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Published: March 14, 2019

New Exhibition Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride Uncovers Fascinating History of the Jolly Roger

A new exhibition that sheds light on the little-known cultural history of the Jolly Roger flag will open at The National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard on 6 April 2019.

Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride tells the story of the skull and crossbones flag, commonly known as the Jolly Roger, which has been associated with pirates for centuries. 

The title Jolly Roger is thought to come from the French phrase “joli rouge” which means “pretty red”. The original pirate flags were blood red rather than black and white and this signalled that no mercy would be given once the pirates boarded and battle ensued. The skull and cross bones came from the symbol used in ships’ logs, where it represented death onboard. 

Mythologised in popular fiction and on the screen, a Jolly Roger, when seen on the horizon, would strike fear into the hearts of any sailor. Less well known is its use by the pirates’ adversaries, the Royal Navy, where a tradition of flying the flag from submarines has existed since the First World War.

Victoria Ingles, senior curator at The National Museum of the Royal Navy said:

“The iconic Jolly Roger has become associated with the representation of pirates as swashbuckling rogues, cool rebels and fun children’s characters but this exhibition exposes the dark side behind these stereotypical images. 

 In reality, pirates commit brutal acts of violence and disrupt trade, which is why the Royal Navy still actively seeks to suppress their activities. Yet, despite fighting piracy, the practice of flying a Jolly Roger has also become tradition within the submarine service in response to a critic who likened them to pirates. 

These flags are a unique visual record of a boat’s combat activities as well as a striking piece of folk art. Handcrafted, they are as much a symbol of pride and also poignant reminder of the impact of war.”

Victoria Ingles


Each action a submarine carried out had its own symbol. These symbols would either be painted or sewn onto a bit of black material. Sometimes material symbols were painted over to make them weather proof.


An example of a Jolly Roger with symbols depicting action with an enemy warship; participation in a “cloak and dagger” operation; sinking of an enemy merchant ship and that the boat was used as a navigational marker for an invasion force.

The exhibition also seeks to give a wider context to the submarine pirate tradition. An introduction will sketch the history of the Royal Navy and piracy and features a Jolly Roger seized from pirates by the Royal Navy in the 1790s belonging to Admiral Richard Curry who captured the flag during a battle off the North African coast. The display concludes with a look at the modern-day Royal Navy’s continuing efforts to combat piracy.

Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride coincides with the opening of Horrible Histories® Pirates, also at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, based on the best-selling series by Terry Deary and illustrator Martin Brown. It is an internationally-acclaimed exhibition that will open for the first time in the UK on 6th April and is set to give fans of all ages an action-packed insight into the mysterious and murky world of pirates across the ages.