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, on my website, but for this book I intend to post on the webpage itself 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?
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.
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.
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 American (that is, from the Americas) origin, but of French, from France and returning to France. The pirate in question is . I’ve discussed the pirate, Jean-Thomas Dulaien, and his flag in the The Golden Age of Piracy. The first flag below is reportedly an image made 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.
Copyright Benerson Little 2016. Originally published December 19, 2016, last updated February 8, 2018.