Fly the Jolly Roger?

Is there any maritime law, anywhere, against flying the Skull and Crossbones from my seagoing vessel?

Well I would suspect that if you fly the jolly roger instead of a national flag, authorities may object to you entering their territorial waters.

No real clue, though.

Well, it hasn’t hurt the Time Bandit from The Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel. Of course it’s painted on the bow and not flown from a mast …

In theory, if you identify as a pirate, your vessel is liable to capture and seizure. Nobody, though, will take flying the Jollly Roger as a serious identification of piracy.

I doubt it, as Royal Navy submarines traditionally fly the Jolly Roger when returning to port after a kill, for instance (as submarines are “underhand, unfair, and damned un-English” and all submarines should be treated “as pirates in wartime”).

See HMS Conqueror returning to Faslane after sinking ARA General Belgrano in the Falklands War, flying the skull and crossbones.

Wikipedia cites a contrary 1694 law under the English Admiralty, where the flying of a ‘Red Jack’ was a mandatory measure to distinguish privateers from Navy ships.

Note that this is from an early period and may be a mistake in Wiki but by the Napoleonic era no privateer would fly the jolly roger. Privateers were not pirates. Privateers were private warships sailing legally under the authority of a government and carrying a letter of marque. Pirates had no authority from anyone except themselves to “search, seize, or destroy” other vessels.

At certain pirate-themed events, I have seen boats in the harbor flying some form of the Jolly Roger – always in an inferior position to the national ensign, for those boats also flying the Stars & Stripes.

Most privateers were pirates at some point, and one nation’s privateer was every other nation’s pirate. William Kidd and Francis Drake were both pirates-turned-privateers.

If I remember correctly, Kidd was a privateer who hit an English merchantman to meet payroll – and had the bad fortune to capture a merchant ship backed by some powerful members of the Lords.

But I don’t have a primary source cite handy.

Exactly. I’ve seen small craft flying the Jolly Roger; everyone understands it’s just a joke. And what the hell, you have plenty to choose from!:

My brother and I have a small boat and we sometimes fly the Jolly Roger, this is a snap shot we took a few years ago.

He took the Quedagh Merchant, which was an Armenian ship with passes of safe conduct from the French. Unfortunately, for him, the ship was backed by somebody who was pretty high up in the English East India Company, and was carrying cargo owned by an Indian noble and the East India Company. When he found all this out, he tried to give the ship back, but his crew wouldn’t let him. But, he was reassured by knowing the ship had the French passes, he figured he could use that in his defense. Of course, when he was on trial later, those passes mysteriously couldn’t be found.

Do any East African pirates display the Jolly Roger logo anywhere, just for laughs? I imagine they don’t, because:

  • It’s a good idea not to advertise the fact that you’re a pirate
  • The JR is an archaic western symbol, completely outside of their cultural milieu.
  • they can’t afford flags.

In days of old when ships were bold
Just like the men who sailed them
And if they showed us disrespect
We’d tie them up and flail them
Often men of low degree
And often men of steel
They’d make you walk the plank alone
Or haul you round the keel
Hoist the Jolly Roger!
Hoist the Jolly Roger!
Hoist the Jolly Roger!
Hoist the Jolly Roger!
It’s your money that we want
And your money we shall have!

This thread reminds me of that song. There are some pretty good images in the video (slide show, really), including some historical pirate flags.


You might like Captain Kidd’s Cat, written and illustrated by Robert Lawson. It’s a children’s book told from the perspective of… well, you know. It’s great - the illustrations are half the fun. Very sympathetic to Kidd, too.

I remenber when pirates (throbbing with desire) were objects of great lust in romance novels. Nowadays it appears to be vampires. I’ve lost track since my ex kicked me to the curb.

Captain Kidd is really the Butters of the Age of Piracy (Blackbeard would be the Cartman). The man was just so bad at it, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him.

The Sea Shepard ship “Steve Irwin” flies it in a grand style… of course, I have opinions on that shop/organization that aren’t appropriate for GQ.

I don’t see the Australian port authorities, or navy seeming to take much action on the basis of that Jolly Roger based on the coverage on the Whale Wars show.

I’d say that nowadays, it’s taken as a lark, rather than a mark of serious intent.