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The Terrifying Flag of Blackbeard
September 15, 2019

This is a guest post by Jordan Baker of East India Blogging Co. Thanks Jordan!

Imagine this: a black flag picturing a white, horned devil. In the creature’s right hand it holds an hourglass, while in its left it holds a spear that it’s driving into a large red heart, out of which droplets of blood slowly seep.

The symbology here at play here is quite impressive. Black is a color that has long been associated with death in the Western mind – so much so that many pirates simply used black flags to signify their intent to board and capture another ship. Then to add on top of that a demonic-looking create holding a symbol of death in each hand would have made this that much more fearsome. The hourglass the demon held in its right hand alerted its soon-to-be victims that their time on this earth was running out. The spear that the horned creature carried in its left hand was a not-so-metaphorical symbol for the violence about to occur; while the red heart and blood symbolized that no quarter would be given in the attack.

It was the perfect flag for a pirate of Blackbeard’s renown. Only, there’s no indication he or any of the ships under his command ever flew such a flag. This flag actually first appears in the historical record in 1912, in an article in the Mariner’s Mirror magazine – though it was not attributed to Blackbeard until the 1970s. In fact, historians of the Golden Age of Piracy have argued that such a symbol would not have made complete sense in the eighteenth-century. Pirates who roamed the Carribean and Atlantic drew their symbolism from the Christian heritage of Western Europe, a heritage in which the devil or a demon did not represent death itself.

So what, then, did Blackbeard’s flag look like? To date, there has only been one contemporary account found. A newspaper in 1718 recorded the sighting of Blackbeard’s fleet:

“… a large Ship and Sloop with Black Flags and Deaths Heads in them and three more Sloops with Bloody Flags all bore down upon the… ship Protestant Caesar… the ship had 40 Guns and 300 Men called the Queen Anne’s Revenge, commanded by Edward Teach…” (source)

Based on this description, it seems that Blackbeard’s fleet flew three different flags. One was probably plain black. This design, though not quite as imaginative as its twentieth-century counterpart, would certainly have put fear into the minds of his victims. Black was, and remains, a color often associated with death; and, though there’s no evidence Teach ever actually killed anyone in the line of piratical duty, a fully black standard waving in the wind told seafarers that whatever was about to happen wouldn’t be good.

The second type was the “Death Heads,” a fearsome combination of death imagery which placed a white skull over a black flag. It’s also possible “Death Heads” refers to the Jolly Roger, or skull-and-crossbones, pattern that other prominent pirates of the day adopted. The third and final flag Blackbeard seems to have flown was “Bloody Flags.” A ‘bloody flag’ was a simple, plain red flag, used to draw upon the imagery of blood and violence. When a ship flew a bloody flag, it meant not quarter or mercy would be given in the oncoming assault. (source)

Even though the modern flag so often attributed to Blackbeard probably never flew above the Queen Anne’s Revenge, its creator did draw upon many of the actual symbols Edward Teach and his colleagues in high-seas robbery used to signal their intent and strike fear into the hearts of captains across the Atlantic.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Jordan Baker holds a BA and MA in history from North Carolina State University. He loves all things historical but focuses mainly on the history of the Atlantic World. Read more from Jordan at East India Blogging Co.

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Jillianne Hamilton writes delightful historical fiction and historical romance featuring rebellious ladies and happy endings.

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