The Jolly Roger

If you’ve ever seen a pirate film, you’ll be familiar with the famous flag, the Jolly Roger, that seems to feature in most of them. The distinctive flag has a black background with a white skull and crossed bones and is an iconic symbol of crime and wrongdoing on the high seas. Here’s a short tail to explain how this flag got its name.

It concerns the story of Bartholomew Roberts, born in Little Newcastle, north Pembrokeshire in 1682. He went to sea when he was just 10 and although he was dead by 40, he became one of the most famous pirates of all time.  Bart initially worked on a slaving vessel plying its trade between Africa and America and eventually Joined another Welsh pirate, Hywel Davies, after Davies attacked his ship. Davies was subsequently killed, some 6 weeks later in a skirmish with another vessel, and consequently, Black Bart, being a natural leader of men, a skilled navigator and good companion, was elected the new captain.

Even though he was a pirate, Roberts had very strict standards and captained with an iron rod: on board there was no alcohol (he was a life-long tee-totaller), no gambling, no women, and no smoking below decks! His loves were tea and music, and he was prone to wear flamboyant scarlet from head to foot.

Over the years he acquired booty of over £51 million having taken over 400 ships, largely without a fight. He was a master seaman using the Royal Revenge, a small and highly maneuverable Welsh collier to great effect. He disliked unnecessary violence and treated captured women and other sea captains with great respect. Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and New England were all terrorized by his piracy in addition to Africa and the West Indies. Eventually, he captured and started sailing a larger and more cumbersome French ship called the Victoire. The vessel was heavily loaded with spoils and by this point he needed 2 other vessels just to carry his loot!

By 1722, Barty had become public enemy No: 1 of the high seas so a task force of 2 frigates lead by Commander Ogle was set up to hunt him down. After a fierce sea battle which included hand to hand fighting, Roberts was killed by a sniper’s bullet, having been attracted by the pirate captain’s stunning scarlet clothing.

Black Bart became one of Pembrokeshire’s most famous sons, the man who invented the skull and crossbones flag, named the Jolly Roger. So why was it called that? Roberts was known for his wit and good humour, his swagger and for his scarlet outfits which lead his French enemies to dub him “Le Joli Rouge”.


Jolly Roger -