Benerson Little

“The trident of Neptune is the scepter of the world.”*

The current and two early covers appear below, followed by "real pirate flags" as they were or might have been flown by the pirates in this book, followed by a few supplementary notes and errata to the text.

Interim cover, used briefly online for marketing.

First proposed cover, also used briefly online for marketing.

Real "Pirate Flags"
as Flown by the Pirates
in this Book

The flag of Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha during his service to the Ottomans.

There is unfortunately no record of the colors flown by Grace O'Malley. It's possible she may have flown her clan arms: "Or, a boar passant, gules."

The Cross of St. George, the flag of England and a common English sea flag at the time of Drake's raids. Doubtless he flew it at a masthead or as a jack.

A common Elizabethan ensign, although it is unknown if Drake flew it. Typically, English ensigns were striped at this time. (Image by Phil Nelson.)

Another common English ensign of Drake's era, but again, it is unknown if he flew it. (Image by Phil Nelson.)

A third common English naval ensign of Drake's era. (Image by Phil Nelson.)

The Dutch tricolor, probably the flag flown by Diego the Mulatto while he served the Dutch in the early 17th century as a privateer or pirate, depending on one's point of view.

The States General flag of the early 17th century, often flown as a Dutch ensign. It may have been flown by Diego. The flag is often dipicted as having an orange field. (Illustration by Jarig Bakker.)

The common French ensign during the period in the late 1660s and early 1670s when Diego sailed with the French filibusters.

The pavillon sans quartier or pavillon rouge--the flag of no quarter. Doubtless Diego flew it when he revenged himself upon the Spanish sent to take him in 1673. Other sea rovers, and some naval vessels as well, of the 17th and early 18th centuries also flew the flag.

The English naval ensign or "English ensign," one of two ensigns likely flown by Henry Morgan.

The "parliamentary flag" flown as an ensign by the squadron directly commanded by Henry Morgan--probably known as the "red" squadron or fleet--enroute to raid Panama.

Union flag, probably often flown as a jack by Henry Morgan. En route to Panama, the squadron personally commanded by Morgan flew this flag at the mast head and as a jack. The associated ensign is depicted immediately above.

The Cross of St. George, another likely ensign flown by Henry Morgan at times. Morgan's other squadron, the "white squadron," flew this at the mainmast head en route to raid Panama. It flew the flag below as an ensign, and the Union jack at the bow.

Ensign flown by Morgan's "white" squadron enroute to Panama.

The Spanish Cross of Burgundy, probably flown as an ensign by Juan Corso.

Flag of Bartholomew Sharp's company when it crossed the Isthmus of Darien into the South Sea: red, with green and white ribbons. Captain Sawkins's company marched under a flag striped red and yellow;,Harris's under a green flag, Coxon's under red, and Cook's under a red and yellow striped flag emblazoned with a hand and sword.

Given the large number of expeditions ashore, and the fact that Sharp's buccaneers flew and carried English colors, the Union flag was also probably flown as a jack, possibly as an ensign, and very likely as a battle standard ashore.

English naval ensign, likely ensign flown by Bartholomew Sharp when he served, in theory at least, but with a legitimate commission, as a privateer hunting "pirates and Indians." At the bow he would have flown the naval jack immediately above, and a commission pendant at his masthead. He may also have flown it as a buccaneer in the South Sea, given the pretense of "privateering."

The only recorded accounts of Blackbeard's black flag is that of a "death's head" as reported in both the Boston News-Letter and a London newspaper. Although no strictly eyewitness accounts survive (that is, recorded by the witness himself), the Boston News-Letter account is based upon an witness who related his expericence with Blackbeard to the newspaper. The death's head may also have been a skull and bones. All other depictions of Blackbeard's flags are fabrications.

One of Bartholomew Roberts's pirate flags as reported by Charles Johnson. It was flown at the mizzen peak at Whydah. A black pendant flew at the main truck. Note the similarity to the black flags of Low, Spriggs, and Harris. According to Charles Johnson, Roberts's "black flag" was known as the "Jolly Roger." Probably any of his flags with an "anatomy" (a skeleton) were so known. (Apologies for the artwork, mods are my own.)

St. George's flag as flown as an ensign by Bartholomew Roberts at Whydah, according to Charles Johnson.

"English ensign" Roberts flew during his final action, according to Captain Ogle. In many period documents, the naval ensign shown here is described as an English ensign. The St. George's ensign is usually described by name. He also flew an English jack (probably the Union jack) and a black pendant according to Ogle. Johnson describes a black flag flown by Roberts during the engagement as having "the figure of a skeleton in it, and a man portrayed with a flaming sword in his hand, intimating a defiance of death itself." Ogle makes no mention of such a flag, and it may be Johnson's invention. Johnson was largely factual, but did make occasional notable embellishments and alterations of fact. Roberts's consort, the Ranger commanded by Captain Skyrme, also flew this ensign, a Union jack, and a Dutch pendant during her final action.

