eli5 what was the point of the skull and bones pirate flag? why would you give away that you are a pirate?
It’s a signal to the ship you intend to rob. It says “This is a robbery. Stop whatever you’re doing and let us aboard to plunder your cargo, or else we’ll attack and kill you and *then* plunder your cargo.”
You wouldn’t just leave it flying 24/7, or even most of the time, you might fly it however when you were actively running down a vessel. Contrary to most fiction pirates rarely engaged in lengthy combat between ships, although it did happen. More often a pirate would force/encourage a ship to stop for boarding, demand money and goods, and then make off with it. In more extreme cases people might be sold as slaves and the vessel itself might be seized, but piracy was often more of a hit and run sort of crime. Pirates often preyed on merchant vessels and others unprepared to fight back, so intimidation was a big part of the deal; you wanted to take the fight out of them rather than really fight.
Blackbeard famously was the master of this, leaving lit long match fuses in his hair and beard, and adopting a wild demeanor. As a result people would just surrender, hand over their stuff and be glad when he and his crew left them alive.
In this context the flag was meant to terrify and to warn: pirates are here, “pull over” and give us your shit or we might have to take it by force.
Typically, the pirates wouldn’t fly that flag all of the time – they’d put up a false flag (Spain, England, France, etc.) until they were within firing range, then they’d hoist their pirate flag and fire a warning shot. The goal here was to intimidate – the sailors on the other ship had plenty to be afraid of, especially if the flag belonged to a famous pirate. And they’d know that if they surrendered, gave up their cargo, potentially got pressed into service or had their ship taken over, they might just get out alive. If they resisted, there would be no quarter. In that case, raising the black flag might save the pirates a fight for their prize.
There are also stories of pirate ships flying a red flag – this would mean no quarter given at all – which would be insanely terrifying to see coming towards you in the sea.
EDIT: Whoa, this got some attention. Since I’m getting a lot of the same questions, I’ll answer a few of the most common:
1. *What does “no quarter mean?”* Offering quarter means taking prisoners, impressing them into piracy (which wasn’t all that bad a gig, all things considered) or releasing the enemy after taking their loot. “No quarter” means “we’re here to kill you, no prisoners taken.”
2. *Wouldn’t a red flag be a bad strategic move, that would result in the other ship being more likely to fight back?* Nobody ever claimed pirates were great tacticians, but they were often psychopaths! Other commenters have raised other possibilities in here, from pure intimidation tactics, to “we’ll offer no quarter only *if* you fight, so if your captain’s telling you to fight, you might want to throw him overboard and pick a new captain quick.
3. *How did they know that a flag belonged to a famous pirate?* The skull and crossbones that we all picture is sort of a modern, Hollywood thing. Every pirate had their own, custom flag, or had several throughout their career. [Here’s a listing](https://www.vispronet.com/blog/famous-pirate-flags/) of 10 different flags flown by legit pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy
Fear. and they didn’t ALWAYS fly the skull and bones. Because yea that would be dumb and give them away.
Instead they would fly a different false flag. And then when they got close to a ship they wanted to attack, they would fly the skull and cross bones. But this was actually meant to scare the ship/crew into just giving up. If you saw the skull and cross bones and gave up, then sure the pirates would come and take your stuff, but they’d let you live and possibly even go free after they took your valuables.
But if you made them actually chase you down and fight you, there was no such idea that they wouldn’t attack and possibly kill you.
Piracy was dangerous and most of the ships they’d target would be unarmed or lightly armed merchant vessels. And importantly, many of these ships would have their cargo ensured. Basically, 9/10 the opposite vessel would surrender when they saw the flag. Neither side really wanted to fight in most instances.