Friday, May 9, 2014

Raise the Black Flag!

by Nicholas Smith

The early 1700s. You are one of the many common men or women of England owing someone money, yet you are unemployed and winter is approaching. You may starve regardless, even if you default on the monies owed. Your debtor offers you a way out - sail across the ocean to the West Indies, work upon the plantations or in a household for three years until your debts are cleared, then you are free to go your own way with coin in your pocket, seek employment, or start your own business. In other words, you have just become an indentured servant.

You say goodbye to the few family and friends you have left and set sail with high hopes for a better future. You board a Merchantman at Liverpool bound for the West Indies, shipping the home comforts of Burton ale and tailored London clothing, as well as the more practical tools of agriculture for the plantations. You are in the same position of thousands of others - it is your contribution of hard labour (as well as the slave trade) that the ever growing Empire is built upon.

The voyage has you throwing up left, right and centre, yet the regular jack tars assure you the seas are calm. The food is poor gruel, and you are made to work hard for your passage - scrubbing decks, working the bilge pump, tarring lines and sheets... The weather swings wildly from baking sun to freezing showers, but finally, after a voyage of nearly two months, the Leeward Isles of the West Indies are ahead, surrounded by gentle turquoise waters and a stretch of blue skies. Maybe here you'll finally find the new start you so desperately need...

A new sail of grey sea-drenched linen appears on the horizon. No one pays much attention, not until its course seems set to intercept the Merchantman. The captain frowns, adjusting the vessel two points to windward. The new craft does the same. Coincidence?

As the hours pass, the captain and the crew are palpably nervous. The sail grows ever larger. They fly no colours to denote their place of origin, and that can mean only one thing in these waters: Pirates!

The weather deck is cleared, the sails closest to the deck lowered, making room in case action happens. 

"Whence come you?" a voice drifts over the water.

"Eight weeks out from Liverpool," the captain replies through speaking trumpet, "and you?"

"Seven weeks from Bristol!"

"You lie!" Your captain calls.

"Aye! We come from the Sea you dogs! Prepare to be boarded!"

The Black Flag is raised. A chorus of fearsome cheers echo over the waves. A resounding boom of gun powder, and a nine-pound iron ball screeches over the Merchantman's bow.

Choosing to fight is a promise of bloody murder, rape, and pillage. A call from your captain to surrender, and you might - you just might - live to tell the tale...


The Black Flag was a symbol designed not only to strike fear into the hearts of would-be victims, but also to show a defiance that a crew no longer had allegiance to a State, and as such refused to be governed or tried by the normal laws. But where did it come from? How did it originate?

Some would have us believe Bartholomew Roberts was the first in 1721, but that's far too late - the very end of the golden pirate era. Others claim it came to the pirates via the Templars - indeed they have used the skull and crossbones motif for centuries, and even now you can find this symbol on some old gravestones (there's one in my local village churchyard, South County Durham).

Saint Piran's cross of Cornwall
One of the earliest to use a plain black flag was the most successful pirate Peter Easton who plagued not only the South coast of England, but the Barbary and Spanish coasts as well as Newfoundland. Seen as though one of his rich sponsors was from Falmouth, I personally believe it is safe to assume his black pennant was an early form of the Cornish flag (despite the fact Saint Piran's cross was first recorded in the 1800s, the Duke of Cornwall's black arms have been used since at least the 1400s).

The first reference to a full on skull and crossbones (but on a red flag) was in 1687 from the logbook of a merchant vessel, writing of their surrender to the pirates. One common claim is that the term Jolly Roger came from the red flag Joli Rouge - or 'pretty red'.

1687 was towards the end of the buccaneer era; a time of indentured men escaping their hard labour, grounded sailors, and hardened criminals all seeking money by becoming loggers of precious red woods in Spanish held Caribbean territory. Constantly harassed by the Spanish Costa Garda, these buccaneers soon turned to fighting back. With their long hunting muskets, felling axes, and jungle-hacking machetes, they would not only attack Spanish vessels, they would harry their enemies back to the Spanish Main to sack whole cities, leaving a trail of death, smoke and destruction behind them. 'The Buccaneers of America' - 1678 - is a first person account of many of these raids. It's a fascinating read of the cruelties of some of these buccaneers, but the author also pays careful attention to the flora, fauna and culture of the Caribbean. It is interesting to note that I have found no mention of the Black Flag in those pages… so perhaps it was not common enough for the author to have mentioned.