One of Bartholomew Roberts's pirate flags, this one created out of anger at being resisted and attacked. The flag is described by Charles Johnson, who writes that it was flown as a jack when the pirates sailed into Whydah. The flag attributed to Roberts, depicting a skeleton and person holding an hourglass, appears only in an illustration in Johnson's book, and is likely the artist's invention.

A possible arrangement of devices on Ned Low's flag. It was said to be the same flag as Spriggs flew, which was described as a black flag “in the middle of which is a large white skeleton with a dart in one hand striking a bleeding heart, and in the other an hour-glass.” This was also the flag of Charles Harris (except in blue), and a similar flag was flown by Bartholomew Roberts, the likely origin. According to both an eyewitness and Charles Johnson, Spriggs's flag was known by its crew as "Jolly Roger," according to an eyewitness, and similarly, Harris's was known as "Old Roger." Low, Spriggs, and Harris all consorted with each other at times.

Charles Harris's flag, "Old Roger," as described by an eyewitness. The "black flag" was blue, perhaps faded, perhaps the pirates had no black fabric, or wanted to be different. Harris was one of Low's associates.

Flag flown by Ned Low in 1723, according to Charles Johnson, at the mainmast of the Merry Christmas after he captured it and declared himself "Admiral."

Flag of the Maratha Empire. It may have been flown by Kanhoji Angria.

Red banner, shape indeterminate, flown by Cheng I Sao's husband as admiral of the Chinese pirate fleet.

Likely Cartagena banner Lafitte's "privateers" flew under prior to the Battle of New Orleans. Almost certainly they did not bear legitimate commissions.

Possible Mexican insurgent banner flown by Lafitte after the Battle of New Orleans.

Cartagena flag possibly flown as an ensign by Lafitte when he met his end.

Supplementary Notes & Errata

The pirate flag depicted at the center of the illustration on page 10 is commonly attributed to Jean-Thomas Dulaien, and is purportedly based on a period illustration. A written description notes "figures of men, cutlass, remnants of our bones, and hour glasses." The flag is also that of Walter Kennedy: a "figure of a man, with a sword in his hand, and an hour-glass before him, with a death's head and bones." The horns on the "jolly roger" at the upper left are fanciful. Often depicted as Blackbeard's flag, there is no evidence that he flew it.

Regarding Henry Morgan's suit of two publishers, see "Common Mischaracterizations of Early English Translations of Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America" by Richard Frohock. The article was not yet in print when How History's Greatest... when to press. Mr. Frohock sorts out several scholarly mischaracterizations of the lawsuits. Indeed, after examining the identical prefaces to Crook's first and second editions, it should have been obvious that no "apology" was rendered in the second edition. Morgan may have objected to being called a pirate, and was certainly not referred to as one to his face after being knighted, but the insinuation remained, given that in all editions his followers are routinely referred to as pirates. See Oxford Journals, Humanities, Notes and Queries, Volume57, Issue 4, 506-508.

Regarding Sir Henry Morgan's death, see also "The Case History of Sir H. M." by G. M. Longfield-Jones in Medical History, 1988, 32: 449-460. Besides discussing whether Sir Hans Sloane's discussion of the illness, diagnosis, and treatment of "Sir H. M." refers to that of Sir Henry Morgan or Sir Hender Molesworth, the journal article thoroughly analyzes the medical issues: "On the one hand, there is agreement that alcoholic disease is by far the most likely cause of death, although the history is not typical and tropical diseases were probably present. On the other hand, alcoholic disease is considered an unlikely cause unless cirrhosis of the liver was present and a complication such as a liver tumour which is associated with cirrhosis, developed." Clearly it is impossible to make a positive diagnosis.

Regarding Bartholomew Sharp at Bermuda, he actually arrived in late November 1684. In a related issue, Captain Peniston who served a writ against Sharp was one of the Bermuda "rebels" whom Sharp had opposed in his service to Governor Cony. See the forthcoming Great Pirate Legends Debunked.

Regarding the death of Bartholomew Sharp, according to Isaac Dookhan in A History of the Virgin Islands of the United States, in 1697 Sharp was a planter with seven slaves on St. Thomas. In 1698, his plantation failing, he attempted to secretly depart the island, but was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. According to Waldemar Westergaard in The Danish West Indies Under Company Rule (1671-1754), a 1698 letter indicates that "after sickness had deprived him of the use of his hands, he was still able, through the indiscriminate use of an active and violent tongue, to earn a sentence of imprisonment for life from an indignant governor and council. Lorentz to Directors (24 June, 1698). C. B., 1690-1713." An article by Paul Olsen, "Sørøvere i Vestindien" in Siden Saxo 3 (2003), states that he died on October 29, 1702, but provides no citation. The article is brief but very detailed, and includes information on Sharp's trial and imprisonment for debt as well as for attempting to escape from his debtors, along with Admiral Benbow's attempt to have him released into his custody in 1700, Sharp's lameness in both hands and feet or arms and legs, and the slave woman he was permitted to keep to attend him in prison. He had arrived on the island in 1696.

