its inception, there have been numerous stories in circulation as to the origin of the Jolly Roger, although none have been fully substantiated.
It was important for a prey ship to distinguish that its assailant was a pirate, and not a privateer or government vessel, as the latter two generally had to abide by the rule that if an opposing ship’s crew resisted but then surrendered, they could not be executed: An angry pirate ship therefore posed a greater danger to merchant ships than an angry Spanish coast guard or privateer vessel. Because of this, Spanish coast guard vessels and privateers, although they were much like pirate ships, were almost always stronger than the merchant ships they attacked. Merchant ships may have been more willing to attempt resisting “legitimate” attackers than their piratical counterparts. So in order to achieve the goal of seizing prizes, and to do so without all the effort of an unnecessary and costly fight, it became important for pirates to distinguish themselves from the other ships also taking prizes on the seas.
Flying the Jolly Roger was a reliable way of proving oneself to be a pirate, as just possessing or using a Jolly Roger was considered proof that one was a criminal pirate (and not something more legitimate); because only a pirate would dare fly the Jolly Roger, as they were already under threat of execution.
These days, the Jolly Roger isn't really used to identify oneself as a pirate- but it is still a classic symbol that speaks of rebellion and a refusal to conform. That's why the Jolly Roger has seen such a resurgence in popularity lately- there are so many of us out there who want to show off our rebellious side, and so now you can find Jolly Roger shirts, skull bracelets, skull and bones leggings, and skull purses. Symbols like the Jolly Roger have a great and storied history, and even though some of that is lost to the majority of people who buy these items, you now know some of that old folklore.