Pirate Symbolism: The Jolly Roger and the ‘Arr’


By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University

Much of our sense of a pirate’s appeal originates in literary rather than historical texts. In fact, if one goes back far enough, the distinction between the two becomes quite blurred. Let’s look at some things that have become very commonly associated with pirates and piracy, including the pirates’ flag, the Jolly Roger, and their growling ‘Arr’.

A red pirate flag
Real pirates used both red and black flags. A red pirate flag meant that the pirates would have no mercy on their victims. (Image: Millenius/Shutterstock)

The Rolled ‘Arr’

As far as nautical and popular historians can tell, the notion that all pirates stump around growling ‘Arr’ didn’t exist until the movies and books in the early 20th century. It was really popularized in 1950 by the actor Robert Newton. In Disney’s blockbuster film Treasure Island, Newton used his native Dorset accent when he played Long John Silver and it included a rolled ‘Arr’. 

Certainly there were some west country sailors who turned pirate, and they may well have retained their dialect rolled ‘Arr’, but they would hardly have represented the majority of pirate speakers. In fact, pirate crews in piracy’s Golden Age were polyglots, made up of men from not just all over Britain but all over Europe and indeed the world. Pirate crews were even more likely to be multi-ethnic than naval and merchant crews. 

The root of ‘Arr’ isn’t so much a reverence for the ancient practice of piracy, per se, as it’s an inspiration of the popular boy’s adventure book, written by the Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881—the one that was the basis for Disney’s Treasure Island film.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Jolly Roger

Another common thing that jumps to people’s minds when hearing the word pirate is a familiar black flag with some sort of skull and crossbones image in white. We call this the Jolly Roger, and unlike the piratical rolled ‘Arr’, it was a real thing. However, it’s also true that pirates did complicated things with their flags, and a well-stocked pirate ship would ideally have far more than just a single black flag with a death’s head on it.

A drawing of the Pirates of Penzance
Pirates used the Jolly Roger to frighten their victims. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Possibly, the first pirate to try out the effect of what is now their traditional Jolly Roger was Emmanuel Wynn, who in 1700 unfurled a sable ensign with crossbones, a death’s head, and an hourglass. Black flags, either plain or decorated with bones, can be found going back at least to the medieval period. It’s also possible that the Caribbean use of such flags was inspired by the designs on the flags of Barbary Corsairs in the Mediterranean. Whatever the origin, these black flags caught on quickly in the 18th century Caribbean, and many pirate ships personalized them with symbols such as skeletons, skulls, daggers, hearts, initials, or hourglasses. 

The skull and crossbones was real and effective. Unfurling it was an act that claimed the identity of piracy, and its main use was to frighten victims into giving up without much resistance.

The Different Colors of the Flag

Real pirates used both red and black flags, and the one you really didn’t want to see was the red one, which might or might not have a skull and crossbones on it.

A black pirate flag meant ‘quarter would be given’ if the enemy surrendered; meaning they’ll spare your life after rifling through your cargo.

Red, though, was the traditional nautical symbol for ‘no quarter given’. It was favored by Maghrebi Corsairs and used in the Caribbean, as well. As a letter to the British Journal about a 1724 pirate attack explained, “They hoisted Jolly Roger (for so they call their black Ensign)…When they fight under Jolly Roger, they give a quarter, which they do not when they fight under the Red or Bloody Flag.” 

The Purpose and Origin of the Jolly Roger

The purpose of the Jolly Roger was actually to remind pirate victims that things could be worse if they didn’t cooperate. In any case, such tricks were for special occasions. And pirates most frequently sailed under national colors both true and false, disguising themselves as law-abiding European ships in order to try to get close to their unsuspecting prey or pass by any hunters unnoticed. 

Indeed, the practice of using false flags at sea was commonly accepted for lawful vessels as well as pirates. Privateers, of course, were supposed to use national colors like the Union Jack.

Incidentally, no one seems to know where the term ‘Jolly Roger’ comes from. There’s an idea that it may be a mispronunciation of joli rouge, French for pretty red. Or perhaps it conflates joli rouge and Old Roger, which was a colloquial English name for the devil that dated back at least to about 1700. 

The problem is that the French called the iconic red flag a sans quartier—gives no quarter—not joli rouge. Also, there is the fact that Roger has a double meaning in English: it was both a man’s name and a euphemism for the male sex organ. While we have enough eyewitness accounts of the Jolly Roger to have some idea of what such a flag could look like, the origin of the standard remains murky.

Common Questions about the Jolly Roger and the ‘Arr’

Q: What did the black pirate flag and the red pirate flag mean?

The black flag of the pirates meant that if the enemies surrendered, their lives would be spared. On the other hand, the red flag of the pirates was much more dangerous, conveying the message that lives would not be spared.

Q: What was the purpose of the Jolly Roger?

Pirates used the Jolly Roger, their black flag with some sort of skull and crossbones image in white, to warn their victims that things could get much worse if they didn’t cooperate and surrender.

Q:How did the term ‘Jolly Roger’ originate?

It’s unclear where the term Jolly Roger came from. Some say that Jolly Roger may be a mispronunciation for the French term joli rouge, which means pretty red. Others suggest that the term may be a combination of the terms joli rouge and Old Roger, a colloquial name for the devil around 1700.

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