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For more than two centuries a black flag with a white skull and crossbones (Jolly Roger) has been the symbol for pirates through-out the western world. In popular fiction all pirates flew the jolly roger. However, this special flag was used only by British and British-American pirates from about 1700 to 1725. Other pirates attacked either under their own ruler's flag or under the flag of the official issuing their privateering commission. By flying a national flag, pirates made a symbolic statement (often false) that the attack was legal under that country's laws. Some nations sponsored piracy and lived off pirate booty, including Barbary states, the Knights of Malta, and 17th-century England. In law, corsairs operating from one of these havens had to fly its flag. This showed that the raiders recognized and paid taxes to the ruler's law courts.


While they were hunting, many pirates either flew no flag or used one that was meant to fool their intended victim. Normally their battle flag was raised only when they were close enough to attack. On one occasion the famous pirate Bartholomew Roberts was able to deceive the shipping off the island of Martinique by flying Dutch flags and making signals normally used by Dutch ships arriving from the Guinea coast of Africa with black slaves. This ruse enabled him to capture fourteen French sloops which came out to meet him with large sums of money on board for trading in slaves. Naval warships also used these tricks. In 1815 American ships thus trapped the 'Hamidou Reis' by flying the British flag. Some pirates, such as Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, kept a collection of flags on board and simply raised whatever was most convenient in any given situation.