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Famous Pirate Flags and Their Meanings

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Pirates were everywhere during the Golden Age of Piracy, and their flags were their signature. They often used their flags to intimidate anyone they came across. But these flags also help identify the pirate captain responsible for several crimes in the seven seas.

Let’s learn about some of the most famous pirate flags that terrorised the seas in their time.

The Jolly Roger: A short pirate flag history 

While it’s known that pirates were present as early as 1650, the first Jolly Rogers didn’t fly until the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

Bartholomew Roberts flew the first pirate flags, but they were not what you would expect from a modern Jolly Roger. Instead of the usual skull and crossbones, Roberts’ flag showed a cartoon of him and death sharing an hourglass.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel Wynn, a French pirate captain, was the first to use a black flag with white skulls and crossbones in 1700. His flag also featured an hourglass to signify that time was running out for those who saw his flag. Later, other pirates picked up this style and appeared on other flags.

No matter the design, all Jolley Rogers were meant to convey a message to anyone who saw them: they were a pirate vessel that may or may not grant their victims mercy if they surrendered.

The creation of different pirate flags resulted in various styles and variations of the skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag. Many pirates have used it, including Black Sam Bellamy and Christopher Condent.

Let’s take a look at some of the most iconic pirate flags and their histories:

Henry Avery’s Flag  

Henry “Long Ben” Avery had a short but noteworthy career as a pirate. Although he only seized a few ships, one of those was the Ganj-i-Sawai, the treasure ship of India’s Grand Moghul.

Long Ben’s capture of the ship places him near the top of the list of wealthiest pirates, and he vanishes shortly afterwards. Many myths surround his disappearance. One of them says he founded his own country, married the beautiful daughter of the Grand Moghul, and had 40 ships under his war fleet.

Avery’s flag featured a right-facing skull with a kerchief and crossbones.

Bartholomew Roberts’ Flag  

Henry Avery was the most successful pirate of his time if you just consider the loot. But, if you focus on the number of ships captured, Bartholomew Roberts is a clear winner.

Black Bart seized 400 ships from Brazil to Newfoundland, the Caribbean, and Africa during his three-year career. He also used multiple flags during this time.

Black Bart was often associated with a black flag depicting him and death holding an hourglass together. However, his most famous flag depicted him with a flaming sword in hand, standing on two skulls. He labelled one ABH, which stood for “A Barbadian’s Head”, and the other AMH, which stood for “A Martiniquian’s Head”.

John Rackham’s Flag  

Calico Jack is a well-known English pirate who actively terrorised the Caribbean for two years near the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

His pirate flag was a Jolly Roger variant, which made it historical and impressive.

While the original Jolly Roger was a black flag with two crossed bones underneath a skull, his flag replaced the crossbones with crossed swords. The swords were meant to indicate that the pirate captain and his crew were ready to use violence against any vessel that refused to surrender. His flag would become the most famous pirate flag in modern history.

Stede Bonnet’s Flag 

Bonnet was a wealthy English landowner before becoming a pirate in the 18th century. Due to this previous high-ranking status, he was often called “The Gentleman Pirate,” who frequently attacked ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean.

Bonnet’s flag features a white skull between a heart and a dagger, with a bone underneath it. It was meant to look like a scale, signifying pirate justice.

Edward Low’s Flag 

Edward Low, an 18th-century English pirate, became well-known after the end of piracy’s Golden Age. He was notorious for his brutality, cold-bloodedness, and wit. He commanded nearly a hundred ships in just two years, from 1722–1724.

Low’s flag was one of the most interesting pirate flag designs that warned other ships of imminent death. Low flew a black Jolly Rodger with a red skeleton, symbolising his anger, pure evil, and the nearness of a violent and deadly end. 

Thomas Tew’s Flag  

Thomas Tew, an English pirate of the 17th century, was also known as “The Rhode Island Pirate.” He was previously a privateer, and his two major pirate cruises were his most notable accomplishment.

Aside from a black background, his flag doesn’t contain any Jolly Roger imagery. Instead, his flag features a hand holding a cutlass, one of the universal symbols of violence.

Tew’s warning was loud and clear. Although Tew was a pirate for only three years, his wealth had risen to approximately 1 million dollars in current currency by the time he died.

Edward Teach’s Flag  

Edward Teach’s second most popular name was “Blackbeard”. His tricks and command of ships with fear and force made him a well-known figure. Legend says that he used to light fuses in his hair, giving him a demonic appearance to strike fear in his enemies.

Blackbeard’sflag had a skeleton with a horned skull, with one hand making a toast and the other holding a spear pointing at a heart dripping blood. The horns make him look evil, and the heart dripping with blood means anyone who crosses him will die a slow and torturous death.

Final thoughts

Pirate flags were a pirate’s signature, striking fear into the hearts of those who saw them. Each legendary pirate had a unique flag that identified their ship, using different symbols to convey their threats or warnings.


Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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