The Jolly Roger

Marcus Rediker, in conversation with Fiona Jeffries in Nothing To Lose But Our Fear, deconstructs the symbolism behind the Jolly Roger pirate flag.

The conventional narrative concerning the flag maintains that it was used to send:

“a clear message: surrender or die. The symbolism worked. When the Jolly Roger went up, the men on the prize vessel almost always surrendered, deciding that it was better to give up than to fight back and perhaps anger the pirates, who were going to capture you sooner or later anyway. They had faster ships, better arms, and more men”

The second meaning conveys a sense of humor and wit in the face of adversity. It demonstrates the Situationist’s notion of détournement, by effectively subverting the normative sign, to convey a sense of power and agency from those oppressed by the dominant system. Rediker explains how:

“A second set of meanings associated with the Jolly Roger grew from the labour history of the sailors who became pirates. The flag represents a commentary on the lives common sailors were forced to lead. The symbolic skull and crossbones originated among merchant captains, who drew it in the ship’s log to record the death of a sailor. Pirates used the same symbol to make an ironic commentary: ‘We’re trapped in a deadly employment, so we’ll take this symbol of death and put it on our flag. We will fight under it and we will find life under it. We will live differently, in a new kind of society of our own making.’”

The creativity that pirates utilized to subvert the hierarchical system of authority illuminates an inspiring sense of optimism and agency – effectively challenging a culture of subordination that employed draconian spectacles of fear and punishment.

Pirates demonstrated that the power structures of the time were simply human constructs. That even those on the bottom, those most oppressed, have the ability to establish new forms of social organization – and that an effective method to regain a sense of control is to cleverly invert the signs of domination into those of strength.


Image courtesy of Manuel Strehl 


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