What were the origins of the skull and crossbones, as seen on pirate-ship flags? —Kelly, Cypress, Texas
Concluding our two-part colloquium on pirates: Piracy dates back at least to ancient Greece and continues today; its golden age began in the 1650s and peaked circa 1720, when around 2,000 pirates terrorized the Atlantic. But nearly all our notions of their behavior come from the golden age of fictional piracy, which reached its zenith in 1881 with the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Its influence on subsequent pirate lit can’t be overstated: Stevenson flat-out invented some of the genre’s most durable clichés—treasure maps marked X (see last week’s column), the black spot as token of impending doom—and his vision took hold so quickly that almost all subsequent works involving piracy are in some way derived therefrom. Long John Silver, the one-legged ship’s cook with a parrot on his shoulder, was his most fertile creation, but basically every pirate you’ve ever seen has some RLS DNA; throw in Captain Hook and crew from James Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) and that’s much of the pirate gene pool right there.
So what was real and what wasn’t?
Clothing. Pirates did wear scarves, bandanas, hats, etc, to ward off the sun. Generally captain and crew alike dressed practically—e.g., avoiding loose clothing that might snag on a spar. But the frilled shirts, frock coats, and full-bottomed wigs popular in movies make some sense, since 1. occasionally there was a need to pose as legitimate gentlemen of the era, 2. a few captains apparently adopted this as their everyday look, and 3. plundered finery was distributed to the crew.
Hooks, peg legs, eye patches. Seamen often got seriously hurt in battle or bad weather, and amputation was the primary treatment for major limb injuries—the ship’s surgeon (or carpenter) typically just sawed off the unlucky extremity ASAP and tied off or cauterized the blood vessels. Men missing hands were often seen; surviving the loss of a leg was relatively rare, though, and the ubiquity of peg-legged pirates is almost certainly the Long John Silver effect at work. Lost eyes, and thus patches, weren’t too unusual.
Parrots. Seafarers in the tropics commonly brought home exotic fauna as souvenirs. Parrots were particularly popular because they were colorful, could be taught to speak, and were easier to care for than, say, monkeys. (Read: they crapped everywhere but at least wouldn’t throw it at you.) They also fetched a good price back in London. However, one can’t imagine a crewman actually heaving at the capstan with a bird perched on him.
Piratespeak. “Arrrr” showed up late, probably in movies of the 1930s. Actor Robert Newton played Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island, one of the better portrayals of old-school piracy, and reprised the role in sequels and on TV; his accent featured a strong rolling R, which likely helped fix “arrrr” in the piratical canon. Much pirate lingo, like “avast,” was simply nautical speech of the time; “shiver my timbers” predates Stevenson, but he ran with it.
Skull and crossbones. This was only one of many pirate-flag insignia. Why fly a pirate flag, anyway? To terrorize victims into surrendering without a struggle. The earliest such flags were plain red or black sheets—red symbolizing blood and battle, black for death. Later captains added emblems: hearts dripping blood, fiery balls, hourglasses, cutlasses, skeletons, etc. Around 1718, Captain Richard Worley flew a black flag with a white death’s-head and crossed femurs, a symbol of death dating to medieval times. By about 1730, this design had caught on among English, French and Spanish pirates in the West Indies and was called the “Jolly Roger” or “Old Roger.”
Walking the plank. Unmentioned in historical accounts of the golden age; tossing someone over the side was quicker. In one instance from 1829 the perps apparently had some extra time and/or panache, and men were indeed tied, blindfolded, weighted with shot, and made to walk. This can’t have been a total anomaly (ancient pirates may occasionally have used a ladder in some planklike fashion) but it wasn’t common.
Marooning was, however. Victims were left on small deserted islands to die slowly from starvation or exposure.
Stevenson nailed it in one important respect: he portrayed pirates as murderous and cruel. Later books (such as Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood) and movies would romanticize them as swashbuckling adventurers. But David Cordingly, whose Under the Black Flag (1996) is probably the best single volume on things piratical, reminds us that “pirates were not maritime versions of Robin Hood and his merry men,” and their “attacks were frequently accompanied by extreme violence, torture, and death.” Nothing too jolly about that, Roger.
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