Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride

Tales of piracy are brought to the fore in The National Museum of the Royal Navy's newest exhibition, Jolly Roger: A Symbol of Terror and Pride. The new exhibition tells the story of the skull and crossbones flag, commonly known as the Jolly Roger, which has been associated with pirates for centuries.

Known for its bright colour and deadly reputation, the Jolly Roger flag features a skull and crossbones design, striking fear in to all that see it. However, the history of its use by the Royal Navy who started flying the flag from First World War submarines is lesser known.

The tradition began in 1914 in response to a comment that submariners should be ‘hung like pirates’ because of their role in sinking civilian ships. The unofficial practice of flying a Jolly Roger on return from wartime patrol took hold and has continued into the 21st century. Over time the basic skull and crossbones design has evolved, supplemented with additional symbols which record what happened during their patrol.  These flags are an imposing visual record of the submarine’s activity as well as striking pieces of folk art.

Featured within the exhibition are several examples of these iconic designs including the Jolly Roger of HMS Turbulent, flown on return from patrol in the Gulf. These are displayed alongside artefacts which relate to some of the incidents recorded on the flags. 

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.”

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.

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.

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