“Now I am become death…” | The Jolly Roger

by , under Politics, Theology

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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  1. Peter

    Interesting post, thanks.

    Just finished reading Other (couldn’t put it down). Fantastic book, thanks very much. Bought it on a whim knowing nothing about it. Was delighted to see your connection with Peter Rollins who I know to be a legend from his Mars Hill preaches. I agree with him that Other is “A work of rare beauty”. Looking forward to the next one!

  2. chris

    an stimulating piece…

    i would fundamentally disagree with the idea that pirates become totally free. i would suggest that they become shadows, exposing the realities of the ‘machine’ but unable to offer any alternative. they are still dominated by the ‘machine’s’ remorseless logic of violence. they may have carved a new niche within this ecosystem but they haven’t been able to escape its dominant imagination. victims becomes oppressors, bullied become bullies etc.

    So to extol the pirate as an archtype, i futile and offers no hope of any social change. only a person, in the full sense of that word, who is able remold our social / political imaginations – not only to point out the futility of the status quo – offers hope. and paradoxically only a pure victim is able to do this…

    i look forward to your thoughts on christ as pirate.

  3. Mark

    Stirring analogy. The cross and the skull are “cool” until it reminds the world that “we are the dead.” Spot-on.

    One idea–what if the church isn’t violent enough? What if “living affirmation of the death to the world,” should be socially and psychologically awesome. This is a passive violence of “light”entering into darkness (like the violence of MLK Jr, Bonhoeffer or Mother Teresa).

    What do you think?

  4. KB

    Chris – I’d agree with you. Pirates do not become ‘totally free’, and I should have written more carefully. And interesting that you’ve picked up on them becoming ‘shadows’. In some of the articles I’ve written on piracy I talked on them being not Hostis Humanis Generis, so much as Umbris Humanis Generis – the shadows of all mankind, who work underneath what is in the ‘light.’

    However, I do believe that pirates do offer hope of social change – and there are specific examples of this that I will try to elucidate in the book.

    Mark – again, very interesting. I’ve long been worried that things like ‘Cafe Church’ are far too passive and ‘weak’ in a way, and we took this idea of us as ‘the dead’ seriously we’d be far far more brave politically, culturally – and psychologically. And yes, we have seen this in people like MLK and Teresa, and others.

  5. acetate monkey

    Without blowing smoke, yet another example of why I love dropping by to see if anything’s been posted. Very interesting! 🙂

    This probably adds nothing to your thoughts on piracy (or you’ve probably already written it somewhere- can’t locate old posts due to personal idiocy), but does the fear of pirates being the naval undead who do not sit neatly in the “identity…foisted onto [them]” tie into other things you’ve written on ‘dirt’? If so, why is it that whilst societal depictions of zombies is (generally) that of dangerous ‘matter out of place'(not dead but not alive), pirates are the stuff of childrens’ parties (I recall you writing something about that!)?

  6. KB

    Always good to have you drop by! Yes, there are some very interesting links with ‘dirt’ creeping in… but I’d not made the zombie connection, and need to think about that, as it’s spot on. Thank you! Any thoughts you have on it? Do share!

  7. acetate monkey

    Haven’t thought much more than that I’m afraid, other than remembering that in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, there is the link made between the pirates of the Black Pearl being the undead- how it’s a dramatic moment when one of them first walks into the moonlight and we see they’re a skeleton.

    Are you exploring any of this at GB this w/e? Sadly I can’t go, but have primed all and sundry to seek you out (and Duke Special if he doesn’t clash)! 🙂

  8. acetate monkey

    Just to add to that undead point, a friend of mine mentioned that derrida had also written about zombies and categories of dead/alive. Not sure where but thought I’d mention it! 🙂

  9. acetate monkey

    Sorry to keep popping up. Meant to say that maybe a difference between them is their relevance to modern life. Distance=enchantment (Collins). Jolly Rogers were 200 ago, so we can’t connect with the actual fear of meeting them at sea and they become disneyfied and tamed.Like Robin hood, they become romantic ideals rather than their gritty reality. In contrast, the risk society (beck, giddens) is aware of the consequences of science (eg Frankenstein), myriad unseen hazards (eg radiation), is obsessed with life expectancy, and is more complex to categorise. Whilst we won’t actually meet zombies, they symbolise these more pertinent concerns.

    (Or maybe not!)