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An Early Skull & Crossbones at Sea, and More

Invariably as one of my books is published, my continued research uncovers relevant information ranging from corrections to supplementary material. In the past I have posted this information in a pdf file, often quite lengthy, but for this book I intend to post on the book’s page (GAoP above) and also especially on this blog.

And for my first supplement, a painting by Jacob Gerritsz, mid-seventeenth century, of an allegorical ship representing the Holy Roman Catholic Church. The painting is intended as anti-Calvinist propaganda demonstrating that Calvinists and other “Reformers,” including Calvin himself firing a musket at the ship, cannot harm the Holy Church. One of the banners the ship flies is a skull and crossbones, the earliest I’ve seen to date. The flag is merely a symbol here, representing death, but could the painter have been aware of the flag flying for real somewhere?



“Das Schiff der Kirche” by Jacob Gerritsz, circa 1640 to 1649. Copyright DHM/Museum Catharijneconvent Utrecht.


Probably not, for why would the Church depict a ship (one of decidedly Spanish design) representing the Church flying a pirate banner? This is hardly the message the Vatican would like to present as an argument against Calvinism. More likely would be Calvinism, in the Roman Catholic Church’s eye, flying the flag of piracy.



Detail from “Das Schiff der Kirche” by Jacob Gerritsz.


The fact is, although the skull and bones was used extensively as a mortuary symbol, and may have been flown at this time by some Barbary corsairs, it does not appear to have been regularly flown, with extensive attached symbolism, until the coming of the Anglo-American pirates in the early 18th century. Details, of course, are discussed in The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth About Pirate Myths.

The same black flag with skull and crossbones is similarly used in an allegorical poem of the early 18th century, prior to the American pirates who flew the skull and bones, to represent the banner of Charon, ferry-master of the Styx in Hades.

The death’s head in the painting above has a frightening three dimensional aspect, which would take a talented pirate to replicate with paint and brush. Most, we imagine–and we can only imagine, having no existing pirate flags from the Golden Age from 1655 to 1725, only written descriptions–would be simple fabric cutouts or simple painted images. However, in The Golden Age of Piracy I do discuss the flag of Jean Thomas Dulaien who sailed shortly after the period, for which we have a written description, as well as images of a purported drawing and of a purported woodblock made from the drawing. All are similar but none exactly matches the other. The original flag was reportedly destroyed on the order of Louis XIV.

Except for a skull and bones flown on a red field–a flag of no quarter–by French flibustiers in 1688, and perhaps before and after, we have no evidence of their use among pirates and other sea rovers of European origin until the early 18th century, the first in 1700, and the rest circa 1715 and afterward. They may have been in use prior to this time by some of the Barbary corsairs. Details can be found in the first chapter of The Golden Age of Piracy: The Truth Behind Pirate Myths.

Banners with skull and bones have reportedly been around a long time, although depictions of them in art prior to the eighteenth century are difficult to find. Below is one by Hulderich Froelich of Basil, Switzerland, part of his 1588 Todtentanzes or “Dance of Death” series, one of which is Zwen Todentäntz, deren der eine zu Bern. Charles Hill, in his Episodes of Piracy in the Easter Seas, 1519 to 1851, published serially in the 1919 and 1920 editions of The Indian Antiquary, points this illustration out. Froelich’s “Dance of Death” along with others, is discussed in fair detail in here.




For the curious, what might the skull and crossbones, or skeleton, have looked like on real pirate flags of the early 18th century? We have only one likely authentic example of one, and it’s only a purported drawing of the flag of a French pirate, and of a woodcut believed to have been made from the drawing. More on them in a moment. The following are skulls and bones taken from a few late seventeenth century image showing various representations.



Detail from a portrait of Ernst Eberhard Friedrich, Count of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. Circa 1671. After Johann Georg Kreutzfelder, print made by Jacob von Sand. British Museum.



Detail from the Dance of Death series. After Abraham van Diepenbeeck (border), after Hans Holbein the Younger, print made by Wenceslaus Hollar. 1651. British Museum.



