By Kevin P. Duffus © 2021
The popular Blackbeard flag flown today was never Blackbeard’s flag, according to irrefutable evidence. If the notorious pirate captain saw it, he wouldn’t know whose it was. Likely, he would have thought the design to be unnecessarily elaborate.
To seek and report the true facts of pirates of the Golden Age, most historians—but not all—rely on the original depositions of the pirates’ victims; the official correspondence of colonial governors, Royal Navy captains, and merchants; trial records and logbooks; and less reliable published news reports from London and Boston. Yes, there was inaccurate news in 1718, just as there always has been, and always will be.
Absolutely no record from Blackbeard’s time described his flag as having a two-horned skeleton holding an hourglass and a spear or dart pointed at a bleeding heart. In fact, nearly 200 years would pass before that flag motif would be for the first time portrayed in words by an American journalist who penned a book about buried treasure while living on his bucolic New Hampshire farm.
That journalist, Ralph Delahaye Paine, a Yale graduate and once a member of the ultra-secret Skull and Crossbones Society, was the first writer to describe the flag that is today attributed to Blackbeard. Paine’s heirs truly deserve royalties from the flag’s sales.
In his 1911 book, “The Book of Buried Treasure: Being a True History of the Gold, Jewels, and Plate of Pirates, Galleons, Etc., which are Sought for to this Day,” Paine writes about the piratical activities of Capt. John Quelch who operated off the coast of Brazil in 1704: “A flag was then hoisted, called ‘Old Roger,’ described as having ‘in the middle of it an Anatomy (skeleton) with an Hourglass in one hand, and a dart in the Heart with 3 drops of Blood proceeding from it in the other.’”
The purpose of the skeleton or skull on a ship’s flag intimated imminent death if the pirates’ victims resisted capture. On land, similar memento mori symbols, or skull and crossbones, simply represent everyone’s inevitable fate and can be found on countless gravestones, both in Europe and America. They do not mean that the interred was once a pirate.
A year after Paine’s book was published, the “Mariner’s Mirror,” a respected British academic journal, reproduced a line drawing of Quelch’s “Old Roger” purportedly derived from a French watercolor in the collections of the National Library of France. All of the familiar features of the modern “Blackbeard flag” are included in the “Mariner’s Mirror” line drawing, except that the “anatomy” or skeleton seems to be wearing a four-pointed crown, not a pair of horns. Furthermore, the line drawing’s features are significantly different from the French flag on which it was claimed to be derived.
Accompanying the “Old Roger” illustration in the “Mariner’s Mirror” is a dubious comment attributed to a “C.F.” stating that Paine’s description came from “a quotation from an old account of John Quelch, a pirate executed at Boston in 1704.”
The sole authoritative source, however, that describes the brief piratical career of Quelch is the published transcript of his June 1704 Boston trial. I have carefully examined the entire transcript of that trial and not once is it mentioned that the pirates hoisted a flag as described by Paine and illustrated in the “Mariner’s Mirror.”
On the contrary, during at least one act of piracy, a witness and member of Quelch’s crew testified that “we had English colors flying…”
Nevertheless, other writers including the English historian David Cordingly, author of the gold-standard pirate history “Under the Black Flag,” perpetuated the notion that Quelch was associated with the earliest mention of the flag known as “Old Roger.”
Thus, it might be observed that history does not necessarily repeat itself but historians often repeat each other.
Following Paine’s 1911 “True History” of buried treasure, a succession of authors and publishers supplemented or copied images of various pirate flags, all of which featured the New Hampshire journalist-farmer’s “Old Roger” anatomy holding an hourglass—except for one variation. In 1923, the four-pointed crown was replaced by a more prominent pair of horns, and then repeated thereafter. From then on, the original “Old Roger” no longer symbolized “Death” but instead, Satan.
Regardless, many more decades would pass before the 1911 Quelch “Old Roger” would become “Blackbeard’s flag.”
As a prime example of how the truth of history becomes disfigured over time, in 1933, a pirate historian named Charles Grey confused Quelch’s hanging with that of another pirate crew, along with the future Blackbeard flag: “That under which a number of pirates executed at Boston in 1719 sailed is described as ‘A Black Flag in the midst of which was portrayed in White an Anatomy having an Hourglass in one hand and in the other a Bleeding Heart transfixed by a dart from which said heart dropped Three Gouts of Blood. This flag they called the Jolly Roger.’”
It was not until 1978 upon the publication of a popular Time-Life book, “The Pirates of the Spanish Main,” written by the English adventurer and TV presenter Douglas Scott Botting and illustrated by Gareth Floyd, that the flag of the horned skeleton holding an hourglass was attributed to Blackbeard. Why then? No one seems to know. Perhaps Time-Life found it embarrassing that the world’s best-known pirate did not, at that time, seem to have his own flag according to pirate historians.
But Blackbeard did have his own flags, although not nearly as distinctive or elaborate as the Quelch “Old Roger” flag.
If we are to rely on the very words of the men who personally witnessed Blackbeard’s pirate flags in action—and we should—then this is what we should believe: his flag was simply black with a skull in the center.
When Blackbeard detained the ship “Mountserrat Merchant” near Nevis in late November 1717, the stern of his newly acquired “Queen Anne’s Revenge” displayed a flag described in a deposition as “Death Head.” Four months later, when Blackbeard’s flotilla of vessels engaged and captured the ship “Protestant Caesar” off Honduras, they flew what a witness described as “Black Flags and Deaths Heads in them.”
Another victim testified seeing “black Collours” flying from one of Blackbeard’s vessels. No witness ever testified to seeing what is sold today to the credulous as Blackbeard’s flag featuring the devil holding an hourglass.
Unfortunately, in the words of the British writer Patrick Pringle, “You cannot destroy a popular belief merely by proving it to be false”—especially when money is involved.
Kevin Duffus, named the 2014 North Carolina Historian of the Year by the North Carolina Society of Historians, is the author of “The Last Days of Black Beard The Pirate,” and five books and four award-winning documentary films, all on North Carolina maritime history. See more online at https://www.facebook.com/KevinPDuffus.