Henry Every - from a 'General History of Pyrates'.
Note the Black Flag.

By the early 1700s we have many records of pirates flying a skull and crossbones. The mysterious Captain Johnson mentions many times over the use of variations of the Jolly Roger by different pirate crews from 1714 to the 1720s in his book 'The General History of Pyrates'. This was arguably the height of the age of piracy.

The early 1700s saw war all over Europe and beyond, as Britain, the United Dutch Provinces, and their allies tried desperately to halt a young French nobleman inheriting the Spanish throne, and therefore creating a European super power like no other. This was the War of the Spanish Succession.

It was in this conflict the Duke of Marlborough won the Battle of Blenheim, that Gibraltar became part of British possession, and France became bankrupt (interestingly forcing the lower classes of French society into a deep poverty that would manifest itself later as the French Revolution). It was also in this war that many of the most famous of British pirates - Blackbeard, Jennings, Rackham - learnt their trade as ship-takers, both in the Royal Navy, and as independent roving privateers sanctioned by the state.

When the conflict was over however, many of these privateers simply carried on what they were doing, and despite the peace in Europe, many were still granted Letters of Marque by British island governors - legalising and encouraging their activities!

These pirates were presumably still somewhat loyal to the British crown, and we have records of pirates flying the Union Jack from the fore mast and the Jolly Roger from their mizzen! Blackbeard's vessel was even named Queen Anne's Revenge – a homage to his dead monarch perhaps?

When these pirates of the post-war Caribbean started to attack British colonials instead of just the traditional Spanish and French, they became tiresome and somewhat an embarrassment to the politicians and nobles back home – some of whom had prospered from sponsoring the same cutthroats. The embarrassment was not lessened when the pirates started to claim independence, trying to forge their own republics like the notorious New Providence.

Henry Every's flag.
A pardon was offered to all pirates by the king, and many accepted the amnesty, ending a life of murder and debauchery. Those remaining defiant – Blackbeard et al – were mostly hunted down by an expanding Royal Navy presence in the Caribbean.

Blackbeard's flag.

Many of these pirates had their own version of the Black Flag: Blackbeard had a white horned devil piercing a red heart with a spear; Edward Low a red skeleton; Bartholomew Roberts had a pirate stood atop two skulls; Henry Every – a classic version of the skull crossbones, but with an earringed skull looking sideways; and Jack Rackham had the skull atop two crossed cutlasses – the same version used in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. Despite the crack down on pirates - piracy did continue throughout the Caribbean, and we have later references of the Black Flag's use by pirates as late as the 1780s.

The truth of the matter: the origin and inspiration for the Black Flag has long been lost, but three hundred years after its general use, we all still know its meaning: Pirates! Its a flag like no other – a flag of no state or monarch; a flag of blood, rebellion, and terror.


Nick Smith is a twenty-eight year old Northumbrian in exile, currently living on a small rock in the Channel Sea where he teaches science. He has a love for all things of a nautical and historical nature.

He is the author of the gritty swashbuckling adventure ROGUES’ NEST – a realistic look at buccaneers and pirates at the start of the 1700s.

1699. Stranded on the greasy shores of a notorious pirate haven, Captain Miguel Fanéz begins a near suicidal mission to find his missing sister Maria. She was returning to Spain aboard the storm-damaged San Isdora galleon until buccaneers took her and the precious cargo of indigo and silver for their own. in a lawless place where he doesn’t belong, and struggling to keep his true identity hidden, Miguel finds safety with local whore Jacquette – a girl with her own secrets and problems.

He becomes embroiled in the rivalries between grounded buccaneers and smuggling gangs on top of Jacquette’s dangerous scheming. So deep is his descent into the rogues’ nest, he doubts he’ll ever see Maria again…

Find Nick and his work at

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