3000 Years History and Meaning of Skull Pirate Flag

The earliest record of piracy was found on a stele built in 1350 BC, in other words, piracy has a history of at least 3000 years.

In ancient Mediterranean, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians were better sailors than the other nations, and thus they became the most notorious pirates at that time while the Mediterranean became a hardest hit. Even in the Roman times, they made the formidable Roman Emperors beat their brains. After that, the widely known piracy-prone areas were the Caribbean and Gulf of Aden.

When center of piracy lied in the Mediterranean, numerous small islets around the Corsica were where the dens of pirates located. From here the pirates sailed out for robberies, and returned here to hide and enjoy their loots, including women, jewelries and gold.

Around the 5th century, the Vikings rose and left their footprints all over the vast area from the European continent to the Arctic. They began to establish permanent settlements in Ireland, and later built some fortresses for military purposes. These settlements and fortresses were the origins of Irish cities, such as Dublin and Waterford. The Vikings established the earliest kingdom in Irish history, although it didn’t last long. The traces Vikings left can be found everywhere in modern Ireland, including names, place names, language, culture and even lifestyle and customs. Therefore, it wouldn’t be wrong if you say Ireland was founded by Vikings.

Following the discovery of the “new world”, the scale of marine transport and trade grew, which led to the golden age of piracy. In the vast ocean, thousands of pirates robbed and rampaged along commercial routes.

One of the most notorious pirates was Bartholomew Roberts, who controlled the vast area from Africa to the Caribbean. Roberts became a pirate at the age of 37. At first he worked as sailor on a pirate ship, later became the captain after his predecessor was killed. He was brave and wise, and he always took the lead. At his peak, he commanded four hundred pirate ships. Notorious for his ruthlessness, Roberts left nobody alive in marauding. He was also said to be a handsome man who loved costumes, delicacies but never drank, while he was also cruel but well-behaved. For example, he perfected the well-known Pirate Code. However, his life was brilliant but short. In the February of 1722, he was shot at his throat and killed instantly in a fierce battle. His death marked the end of pirates’ golden age.

Pirates were all bold and rough guys. They liked to hang out a flag with the pirate emblem in order to let people know their identities or quickly psych their preys out.

At first, pirates would hang a white flag while chasing their targets; but when they used a red flag, it meant they were angry at the unbowed preys and decided to use force. Vikings liked to decorate their flags with embroidery pattern, usually a black raven with open wings. Roman pirates usually chose patterns like the caduceus of Mercury or the owl of Athena. As for British pirates, at the king’s request, a red flag must be hung out in addition to the national flag, indicating that lethal weapons would be used in case of resistance. In other words, it meant “surrender or die”. Later, the red pirate flag was gradually replaced by the black one.

According to researches, the black pirate flag with the skull and crossbones symbol was first used by notorious French pirate Emanuel Wynn in 1700. Besides the skull, some pirates added a hourglass on the flag. It explicitly told the people under attack that they still had time to make a favorable choice before the sand ran out.

There was another kind of flag where there was a skeleton, with hourglass in one hand and a bleeding heart punctured by dart in the other one.


France was once a pirate country, too. It was said the most known den of pirates in this country was located in Saint Malo. It was once an important seaport, and also the base of pirates with official support from the French government. From here, many French pirates sailed out for robbery. Jacques Cartier, the great explorer who first arrived in Quebec also set off his voyage here. The whole nation cheered over his discovery when the news was sent back to France. So Captain Cartier is honored as the discoverer of Quebec. However, this sacred “city of fortune” in France is the home of pirates in the eyes of British people. But anyhow, there are many people visiting here every year. People of French descent come to seek roots while the others are here for the traces of pirates, especially those hidden treasures.

On the Saint Malo beach, originally the locals built the wooden stakes to slow down the tidewater. Later they used them to dry the oysters under the sun. So take a careful look, you can see the shells of marine inquilines in the crevices. The beach and stakes have already become a part of the locals’ life. They just sit on the beach in a daze, or gaze at the sea pensively. I can even see somebody pulls a rope between stakes and practices balance walking on it.

Will they miss their pirate ancestors?