Jump to content

Skull decorations on ships: real or fake


ntmcd1
 Share

Recommended Posts

Everyone knows pirate ships flew the famous skull and crossbones, but was there any evidence of imagery of skulls or skeletons anywhere else on the ship?  You see stuff like that on fictional pirate ships all the time, like the one below.  The only example I've ever heard of something like this would be when the pirate Bartholomew Roberts captured the Governor of Martinique on his 52 gun ship and hanged him from the yardarm, and used the rotting body as a warning.  Must have been a scary thing to see!

 

Screenshots_Wide_Figurehead_1332_292598.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

One of the decorative elements on the tafferail of HMS Pegasus is a rather ghastly looking severed head - but with its flesh still attached, of course.

 

The head of HMS Antelope, 50-guns, of 1803 (Sir Sydney Smith's infamous command), shows the full figurehead of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, holding forth a dinner platter, atop of which rests an antlered skull, presumably of an Antelope. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 year later...

Theres a pirate history podcast that explains the use of the skull and crossbones.  I'd have to dig through and find which episode.  It was more of a symbol of death and can be found on early 18th century grave stones which leads people to think they are pirate graves, which isn't true.  The symbol was used to symbolize death before itbwas used to symbolize pirates.  Also if they didn't die at sea pirates were likely burried in mass graves or unmarked graves in criminal grave yards.

 

The skull and cross bones was more a fad of the time. When a sailor died at sea a captain would write the skull and cross bone symbol in the log book along with the name and cause of death.  At the time captains could be ruthless. Corporal punishments were very harsh and could cause death.  Sailors saw a lot of there friends killed by the hands of their own captains.  So when they took to pirating they would fly a black flag.  If they had the materials it would have the skull and crossbones symbolizing death is coming but also, in a remeber all our friends you killed?  Now its your turn.  

 

I'm not aware of any skulls carved on pirate ships.  It most likely a modern trope much like earings which weren't in fashion in the early 1700's.  A lot of pirate tropes came the on the late 1800s to early 1900s.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It wasn't usual for pirates to add carvings to a ship, much less skulls (skulls weren't a common art form on ships).  Pirates often changed out their ships within a few months and didn't have time, skill or the desire to make wood carvings.  If I remember correctly Benjamin Hornigold had to sell of his favorite ship the Besheba because it was being ate up by worms.  Instead pirates would devote most of their effort for ship maintenance and upgrades on other tasks, such as cleaning the bottoms and adding more cannon or swivel guns.

 

As far as flags goes the skull and crossbones didn't come around until the early 18th century.  During the age of the buccaneers they used a black flag.  Also some pirates didn't fly the flags we think they flew.  For example, Blackbeard never flew the popular flag that was attributed to him.  Instead he just had a black flag with a skull on it.

 

Also keeping a dead, rotting corpse on a ship is a precarious thing.  Not saying it didn't happen, but it surely didn't happen often at all.  I heard somewhere pirates wore jewelry to finance their own burial on land which isn't true since they wouldn't have kept dead bodies aboard.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

You have to remember the purpose of a pirate ship. It was to make money by looting or taking other vessels.  It was not sensible to extensively damage or sink the other vessel unless they absolutely did not need it.  To that end most pirates actively cultivated a fierce persona and reputation to cow their prey into submission without having to fire a shot.  Gunpowder and shot was also a large expense item.  To that end many of them adopted their own flags so that they would be recognized and feared on first sighting.

 

The 'golden age' of piracy was in the early 1700's.  Some notable pirates of the time flew versions of the "Jolly Roger"  The first skull and crossbones motif appeared in 1700 when the French pirate Emanuel Wynne hoisted a black flag with a skull and crossbones over an hourglass to show his prey that time was running out. Thomas Tew flew a black flag with an arm holding a sword.  Jack Rackam had a skull and crossed swords. Bartholomew Roberts' showed a pirate and a skeleton holding a spear supporting an cup between them, drinking a toast to death.  Another flag of his showed himself standing on two skulls.  One labeled ABH (A Barbadian's Head) and the other AMH (A Martinican's Head).  Blackbeard, Edward Teach flew a black flag with a skeleton holding a a glass in one hand and a spear in the other which was aimed at a bleeding red heart.  Edward Low flew a black flag with a red skeleton.

 

Regards,

Link to comment
Share on other sites

41 minutes ago, popeye2sea said:

Blackbeard, Edward Teach flew a black flag with a skeleton holding a a glass in one hand and a spear in the other which was aimed at a bleeding red heart.

 

Small note this is the flag modern day folklore attributes to Blackbeard, but that actually wasn't his flag.

 

In Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pirate, published 1724, there's an engraving of Blackbeard with his ship in the background flying a black flag with a skull

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackbeard#/media/File:Edward_Teach_Commonly_Call'd_Black_Beard_(bw).jpg

Edward_Teach_Commonly_Call'd_Black_Beard

Edited by timboat
Link to comment
Share on other sites

13 minutes ago, DSiemens said:

There is little historical evidence for a lot of the flags that are attributed to pirates.  Historians traced the appearance of the common flags to the 1950's. 

 

http://www.piratesurgeon.com/pages/surgeon_pages/memento_mori6.html

 

 

 

That is an interesting article.  It does state that the common images of the flags as shown are probably from a more modern source , however it later states that some of them depict images as described in period sources.  

 

Regards,

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...