Shiver me timbers – it’s a rare Jolly Roger

DISPLAY Curator of artefacts Richard Noyce with the original Jolly Roger flag.  Picture: Sarah Standing (114398-7539)
DISPLAY Curator of artefacts Richard Noyce with the original Jolly Roger flag. Picture: Sarah Standing (114398-7539)

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IT LOOKS like a prop from a swashbuckling film like Pirates of the Caribbean.

But this menacing flag is in fact 220 years old and was flown by pirates who once sailed off the coast of North Africa.

The rare 18th century Jolly Roger is now on display at The National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

It has been loaned from Pamela Curry, who lives near Windsor and is a descendant of Admiral Richard Curry.

He captured the flag during a battle off the North African coast in 1790.

Museum curators say the design is an excellent example of the dreaded skull and crossbones flag of the pirate ship. Pirates used these flags to help frighten passing ships into surrendering without a fight.

The original pirate flags were blood red – rather than black – and this signalled that no mercy would be shown once the pirates boarded and battle ensued.

But Richard Noyce, curator of artefacts at the museum, said the outlaws’ lifestyle was hardly glamorous.

He said: ‘Pirates always attract much interest, no doubt in part due to the many Hollywood films about them.

‘However, in reality they weren’t the loveable rogues they are often portrayed as.

‘Then, as now, pirates were seen as a threat to trade and great efforts were made to suppress their criminal activities.’

When the flag was restored at the Winchester School of Art’s Textile Conservation Centre in 2007, gunpowder and small holes with charred edges were found on the flag.

The Jolly Roger is the most famous pirate flag.

The skull and cross bones came from the symbol used in ships’ logs, where it represented death on board.

It was first used on a pirate flag around 1700 and quickly became popular.

Pirates often had their own variations, such as a skull and crossed swords.

The title Jolly Roger is thought to come from the French phrase joli rouge, which means pretty red.

Although piracy never returned to the level it was in previous centuries, it has not disappeared and the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary continue to fight against piracy that threatens international shipping lanes.