Although the “Jolly Roger” is sometimes referred to as any flag flown by a pirate, it has generally come to represent a picture of a skull and crossbones emblazoned on a black background. It is still used on warning signs ranging from “high voltage” to “land mines”. It has come to represent a “joke” version of historic piracy and is worn by tens of thousands of little pirates every year at children’s fancy dress parties.
The truth is that is was once more hated than the Swastika and was the symbol of violent death, abuse, greed, rape and slavery. It was not uncommon for passengers on a ship that was being pursued by a pirate flying this flag to commit suicide rather than face the horrors that would be inflicted on them should they be captured. In particular, women captured by pirates could face years of sexual torment and abuse.
Dating back to at least the 16th Century, there are many theories for the origin of the name. Some say it comes from “Joli Rouge” or pretty red (the red pennant in English and flag meaning no prisoners) others claim it comes from “Ali Raja” the name of a feared Tamil pirate. Whatever its origin it was once the most feared symbol of its time. The Nazi SS even selected it as their “Deaths Head” insignia.