The "pirate brand" has long been tied to the skull and crossbones—the Jolly Roger—as a symbol of terror on the high seas. A 2011 article in The New York Times hails the ominous design as a magnificent exercise in collective hybrid branding, noting that economics drove pirates to adopt a version of this particular symbol to facilitate their intent to plunder. It's a fascinating discussion on the efficiency and power that good branding can deliver, but it overlooks the ways in which the power of the symbol as we recognize it draws in part in the acceptance and manipulation of the image by others.
Piracy has likely long been a feature of the open seas, following the earliest trade routes of the Aegean and Mediterranean. Cilicians were active in the Mediterranean and tolerated by the Roman Empire for the slaves they provided, and were only reigned in when they gained such a presence as to become a threat to the Empire's grain supply in 67 BCE. The Senate approved "a comprehensive and systematic strategy and an astutely humane policy to the vanquished" to eliminate the Cilicians within a matter of months (1). Despite this historical legacy, the familiar skull and crossbones that many of us associate with piracy is a recent development, emerging in the late 17th-century with the rise of the pirates of the Caribbean.
Following the discovery of the New World, the Caribbean quickly gained status as a center of trade with sugar, gold, and human capital flowing between the Old and New Worlds. The Spanish dominated the landscape but other colonial powers soon followed. Pirates, many of whom were drawn to the trade because it offered a chance to make a sustainable wage, found the waters of the Caribbean particularly attractive: largely unsettled, they would not be bothered by governing bodies; there were plenty of safe, natural harbors; and many opportunities to liberate spoils from the trade vessels of the Spanish (2). Tensions between Old World powers were not limited to their respective shores—traces of these conflicts echoed in the Western colonies, and the English, Dutch, and French sanctioned piracy—commissioning them as privateers—as a means of protecting their claims and controlling the goods in the region. These men were national heroes: defenders of the nation on the high seas. Their numbers included Francis Drake and Henry Morgan—hailed as Gentlemen of the seas.
Pirates have a bloodthirsty and lawless reputation. They're known for walking the plank, copious alcohol consumption, and lascivious tendencies, but these were skilled men drawn from maritime trades which had paid them poorly:
Merchant seamen got a hard, close look at death: disease and accidents were commonplace in their occupation, rations were often meager, and discipline was brutal. Each ship was "a little kingdom" whose captain held a near-absolute power which he often abused (3).
Some pirates had served in the navy where conditions aboard ship were no less harsh. Food supplies often ran short, wages were low, mortality was high, discipline severe, and desertion consequently chronic (4).
While privateers often had better food and pay and shorter shifts, the long arm of the law was sometimes unforgiving and held them to strict standards. Pirates who seemed to have no loyalties to man or country were able to set their own terms, albeit under the guise of crime. These seafaring groups were far from disorganized—they operated under strict codes of conduct that reflected a highly organized social order governing authority, distribution of plunder, and discipline. For example, spoils were systematically distributed:
Captain and quartermaster received between one and one-half and two shares; gunners, boatswains, mates, carpenters, and doctors, one and one-quarter or one and one-half; all others got one share each (5).
The Captain served at the mercy of the crew, and could be removed from his position for acts of cowardice, cruelty, or failure to act in the best interest of the crew. A council governed the crew, representing the highest authority aboard the ship. In many ways this order was necessary to the survival of piracy. This group knew that they were operating on borrowed time and on the edge of the hangman's noose. Though they could be commissioned, if caught by an opposing party, they faced death. The literally needed to hang together, or could find themselves hanging separately, which bred a sense of fraternity that spread among pirates and manifested in cooperative tendencies at sea and in port. In this context, flags emerged as identifiers:
In April 1719, when Howell Davis and crew sailed into the Sierra Leone River, the pirates captained by Thomas Cocklyn were wary until they saw on the approaching ship "her Black flag," then "immediately they were easy in their minds, and a little time after" the crews "saluted one another with their Cannon (6).
Though conflict between pirate bands was not unheard of, the groups were largely cooperative, even across national boundaries. And they would defend each other. For example, when survivors of the wrecked Whidah were jailed in 1717, pirates "acquired" a ship captain, whom they told "if the Prisoners Suffered they would Kill every Body [the pirates] took belonging to New England" (7).
A version of the Jolly Roger was widely adopted by pirates for fraternal reasons that ultimately did lead to economic boons as discussed by the Times—some 2,500 men sailed under a version of a black flag bearing the insignia of a white skeleton striking a bleeding heart with one hand and holding a hour glass. The flag was certainly meant to announce their presence, and the pirates, enterprising men that they were, quickly found that they could convey their intent to ships in their path with their banners: black flags indicated that they were pirates and that they would consider providing quarter, while a red flag bearing the described insignia meant that no quarter would be given and the mates meant to fight to the end. However, the imagery chosen for the flag is as much a reflection of the pirates and their lifestyle as it was a reflection of their terrible natures:
The flag was intended to terrify the pirates' prey, but its triad of interlocking symbols—death, violence, limited time—simultaneously pointed to meaningful parts of the seaman's experience, and eloquently bespoke the pirates' own consciousness of themselves as preyed upon in turn. Pirates seized the symbol of mortality from ship captains who used the skull "as a marginal sign in their logs to indicate the record of a death." Seamen who became pirates escaped from one closed system only to find themselves encased in another. But as pirates—and only as pirates—these men were able to fight back beneath the somber colors of "King Death" against those captains, merchants, and officials who waved banners of authority (8).
