For various reasons (time spent on an island in the middle of the Atlantic, teaching a lot of maritime history this summer, popular culture, news) I’ve been thinking a lot about pirates lately. Pirates were (and are) violent outlaws, so it is interesting to trace the increasing romanticization and trivialization of their image over the modern era. The transformation of the pirate from thug to dashing, colorful rogue began in the nineteenth century, when a succession of Robin Hoodesque pirate representations were embraced by an apparently eager audience. From Byron’s 1814 poem The Corsair, to the incredibly popular Pirates’ Own Book (1837) by George Elms and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance (first produced in 1879), a decidedly less menacing pirate emerged than that of the prior “Golden Age” of piracy (roughly 1650-1730). This characterization continued in the twentieth century with books (including images) like Howard Pyle’s Pirates Book (1921) and Raphael Sabatini’s Captain Blood (1922). And so the archetypal pirate emerged, along with his archetypal accessories, including the ” Jolly Roger” flag, with its intimidating skull and crossbones against a black background.
In an article in the Design section of the New York Times last month (highlighting a new exhibition on Captain Kidd at the Museum of London Docklands), Alice Rawsthorn observes that the adoption of the skull and crossbones was “an astonishingly successful exercise in collective branding design”, but it took western pirates a while to get there, and it seems that there were quite a variety of pirate flags out there on the high seas even as the Jolly Roger took hold. Before 1700 pirates flew plain black or red (“bloody”) flags, and in the eighteenth century there was an array of emblems out there, many including an hourglass to broadcast the message that your time is limited if you mess with us. The beautiful 1929 book Scourge of the Indies. Buccaneers, Corsairs, and Filibusters by Maurice Besson includes two variant pirate flags among its many illustrations.
I believe that the first Jolly Roger flag appeared in the foundational history of piracy, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates by Captain Charles Johnson (a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe or perhaps a man named Nathaniel Mist). This book was first published in London in 1724 and seems to have been almost continually in print for the next century, so the image of the skull and crossbones (below in the background of the illustration of the “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet) became very recognizable.
Now-standard pirate flags in a host of images from the nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Library of Congress: a theater handbill from 1833 illustrating the actor Billy Campbell in his Blackbeard costume, the title page of an 1845 Boston pamphlet about the female pirate captain Fanny Campbell, a propaganda cartoon from World War One, in which German Admiral Alfred von Turpitz bears down on New York with his Jolly Roger, and a Depression-era playbill for a performance of the Pirates of Penzance.
Finally, some very colorful pirates, fictional and real but equally dramatic, from twentieth-century collectible cigarette cards in the collection of the New York Public Library. The flag card dates from the last era of this popular genre of ephemera, the 1960s.