Regarding Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge: Captain Dosset, who commanded La Concorde which became the famous pirate ship, gave her tonnage as 200. However, one French document noted at Queen Anne's Revenge Online (QAR) gives the tonnage of the likely forbear of Blackbeard's ship as 300. This is still too small a ship to mount forty great guns. Such a vessel might mount twenty-eight to thirty-two great guns at most: six pounders, or perhaps some old sakers of five and a quarter pound shot in place of the six pounders, plus some three or four pounders, and possibly a very few eight pounders or demi-culverin (nine pounders). The rest would be a combination of rail-mounted swivels (muzzle-loading) and patereros (breech loading). To date, the largest guns recovered from the likely wreck of Blackbeard's ship have been six pounders. I have chosen to go with Captain Dosset's description of her tonnage, given that he was the man who knew her best. (The QAR Online site is an outstanding source of information on Blackbeard and his Queen Anne's Revenge, although much of the original material appears to have been recently removed.)

A few additional details on Ned Low may be found in Captured by Pirates: Two Diaries of 1724-1725 by Jonathan Barlow and Nicholas Simons, edited by Robert Francis Seybolt, in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4 (October 1929), 658-669. According to Barlow, who was captured in June, 1724, Low was "disbanded" from his office and put aboard a captured French sloop (as opposed to a boat noted by Johnson) along with two of his companions after a "difference" with his crew at some point during the summer. Barlow does not mention the source of the rupture, probably because he was ill for three months due to the abuse he received, and was apparently unaware of much that went on among the pirates.

In addition to INS (Indian Naval Station) Angre, the Indian Navy frigate INS Angre is also named after Kanhoji Angria.

* By Antoine Marin Lemierre, from his poem "Commerce." (Le trident de Neptune est le sceptre du monde.)

Book Links:
Descriptions & Reviews

Historical Fiction
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Narrative Maritime History
The truth behind the great pirate myths and legends. In print!
Maritime History

A colorful and detailed description of how pirates and privateers practiced their trade.

To really understand what the pirate's world was like: how buccaneers lived, fought, and died.


How History's Greatest Pirates Pillaged, Plundered, and Got Away With It:
The Stories, Techniques, and Tactics of the Most Feared Sea Rovers from 1500-1800

Thirteen notorious pirates and how they got away with it—an enjoyable read for anyone fascinated with history or pirates.

"Little’s intent here is to demonstrate the 'romantic realism' of pirates – showing them as they were, not as we think they were." —Cindy Vallar, of Pirates and Privateers, The History of Maritime Piracy

In print, trade paper and as Nook, Kindle, EPUB, and Sony e-books.


"From the cover, one might be forgiven for thinking that Little's book could be an "ode to piracy," but after reading a few pages, it is clear that the author has something very different in mind. He has effectively created a "who's who" among those who were the most successful in the "golden age" of pirates, but he also shows that they were nothing like the romantic or chivalrous characters in such Hollywood epics as "Captain Blood" or the comedic types in "Pirates of the Caribbean."...Overall I found this to be an interesting and very readable book. His writing skills and command of language are top-notch. Little clearly knows his subject well and makes a compelling case for his choice of who were the most successful pirates of the past and what made them so."
—Capt. Roger F. Jones, USN (Ret.), in Naval History Book Reviews, Naval History Foundation, April 18, 2011

"The author’s background as a former Navy SEAL, his study of black-powder weaponry, his experience as a fencing instructor, and his study of primary evidence make him eminently qualified to write this book...What I particularly like about this book is the variety of chosen subjects. They are a combination of the most infamous and least-known pirates; they include men and women, as well as rogues from various parts of the world, rather than just those of the Caribbean or the Golden Age of Piracy. This book is a highly entertaining and informative look at pirates and how they plundered throughout history."
—Cindy Vallar, of Pirates and Privateers, The History of Maritime Piracy


"With his latest exploration of the phenomenon of piracy Benerson Little has established himself as perhaps the foremost authority and scholar in the field."
—Frank Sherry, author of Raiders and Rebels: A History of the Golden Age of Piracy

From the Publisher

Pirates occupy a prominent place in the popular imagination, yet seem to have sprouted from history already larger than life, their true personalities, origins, and objectives obscured by myth and fantasy. Moreover, their military acumen is seldom discussed in conventional histories, and the real reasons for their successes and failures are therefore poorly understood. In this fascinating survey of thirteen of the most famous buccaneers, author and former U.S. Navy SEAL Benerson Little employs his direct experience of seafaring and naval combat to highlight the ingenuity of many of the pirates' campaigns—and those conducted against them.

In print, trade paper.