Detail from the Dance of Death series. After Abraham van Diepenbeeck (border), after Hans Holbein the Younger, print made by Wenceslaus Hollar. 1651. British Museum.


As for the one real “Golden Age” pirate flag we have an image of (there are no existing examples of real pirate flags from this era), it just barely makes it into the era, as at 1729 it’s late for the period that generally is regarded to end at 1725 or 1728. It’s also not the flag of a pirate of an Anglo-American pirate, but a French one, from France and returning to France. The pirate in question is Jean-Thomas Dulaien, whom I’ve discussed along with his flag in The Golden Age of Piracy. The first image below was reportedly created from the original flag, which was reportedly destroyed by order of Louis XIV; the second is of a woodblock or woodblock print made from the image.

Dulaien Original

The purported Dulaien original, copied from the actual flag. Clearly, if the image is accurate (there’s no reason to believe it is not), the skull, bones, and man with cutlass and hourglass was painted on. The original flag was, according to reports at the time, destroyed.


Dulaien Wood Block

The purported woodcut image made from the original illustration. Clearly it is only a representation of the original image, and not an entirely accurate reflection.


Likewise, since publication I’ve also identified earlier images of the red flags of the Islamic corsairs, one dating to 1711, the others probably 1707 to 1711. Clearly these sea-going flags were around prior to the Anglo-American pirates who used similar flags, as were others I’ve noted in the book itself.

Turkish and Moorish Rovers 1711

Schouw-park aller Scheeps-vlaggen des geheelen Water-Waerelds, 1711. The flag is shown among Barbary and Turkish sea flags. This flag is popularly, and incorrectly, attributed to the pirate Christopher Moody. (Rijksmuseum.)


Turkish or Ottoman Rover circa 1707

Ottoman corsair flag from Nieuwe Tafel van alle de Scheeps Vlaggen des Gehele Water-Waerelds op Nieus Vermeerdert en Verbeeterdt, probably dating 1707 to 1711, possibly slightly later, based on some of the English flags shown.  The Rijksmuseum incorrectly dates it 1650 to 1700.


Algiers Rover

Algiers red banner with death’s head, from Nieuwe Tafel van alle de Scheeps Vlaggen des Gehele Water-Waerelds op Nieus Vermeerdert en Verbeeterdt, dated as immediately above.


And last, a note on the purported flag of Blackbeard. Historian Ed Fox has pointed out that, according to The Mariner’s Mirror (1912, vol. 2, no. 3) the horned Blackbeard flag first appears in The Book of Buried Treasure by R. D. Paine (Ralph Delahaye)1911. The book was reprinted in 1981 by Arno Press. The drawing is fanciful but is based on a legitimate period description of a pirate flag. A later artist or publisher ascribed it, with minor modification emphasizing devil horns, to Blackbeard.

Jolly Roger



Copyright Benerson Little 2016-2018. Originally published December 19, 2016, last updated December 9, 2018.


  1. It is an excellent information. 🙂 Many thanks!


  2. […] Источник: A Brief Interlude: An Early Skull & Crossbones at Sea […]


  3. ghp95134 says:

    Just in case you were not aware.
    Not a “Golden Age” pirate flag, but authentic 1780 red Jolly Roger nonetheless. It was on display in 2011 at the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard; on loan by descendants of Lieut (later admiral) Richard Curry:

    “…The flag was captured in battle off the North African coast in 1780 by Lt Richard Curry, who later became an admiral….”


    • My apologies, I never saw this comment until just now and don’t recall a notice. Or I was asleep. 🙂 I’ve researched the flag in question and suspect, after reviewing Curry’s naval record, that it was captured by Curry when ashore in Egypt. I’m pretty sure I noted this in GAoP. Given that the flag appears to have been flown by the fly and not the hoist, as most naval were and are, including North African naval flags at the time, it is in my opinion a banner flown ashore by land forces, whether regular or irregular.


      • ghp95134 says:

        Thanks for your response. I didn’t even notice is was displayed as a gonfanon. I read your GAoP after writing my post and noted your mention regarding this “flag.”

        Many thanks.


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