The work on piracy continues apace. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the pirate emblem ‘The Jolly Roger.’ This skull and crossed bones, or swords, was hoisted by pirates as they approached vessels they were about to attack, as a sort of early warning / threat system. Crews who had turned mutinously on their captains would also hastily stitch together a Jolly Roger and raise it as a sign that they had ‘gone pirate.’ But what does this flag actually mean?
The skull and crossed bones was the symbol that was recorded in the ship’s log if a member of the crew died. As life aboard these ocean-going ships was horribly tough, this was not an uncommon occurrence. Traditionally then, the raising of the Jolly Roger has been taken as a way of driving fear into those the pirates were attacking – a fear that came from the message ‘we are going to kill you.’ In other words, pirates were warning those they attacked that they would bring death upon any who resisted.
But I believe there’s another way of looking at this flag. Pirates were, as the title of Marcus Rediker’s excellent book goes, Villains of All Nations. Almost all of them had turned pirate having been on naval or merchant vessels and rebelled. The fact that they did was unsurprising, as conditions were shockingly bad:
Sailors suffered cramped claustrophobic quarters, “food” that was often as rotten as it was meager, and more. They experienced as a matter of course devastating disease, disabling accidents, shipwreck and premature death. They faced discipline from their officers that was brutal at best and often murderous. They got small reward for their death-defying labours, for wages were low and fraud in payment frequent. – Villains of All Nations p 43
They were “caught in a machine from which there was no escape, bar desertion, incapacitation, or death.” Sailors in the Royal Navies were the scum of the earth. To the officers who abused them – and often killed them – sailors were nothing.
So the approach of a pirate vessel flying the Jolly Roger was terrifying in another more radical way too. The skull and crossed bones does not mean ‘we are bringing you death’; rather it announces ‘we are the dead.’ We, the shat-on, the abused, the flogged, the ones you treated as less than human, have escaped your power, have slipped away from the identity you foisted onto us. We, the ones who you took for dead, are returning as the dead – and thus totally free of all fear, totally free of all human labels or classifications or ranks.
This is far more terrifying. The fear of death is only surpassed by one thing: the fear that those you have killed off, live on and will return to haunt you. This is what pirates did as they boarded other vessels. The Quartermaster would assemble the seamen of the captured vessel and ask among them ‘who will serve under the death’s head and black colours?’ Who, in other words, will be prepared to become as dead to the world of the Empire, of the King and Queen, of England and its rich merchants and iron-clad class system, and live on as pirate?
It’s here that we see an interesting parallel with Christianity emerging. Christians have traditionally worn crosses – a symbol of death. This isn’t worn to inspire fear (one hopes) – which is odd, given that the wearer is carrying around a symbol of torture. Rather, it is worn to signify personal death: the wearer has rejected all the identities that the world shoves upon us: Jew, Greek, Slave, Free, Male, Female – and has thus become terrifyingly free, unfettered by the norms which are meant to keep people in their place.
Pirates – and Christians – thus gather under an emblem of death not in order to inspire fear of death, or to create anarchy, but as a sign that they have died to the world, to the identities that the world pushed onto them. We might say that pirates did not raise the Jolly Roger as a symbol of violence, but rather as a declaration that no more violence could be done to them. They were dead, and yet lived still – and thus the Empire should tremble in fear, for the powerless slaves it had thought subsumed and controlled, were free and living without fear of the law.
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