What Do Pirate Flags Mean? Your Complete Guide

A pirate’s life may sound like fantasy, but they were a genuine threat many years ago. During their heyday, over 5,000 pirates were sailing the high seas! 

If you came across a pirate ship, one of the most distinguishable things you’d see is the foreboding flag high on the mast. These iconic symbols of piracy have intrigued people for years, but there is more to them than meets the eye. 

If you’ve wondered how pirate flags became such a symbol of danger, you’ve come to the right place. Get ready to set sail on an adventure into the fascinating history of pirate flags in this handy guide below. 

A History of Pirate Flags 

Pirates were more than a rowdy crowd of peg-legged sailors. They had a very strict code of conduct and lived unbelievable lives. 

Although piracy happened on all seven seas, there were areas where it was more common. The Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea were home to the most famous pirates. 

The height of piracy hit in the mid-17th century through the 18th century. When sailors couldn’t find work with the Navy, they turned to privateering.

This meant they would privately own their ships and could use them to capture other vessels. Many privateers morphed into pirates and started taking any ship they deemed worthy. 

Buccaneers are another group who turned to piracy. The Caribbean government paid these people to attack Spanish ships holding treasure. Eventually, the buccaneers attacked any ship they thought had expensive cargo and turned into the pirates we know today. 

Early Pirate Flags 

Flags weren’t only seen on pirate ships. Any ship sailing on the seas had a flag so that other ships could tell who was in the boats. A flag could let another ship know if the other boat was friendly or an enemy. 

Pirates used their flags to let ships know that they were dangerous. Early on in piracy history, pirates flew simple red flags or black flags. 

You can trace the origin of the red flag back to the late 1600s. During this time, English privateers would fly a red flag to show that their ships weren’t part of the Royal Navy. Many of these privateers ended up as pirates and never changed their flags. 

The all-black pirate flag is another design connected to piracy. A black flag on ships meant that people with the plague were on board. When people saw the black flag, they knew it was a ship to stay away from. 

Some pirates used black and red flags to show how merciful they were feeling. If a pirate had a black flag, it meant the captain may spare lives that day. Red flags meant the captain was out for blood. 

Making Pirate Flags 

Pirates couldn’t just go to a site like UltimateFlags.com to buy their flags. They had to tap into their DIY skills and make their own. 

Most pirates used materials they already had available to them. Usually, pirates made their flags out of sailcloths. They would use tar to darken the material or add symbols to it. 

Understanding Pirate Flags 

There was more to pirate flags than hoisting them up on the mast. They could communicate messages to other ships. 

Not all pirates were out to kill every last person they met. Battles were risky, and sometimes fighting wasn’t worth the risk of the death of the crew. 

Some pirate flags had the goal of intimidating other boats. The symbols would encourage people to stay away, or else. 

Pirate flags weren’t always flying, either. Sometimes a pirate would trick other boats by flying colors of a nation that was friendly to the area. This would encourage the other boat to get closer without worrying about a pirate attack. 

Once the other boat was near, the pirates would do a quick swap. They would take down the friendly flag and raise their own version. Usually, this meant that an attack was imminent. 

Pirate Flag Symbolism 

As piracy grew, pirate symbolism on flags became more interesting. Captains of the pirate ships started adding their own flair to the flags on their ships. The colors and pictures they used represented different messages they wanted to get out to whoever saw their ship. 

Skull and Crossbones 

Perhaps the most well-known of all the pirate ship symbols is the skull and crossbones flag. This symbol is of the most recognizable and famous pirate flags.  

The name for this symbol is the Jolly Roger. These flags start with a black background. In the background is a pair of crossbones with a skull above them. 

The French used to have an expression Jolie Rouge, which translated to “pretty red.” Most people believe this was talking about the red flags that the privateers would fly. This name ended up changing to Jolly Roger, which was the name of this iconic pirate flag. 

The black flag with the skull and crossbones was instantly recognizable as a danger. If someone saw it, they knew that the pirate ship meant business. 

Most people believe that the first Jolly Roger flag belonged to a group of Barbary pirates. For years, these pirates took over the Mediterranean Sea. By the early 1700s, many pirates in Caribbean waters had adopted their flag as their own. 

Throughout the next 100 years, the English Navy did its best to get rid of all elements of piracy. Because of this, most Jolly Roger flags didn’t survive. Only two Jolly Roger flags remain in existence today. 

Bleeding Heart 

If you saw a bloody heart on a flag while at sea, it would be best to turn your ship around. This symbol meant that anyone who crossed the pirate would die a slow death. 

Pirates were not known to be forgiving people. If they were threatening to torture captives, it was most likely the truth. 

Many times, this symbol had a skeleton or pirate with it. Sometimes a knife was also in the heart for dramatic effect. 

Red Skeleton 

Another symbol of a painful death was a flag that featured a red skeleton. Most people associate this symbol with Captain Low, a pirate who loved to make his victims bleed. 

Captain Low was a ruthless pirate. When he captured ships, he first liked to plunder them. He would torture anyone he captured and set the ship on fire. 

Winged Hourglass

Another common pirate flag symbol was that of an hourglass. The message here was that whoever saw this symbol didn’t have much time left. 

Hand Holding a Knife 

If you saw a flag with an arm holding a sword or knife, it meant the pirate ship wasn’t going to back down from a fight. Dutch privateers were the first ones to sport this symbol. 

They usually put it on a red flag background. The symbol itself was white. 

The Dutch pirates were a ruthless bunch. Other pirate groups may have adopted this flag to show others how equally evil they were. 

Skull, Heart, Dagger 

A pirate named Stede Bonnet thought up the flag with this symbolism. Pirate Stede Bonnet started his adult life as a wealthy landowner. Once he grew bored with this profession, he moved on to piracy for the adventure. 

Bonnet created a flag that had a skull, heart, and dagger on it. The skull sat between the dagger and the heart. A long thigh bone lay under the three pictures. 

This flag showed a skull in the middle of life and death. Many people thought the set-up looked like a scale. Captain Bonnet would have the last say on whether people who crossed him lived or died. 

A Pirate and Death with an Hourglass 

Although his career was short, Bartholomew Roberts had a very successful piracy career. This man started pirating when pirates captured him in the early 1700s. 

The ship’s captain was murdered, and the crew voted Roberts in as the new captain. Roberts came up with a new pirate flag design. This well-known flag features him and Death holding an hourglass between them. 

Skeleton With a Cup, Spear, and Heart

You can’t talk about pirate flags without mentioning Edward “Blackbeard” Teach. Many people are very familiar with Blackbeard and his ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge

The flag features a skeleton with his hand raised in a toast. The other hand holds a spear that is about to go through a heart. Although we know Blackbeard wanted to scare his enemies, there isn’t a lot of detail about why he chose this particular image.

Pirate Flags: More Interesting Than You May Think 

With their dark symbolism, pirate flags hold a special place in maritime history. They tell tales of daring exploits, brutal battles, and the excitement of life on the open seas.

One thing that pirates knew how to do was handle money. Does a pirate’s wealth make you want to know how you can grow your own fortune? Check out our other Business and Finance articles for inspiration today!


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