You may have noticed that we’re pretty big fans of the Jolly Roger - in particular, the skull and crossbones that have come to represent the golden age of pirates that we’ve all seen in movies or read about in books. Pirate culture continues to spark our collective imagination and we’re no exception. But the way that pirates fit into their society is just as important to us. So we figured we’d take a moment to look beyond the stereotypes, and talk a little more about pirates and what they - and the Jolly Roger - represent to us.
Everybody has a picture of pirates in their head, which let’s just say is probably partly true. But that image doesn’t explain why pirates existed in the first place. Pirates were an outgrowth of the maritime economy of their time, the system of colonialism and sea-based trade that led to the “discovery” of the Americas by European explorers.
At the time, there was a ton of money to be had in exploring the world and bringing back scarce natural resources. And consequently, there was a lot to be gained by capturing those resources when they were being shipped across the ocean. If the history of mankind teaches us anything, it’s that any opportunity for profit will be exploited - both legally and illegally.
Pirates (who were definitely illegal) are better understood when compared to their close cousins, privateers. Privateers were like legalized pirates, commissioned by investors and kings to engage in similar activities. They were basically backed by the government to plunder enemy ships and colonies in exchange for a cut of the profit. They were considered to represent the crown’s interests and could fly its flag to identify itself to ships it encountered along the way as legit.
If you did the same thing but couldn’t be bothered by a commission or its rules, you were on your own - a pirate. You were guilty of a crime punishable by death and weren’t entitled to fly anyone’s flag but your own.
And that’s where the idea of the pirate flag was born - a black (or red) flag that pirates used to show their identity and intentions. When you saw a pirate flag on a ship pulling up beside yours, you were expected to know what was going on and submit quietly. And if you didn’t, you were in for a hell of a fight and woe be unto you if you didn’t come up on top.
While the skull and crossbones are the most common designs we think of when it comes to pirates, they used a variety of symbols to symbolize death and dying, in ways both highly specific (spears, cannonballs, bleeding hearts) and abstract (skeletons, hourglasses that represent mortality). And the term Jolly Roger was used to refer to all of these permutations.
One design that stands out to us rolls a bunch of these images into one - a skeleton holding an hourglass in one hand, with an arrow stabbing a bleeding heart in the other. This image is popularly associated with the flag used by Blackbeard - one of the most notorious pirate captains in history, whose reputation lives on today in legend.
But myths can often overshadow reality - while we might think of piracy as a lifestyle today, it was really a career, available to anyone who could sail and was up for a hard life at sea. But it was also dangerous and illegal, a hustle to survive in a world where a handful of powerful people controlled most of the wealth. As we mentioned before, pirates weren’t the only people out there plundering ships - it they just weren’t doing it for those in charge. There are privateers who turned pirates, and pirates who renounced their way of life and became pirate hunters. So it wasn’t as black and white as you might think.
We acknowledge that pirate behavior could be repellent, which partly reflected the brutal times they lived in. But working outside of the system also gave them a chance to buck some of the social norms of their time. While they operated outside the law, they had a code. Each ship was its own democracy where the captain was voted in by its crew - and could just as easily be voted out for not looking out for their interests. They drafted written articles which set out the way plunder would be split and how injuries would be compensated. And a former prostitute, Cheng I Shou, became one of the most feared pirate leaders of all time, leading a Chinese pirate population estimated at 40,000. This is a side of pirates that we think is worth knowing about.
For all the lore that continues to capture our imagination, it’s the pirates’ independent spirit that really draws us to them here at Noah. Their refusal to operate according to the unjust rules constructed by the powerful still resonates today.