Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Tools of the Trade: You Gotta Support Your Team

Ahoy Brethren and I apologize for the brief neglect of my beloved Triple P. The family and I were having one last gasp of fun before school overcame us
this morning. But I'm back now and I'm here to talk to you all about pirate flags.

The origins of the pirate flag are sketchy at best. Most authorities (if there are such things as "pirate authorities") put forth that the black flags with their deliciously creepy images grew out of warning flags flown at sea from ancient times. Particularly during the years of the Black Plague in Europe, ships began to fly red or black flags if plague was aboard. This was a way to warn other ships and various ports that pestilence was among the crew and contagion was more than likely. It was not necessarily a voluntary situation, however. Sometimes a know-it-all on a fellow ship would spot one of your guys sporting a bad case of impetigo and you'd be forced at cannon point to raise the red flag. Then getting into port could be a real pain, unless you were a little underhanded and managed to lose that red flag at sea. Maybe lose the guy with the crusty scabs too. That might help.

Anyway, pirates caught on pretty early that they could use the fear factor of contagion via the red flag to their advantage and so the original pirate flags were thought to be made of red cloth with various designs. These flags were called by their French name: Jolie Rouge. Literally "Pretty Red". French is so whimsical, isn't it? From this, some say, we get the term "Jolly Roger".

The flags displayed images designed to intimidate and many of these were taken from graveyard imagery. Directly above is the flag of Christopher Moody which includes an hour glass with wings and a skull and crossbones. Anyone who has seen pictures or rubbings from 16th and 17th century graveyards will recognize these kind of emblems. On headstones, they were used to remind onlookers that they'd end up dead too one day. In the case of this flag, the handy addition of the burly arm with the sword simply brings on the high note of "resistance is futile; surrender or die". In a time when very few people could read, this kind of imagery was clear and readily understood by everyone who came in contact with it.

When did red fall out of favor and black come into its own? It seems like the buccaneers of Cuba and San Domingue favored the red flags but once the Golden Age of piracy washed over the Caribbean in the 1700s, black flags became the rage. Up above we have, among others, the flags of Jack Rackham, Henry Every and of course Edward Teach with the skeleton making ready to stab a heart with a spear. That gets the message across without a word over the rails and more than one merchant ship simply gave up once these Jolly Rogers were raised.

For privateers, like their naval cousins, a ruse de guerre was more to the point than any showy black flag. Simply determine what country your prize was from and then run up that flag - or one of a neutral or friendly country - until you were close enough to reveal your "true colors". This was considered a fair and gentlemanly approach and even nautical heroes such as John Paul Jones and Horatio Nelson used this tack without the least bit of guilt.

So there you are. Go find a flag you like and hang it prominently for all to see. Just be sure you know which pirate ran it up back in the day. You want to be able to say when someone asks!


Timmy! said...

Personally, I like the Jack Rackham flag with the crossed swords. It's too bad he was such a wuss. Although he did knock up both Anne Bonney AND Mary Read (at the same time, or so the story goes). So I guess he had something going on... before they hanged him, anyway. So there is that.

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! It is a fine flag but, as we all know, if Rackham had faught like a man he wouldn't have died like a dog.

Richard Page said...

Interesting about the change from red to black - you don't suppose it has anything to do with the Royal Navy Caribbean Squadron using the red ensign, do you? Pirates might not have wanted to be confused with Royal Navy warships?