October 20 – Capture of Calico Jack!

Posted October 20, 2016

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to talk a bit here and there about pirates who sailed and robbed during the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the Caribbean Sea. (Yes, that's right, I'm talking about the real Pirates of the Caribbean.) I've even mentioned “Calico Jack” – John Rackham – in my write up of one of the few famous female pirates, Anne Bonny

Well, today is the anniversary of the day in 1720 when Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and the rest of their crew were captured by pirate hunter Jonathan Barnet.

Rather than talking a lot about the beautiful Caribbean Islands among which Calico Jack sailed, or expounding on the rarity of his having two women pirates aboard his ship – both of which I've talked about before (see the links above) – I'd love to get into the Jolly Roger, the familiar pirate flag.

We commonly think of the Jolly Roger being the skull and crossbones symbol on a black flag. You might think that this is just some modern add-on to the tales of pirates – but this flag really was used by a bunch of pirate captains, including Black Sam Bellamy, Edward England, and John Taylor. It was even likely to have been flown by Blackbeard. The skull-and-crossbones symbol were first used on naval flags way back in the 1600s, and plain black flags were used by many pirates in the early 1600s to the early 1700s. So we can see how the tradition of the Jolly Roger evolved.

Our anti-hero of the day, Calico Jack, designed his own version of the Jolly Roger. See the difference?
Even more menacing, I think!

Why advertise that you're a pirate?

Obviously, back in the Golden Age of Piracy, most ships can see one another from quite a ways – at least, during the day, and when it's not incredibly foggy or stormy! That's what the crow's nest way up high on the main mast is for, right? A constant lookout for land, reefs, other ships?

So why-oh-why would pirates advertise that they were pirates, allowing others to at least try to sail away?

The answer may be obvious enough that you already know it (or have just figured it out): most pirate ships carried a variety of flags onboard. And they would hoist the “false color” that most benefitted them as they approached a ship and came within shooting distance of their guns (cannons).

That probably means, if they were approaching a British ship, they'd fly a British flag.

But once they were close enough to shoot, the pirates would raise the Jolly Roger with a warning shot. Often, the people in the other ship would give up without a fight – because they wanted to stay alive!

And THAT'S why pirates would fly a pirate flag - because it would often strike dread in people's hearts and make them give up their gold and jewels to spare their lives.

There were a variety of
black and red pirate flags
flown by all the various
Pirates of the Caribbean.
If a ship decided to resist, at least some pirates would take down the Jolly Roger and put up a red flag. The red flag meant that they would “give no quarter.” In other words, they would take no prisoners. In even plainer words, they intended to kill everyone.

So the Jolly Roger WAS relatively jolly, since it represented “we are not necessarily going to kill you!”

Also on this date:

Spirit Day – third Thursday of October

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