The “pirate brand” has long been tied to the skull and crossbones—the Jolly Roger—as a symbol of terror on the high seas. A 2011 article in The New York Times hails the ominous design as a magnificent exercise in collective hybrid branding, noting that economics drove pirates to adopt a version of this particular symbol to facilitate their intent to plunder. It’s a fascinating discussion on the efficiency and power that good branding can deliver, but it overlooks the ways in which the power of the symbol as we recognize it draws in part in the acceptance and manipulation of the image by others.
Piracy has likely long been a feature of the open seas, following the earliest trade routes of the Aegean and Mediterranean. Cilicians were active in the Mediterranean and tolerated by the Roman Empire for the slaves they provided, and were only reigned in when they gained such a presence as to become a threat to the Empire’s grain supply in 67 BCE. The Senate approved “a comprehensive and systematic strategy and an astutely humane policy to the vanquished” to eliminate the Cilicians within a matter of months (1). Despite this historical legacy, the familiar skull and crossbones that many of us associate with piracy is a recent development, emerging in the late 17th-century with the rise of the pirates of the Caribbean.