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Dictionary of Vexillology: J (Jack - Jolly Roger)

Last modified: 2008-01-05 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillological terms |
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A flag, originally much smaller than the ensign, flown from a staff at the bow of a ship, usually when that ship is berthed, at anchor or moored to a buoy, occasionally when underway but always when dressed overall, and which in current usage may fall into one of the three main categories listed below (see also ‘dress ship’, ‘jack of honour’, ‘jack staff’, ‘privateer jack’ and ‘union jack’) See supplemental note:
Civil Jack
Flown at the bow of a merchant ship,

Please note, however, there are only two countries who prescribe a distinctive jack for general use by civilian vessels – the UK (see ‘pilot jack’) and the Bahamas as illustrated below. Sweden, for example, specifies regional flags, whilst the flags of home ports are sometimes officially used and the regulations of some shipping lines call for a house or other flag with this, upon occasion, being expressly permitted under national legislation.

[Civil Jack] [Civil Jack]
From left: Civil Jack of the Bahamas (fotw); The Netherlands - unofficial (CS)

Government Service Jack
Generally, but not exclusively, limited to the UK and former British colonies, and flown at the bow by those civilian-manned Government vessels.

[UK Government jack] Royal Maratime Auxiliary armorial sail
Jacks of The Royal Fleet Auxiliary, The Royal Maritime Auxiliary and Northern Lighthouse Board, UK (Martin Grieve)

Please note that in UK usage all Government service vessels wearing defaced blue ensigns are egally entitled to fly a blue jack with an appropriate badge in the fly, however, (as far as can be discovered) only the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, the Royal Maritime Auxiliary and the Northern Lighthouse Board actually do so at present.

Please note also that in Germany and Austria, Government (as well as civilian) vessels often fly the flag of the relevant state/province, and that in some commonwealth countries the appropriate departmental flag is specified as a jack for government vessels.

Naval Jack
Flown at the bow of a warship, often the appropriate national flag (or a variation of it), occasionally the same as the naval ensign, or sometimes a completely different design.

[Russian naval jack] [Brasil naval jack] [Norway naval jack] [Italy naval jack]
From left: Naval Jacks of Russia (fotw); Brasil (fotw); Norway (fotw); Italy (fotw)

In French naval usage, a jack originally flown in place of le tricolore by ships that had served in the Free French Navy (the FNFL), and now flown by those ships bearing the same name (see also ‘jack’ and ‘tricolour 3)’).

[Jack of Honour - FNFL Jack]
The FNFL Jack, France (fotw)

The short staff in the bows of a ship upon which the ‘jack’ is hoisted (see also ‘ensign staff’, ‘jack’ and ‘staff 1)’).

An unofficial name for the 1606 pattern British union flag (see also ‘British flag’, ‘conjoined’ and ‘union jack’).

Please note that this term appears to have been a 19th Century invention, and that there is no firm evidence of it being used during flag’s lifetime (1606 – 1801).

See ‘cross potent’.

1) Generically, any black flag bearing white symbols and associated with piracy, but usually shown in its modern form as a flag with black field and stylised white skull above two white crossed bones - a skull and cross-bones.
2) A flag of the latter description given above, but defaced by a number of varying symbols dependent upon the type of action and used unofficially by the submarine service of the British Royal Navy and some others to signify that the boat flying it had engaged an enemy (see also ‘deface’).

[pirate flags - Jolly Roger] UK submarine service Bartholomew Roberts pirate flag
From left: Flag as described above (fotw); Submarine Service, UK (CS); Flag of Bartholomew Roberts 17th C (fotw)

Please note with regard to 1) that vessels of the US Navy often fly a Jolly Roger at the yardarm during line-crossing ceremonies (as the signal that King Neptune is aboard), and note also that of all known pirates only Blackbeard is thought to have actually used this design Please note, that vessels of the US Navy often fly a Jolly Roger at the yardarm during line-crossing ceremonies (as the signal that King Neptune is aboard), and note also that no pirates are known to have actually flown this design (see also ‘yardarm’).

With regard to 2) it should be emphasised that these symbols were (and are) entirely unofficial, and that a several variations are known.

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