Maritime conservators at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard say a gunpowder-smouldered 18th century pirate flag from North Africa reveals the sinister side of sea mercenaries.
The skull and crossbones mast, captured by Admiral Richard Curry during a coastal campaign in around 1790, is cast in the original blood red of the symbol, used by pirates to reflect their no-mercy, vicious approach to battle while raiding ships.
Marauderers used the emblem to frighten passing ships into surrendering without struggle, although the dreaded design was appropriated from the symbol of death in ships' logs and reinterpreted by pirates.
"Pirates always attract much interest, no doubt in part due to the many Hollywood films about them," said Curator of Artefacts Richard Noyce, whose team discovered the ammunition burns while investigating a series of black stains and small holes in the flag.
"In reality, they weren't the loveable rogues they are often portrayed as. Then, as now, pirates were seen as a threat to trade and great efforts were made to surpress their criminal activities."
The flag is now on display at the dockyard’s National Museum of the Royal Navy. Organisers hope it will inspire more stories when the venue’s new 20th and 21st century galleries open in 2014.