By rallying under this sign, the pirates created a physical symbol that could be identified as "pirate." But perhaps this accepted branding suggested this group had grown too large and too powerful to be allowed to continue unchecked. Piracy was a business—an officially sanctioned business in many cases—but as the Cilicians were eradicated by the Empire once they became a sizable threat, so too would these men be persecuted, and by the very powers that once encouraged their numbers.
Historian Douglas R. Burgess Jr. discusses the ways in which the perception of 17th-century piracy was shaped by governing officials, who used the media for this purpose following the conviction of famed English pirate Henry Every. He was distinguished as a "noble pirate," a title also bestowed upon the likes of Drake and Morgan in recognition of their courage on behalf of English maritime interests (9). This reputation, having been firmly planted in the minds of the English population, proved difficult to undo. In fact, when Every was brought to trial for the capture and mistreatment of the Ganj-i-Sawai (Gunsway), he was acquitted by the jury, much to the embarrassment of the English government, which had taken the stance—somewhat necessarily to repair trade ties with India and restore the power of the East India Trading Company—that he must be punished.
On the national stage, this was a PR nightmare for England. The acquittal suggested that England was a "nation of pirates" to potential allies and trade partners, such as India, and encouraged English colonies to sympathize and support piracy in local waters because it suggested that the native England herself supported these individuals. The government retried Every and his men under charges of mutiny. (He had been first-mate of the Charles II. However, he seized the ship while at port (as he had not been paid) and renamed it the Fancy, and proceeded to attack the Ganj-i-Sawai.) England effectively re-crafted the definition of piracy to bring him and his men to justice, and in doing so, sent the message that piracy itself would no longer be tolerated.
While this would not be the end of piracy itself, it may be a point at which multiple meanings associated with the Jolly Roger begin to take shape. The noble pirate image persisted: Every was treated as a folk hero in popular culture. For example, The Life and Adventures of Captain John Avery published in 1709, painted Every as a "gallant swashbuckler who falls in love with an Indian princess on board the captured Ganj-i-Sawai" who then decrees that his crew should also have "dusky" brides to share in his joy (10). Subsequently, playwright Charles Johnson would adapt the tale for stage in The Successful Pyrate, which portrayed Every as an "empire builder" and a "tough but effective monarch" (11). Every was often subsequently depicted in military gear—the idea of the defender persisted.
The signing of the Treaty of Utretcht quieted much of the discord that had driven privateering initially, reducing the need for these seafaring brigands as well as official tolerance for their actions (12). In this context, signs of piracy became outlawed, to fit the idea that pirates are bloodthirsty, ruthless, criminals. These ideas moved the symbols associated with piracy away from fraternal ties and self identification, and moved the pirates themselves away from nationalist ties, rendering them targets of the state. And we were left with mixed symbolism—further diluted as it is appropriated for modern day uses.
For additional reading on modern day piracy, Readers are directed to Andrew Thaler's Nothing to Plunder—The Evolution of Somalia's Pirate Nation on Southern Fried Science.
This post appeared on the original home of Anthropology in Practice. It was also featured in the Open Lab Series highlighting some of the best online science writing. I was thrilled that historical/anthropological selection was included.
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1. Anderson, JL (1995). Piracy and World History: An Economic Perspective on Maritime Predation: 184.
2. Rediker, Marcus (1981). "Under the Banner of King Death": The Social World of Pirates: 206.
3. Rediker 1981: 206.
4. Rediker 1981: 207.
5. Rediker 1981: 210.
6. Rediker 1981: 219.
7. Rediker 1981: 220
8. Rediker 1981: 223.
9. Burgess Jr., Douglas R (2009). Piracy in the Public Sphere: The Henry Every Trials and the Battle for Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Print Culture: 888.
10. Burgess Jr 2009: 910.
11. Burgess Jr 2009: 910.
12. Burgess Jr 2009: 909.
Anderson, JL (1995). Piracy and World History: An Economic Perspective on Maritime History. Journal of World History, 6 (2), 175-199
Burgess Jr., D. (2009). Piracy in the Public Sphere: The Henry Every Trials and the Battle for Meaning in Seventeenth‐Century Print Culture. Journal of British Studies, 48 (4), 887-913 DOI: 10.1086/603599
Rediker, M. (1981). "Under the Banner of King Death": The Social World of Anglo-American Pirates, 1716 to 1726. The William and Mary Quarterly, 38 (2), 203-227 DOI: 10.2307/1918775