Jolly Roger, The Pirate Skull Flag

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Jolly Roger, The Pirate Skull Flag

THE PIRATE FLAG: THE JOLLY ROGER

The origin of the pirate flag, the Jolly Roger, is in a Catholic symbol. It comes from a symbol used by the Knights of the Order of Malta in their tombs, which was adopted by privateers.

There are not many more symbols that have been as successful as the skull and the two shins with which pirates have been identified.

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It is also a cliché that piracy has come to be associated, in all its perverse glory, as another manifestation of the enterprising and modern libertarian spirit and that this happens, especially in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom: T-shirts, rings, caps, shoes, flags... even ties and cufflinks... Here it deserves a special denomination: the Jolly Roger.

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The submarines of the Royal Navy still hoist the flag on its return to port if they have caused deaths, as was the case during the Falklands War.
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We cannot delve into the history of piracy without understanding that, first and foremost - and to paraphrase Clausevitz - it was the continuation by other means of the policy of empires in colonial times.

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FIRST APPEARANCE OF THE SKULL FLAG

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The first appearance of the flag is recorded during the prolegomena of the War of the Spanish Succession and is widespread in the golden age of piracy (1714-1722).

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The first recorded sighting of the flag is from 1700 and is attributed to a French refugee ship near Santiago de Cuba and commanded by Emanuel Wynne, who specializes in English merchants: a pirate according to the British, a hero according to the French.

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The description of the black flag with two crossed bones, a skull and an hourglass, is made by the captain of the HMS Poole who ran into it in 1701.
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Was it a new symbol? Although it stimulated the British imagination, it was a century-old symbol, used for generations by one of the most unique societies in European history: the Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and Malta, better known as the Order of Malta.

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A symbol that has been repeated on the tombs of deceased knights and which had also been used in other places associated with Catholic worship.
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One of its most unique churches in Spain, of Templar origin, is that of Vera Cruz in Segovia. Its dodecagonal plant, among many other peculiarities, encloses the tombstones of some gentlemen.

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In each of them appears this characteristic symbol.

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The skull and crossbones can be found in a large number of tombs in St. John's Cathedral in Malta and in any of the Order's large temples.


MEDITERRANEAN PRIVATEERS

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When Rhodes was handed over to the Turks (1522), Emperor Charles V offered the island of Malta and other adjacent islands to the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem: Comino and Gozo.

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Malta was part of the Kingdom of Aragon for centuries and remained, more in theory than anything else, a fiefdom in this Spanish kingdom.

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It was here that the knights finally perfected their warrior skills in their new battlefield: the sea, facing the Turkish advance and piracy.

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The knights of Malta, the monks of the sea, were exercising a kind of "sacred piracy" by bleeding the Turkish empire and protecting Christian interests in a sea that seemed to be broken forever.
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The power of order in the Mediterranean transformed the horizons of the Portuguese Atlantic caravels.

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And in 1700, the order developed a new division of ships. It occasionally intervened against the heresies of the Reformation, its galleon lent its aid to the Huguenots of La Rochelle, and attempted to open bases in the Caribbean by acquiring the islands of San Cristobal y Nieves, in what was an interesting and little-known adventure in the mid-17th century .
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The great knights of Malta served as soldiers in America and Asia, in fact, they were the great English nightmare at sea: Pierre André de Suffren, François de Grasse (decisive in the independence of the United States with an armada financed by Spain), Jorge Juan, Antonio Valdés, Malaspina, Bucareli...

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Perhaps because of this, after the Napoleonic wars England seized Malta and will never give it back to its knights.

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The Jolly Roger is obviously linked to a symbol that used the Order of Malta in the tombs, although it was never its flag.

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Its link with privateer activities in the Mediterranean is proven. And the activity of the Order's members in the service of Spain and France in the Atlantic, as well as their exceptional role in naval conflicts against England.

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That a knight might have been involved in Corsican activities in the Atlantic against British interests is far more than likely, and that he used a reference to death itself as such a knight as a flag seems almost obvious.
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WAR OF THE SPANISH SUCCESSION


It is suspicious that the symbol was generalised precisely during the War of the Spanish Succession and in Corsica against the English ships, that is to say when the Catholic monarchies against the Protestant, British and Dutch states in the Atlantic confronted each other, when the Grand Master was also a Valencian.

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That other pirates, with no relation to the Order of Malta, with the lucidity of plunderers imitating a flag or symbol that seemed transcendent and intimidating, is quite logical.
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Let us follow the course of the flag's name. Daniel Defoe, in his "General History of Pirates", second edition of 1728, says that the name Jolly Roger was given by Captain Francis Spriggs, a modest pirate again of the English dams.

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Francis Grose, in his "Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Language" (1811), cites the Jolly Roger as an expression of pure "slang". At the beginning of the 19th century, some popular sayings contained the word "jolly", among them "jolly head", head of madness, or gay.

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It is likely that the name of the flag was an irony about the earlier expression, directed against the despised governor of the Bahamian Woodes Rogers.


STEWART AND PIRACY


The expulsion of the Stewarts from the Throne of England was also linked to Catholicism, and with almost unknown significance in Caribbean piracy.

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The long struggle led by the defenders of this dynastic tradition of Catholic membership leads us to many pirates from the Bahamas and New Providence, especially those adhering to the so-called Flying Gang, which brought together more than 50 percent of the region's business, which declared itself in favor of the king in exile.

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And very notable is the figure of George Camocke, one of his naval officers, who ended up as a vice-admiral in the Spanish Navy.

Camocke proposed organizing Jacobite piracy in the Caribbean and occupying Bermuda in favor of the Stewarts.
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Since English historiography, he has sought to disfigure Jacobite activity in the Caribbean by pointing to his links with English privateers acting against Spain, such as Henry Jennings, a name that disappeared from the scene in 1716.

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But it was not until the following year, 1717, that Jacobite pirate activity was triggered. All piracy in the Bahamas and New Providence is adapted to his favor.

That year, Samuel Bellamy encroaches on the English galleon Whydah. Edward Teach (Blackbeard) also spreads terror on the shores of the British colonies in America.

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At the same time, Edward England, an Irishman by birth, redirects his activity towards the route of the English East India Company. And Christopher Moody devotes himself to harassing the shores of Virgina, an English colony.
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What is clear is that it is necessary to examine in depth the ideological elements associated with piracy ...
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In another context, the first black flag with two blood-red crossed swords was used by Lope de Aguirre in his rebellion against the Spanish Empire in 1561.

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On the other hand, regarding the Jolly Roger, the historian and sailor Fernandez Navarrete distinguishes in the nineteenth century two pirate flags: the blood flag, which, in addition to the national, are usually raised to indicate the decision "to fight to the end".

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And the flag of death: the black one, which is hoisted before embarkation.

 

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