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This exhibition sheds light on the cultural history of the skull and crossbones flag, commonly known as the Jolly Roger.

The Jolly Roger has been associated with pirates for centuries. Less well known is its use by their adversaries, the Royal Navy, where a tradition of flying the flag from submarines has existed since the First World War.

The tradition began in 1914 in a response to a comment that submariners should be ‘hung like pirates’ because of their role in sinking civilian ships. The unofficial practice of flying a Jolly Roger on return from wartime patrol took hold and has continued into the 21st century. Over time the basic skull and crossbones design has evolved, supplemented with additional symbols which record what happened during their patrol.

Featured within the exhibition are several examples of these iconic designs including the Jolly Roger of HMS Turbulent, flown on return from patrol in the Gulf. These are displayed alongside artefacts which relate to some of the incidents recorded on the flags.

The exhibition also seeks to give a wider context to the submarine pirate tradition. An introduction will sketch the history of the Royal Navy and piracy and features a Jolly Roger captured from pirates by the Royal Navy in the 1790s. Wartime propaganda on display challenges our understanding of who is a pirate, revealing how opposing sides in war each view the acts of the other as piracy. The exhibition concludes with a look at the Royal Navy’s continuing efforts to combat piracy.

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