Behind the Line – A Black Flag

As they closed the gap, angling to fire their cannons, they hoisted a black flag depicting a skull over crossed bones atop an hourglass, all in white. “Pirates!” declared Captain Garrett. “As if we needed the confirmation.”

The Day the Pirates Went Mad, Chapter 9: Good Intentions, pg 76.
#TDTPiratesWentMad - a Black Flag - Collage
CC BY-SA 3.0: Creative Commons – Orem & RootOfAllLight

Pinning down dates for an historical event can sometimes be challenging. Finding out when people first started using some tool or technology (like the ship’s wheel) can be difficult. When something is more akin to a fashion trend – one can only hope to get close enough. 🙂

The Black Flag

A good example from The Day the Pirates Went Mad is the use of a black flag with the skull and crossbones; the flag we commonly know as the Jolly Roger. The Jolly Roger wasn’t always the flag of pirates, and it didn’t always look the same. Given the setting of Emma’s first adventure (1701-1702), would I be able to refer to it, or not?

Water-borne raiders have been around as long as there have been boats. But when we think of pirates, we are most likely thinking of those infamous few from the post-Spanish Succession period of the Golden Age of Piracy (1715 – 1726). And most of those pirates were flying black flags. But what were they using in 1701?

Privateers vs. Pirates

Going back to the 16th century, during the reign of Elizabeth I, “sea dogs” like Francis Drake and John Hawkins were more often acting as privateers than pirates. As such, they would fly Saint George’s Cross. Throughout the 17th century, English privateers continued to use the “King’s Jack” to appear as naval vessels, whether they had official permission to do so, or not.

Other times, ships would have their own additional flags. In The History of the Buccaneers of America (1684), Alexandre Exquemelin describes the colours flown by a number of companies during a march on the Spanish river town of Santa Maria by the Gulf of San Miguel:

Our several companies that marched were distinguished as follows: first, Captain Bartholomew Sharp, with his company, had a red flag, with a bunch of white and green ribbons: the second division, led by Captain Richard Sawkins, with his men, had a red flag, striped with yellow: the third and fourth, which were led by Captain Peter Harris, had two green flags, his company marching in two distinct divisions. The fifth and sixth, led by Captain John Coxon, who had some of Alleston’s and Macket’s men joined unto his, made two divisions or companies, and had each of them a red flag: the seventh was led by Captain Edmund Cook, with red colors, striped with yellow, with a hand and sword for his device: all, or most of them, were armed with fusee, pistol, and hanger.

The History of the Buccaneers of America, Chapter 25, Page 194.

No black flags or skulls mentioned.

The Skull & Crossbones

When the black flag did become more prolific, pirate captains tended to have their own variation, or brand, in order to identify themselves to their victims and frighten them into surrendering!

The flags most recognizable as the Jolly Roger today are attributed to Samuel Bellamy and Jack Rackham, featuring the skull and crossbones or a skull and crossed blades, respectively. But use of the death’s head predates them by at least 15 years.

#TDTPiratesWentMad - a Black Flag - Wynn
CC0 1.0 Public Domain

In 1700, there is a report by Captain Cranby of HMS Poole that the French pirate Emanuel Wynn flew a black flag, one with a white skull over crossed bones and an hourglass. And Wynn also managed to escape from the Poole at the time. Perfect for Emma’s first pirate encounter!

And that’s what’s behind the line in the quote above. 🙂