The Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman is the most famous example of a phantom ship, although its true origins are now lost in the mists of time. It is the prime folk motif of this type, appearing in various adaptations and in literature, most recently given graphic solidity in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. There is a long precedent for ghostly ships especially in areas (perhaps unsurprisingly) where seafaring has been an important part of culture.
The Flying Dutchman is most often associated with the Cape of Good Hope at the Southern tip of Africa, where it sails against the wind in the stormiest weather. There are several versions of the legend, but most often the Captain of the ship is responsible for its fate: said to have sworn to sail around the Cape in stormy weather or be damned, or alternatively to have made a pact with the Devil.
The story first appeared in print in George Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay(1), where the legend is described as having its origin in a Dutch Man of War, that was lost with all hands while rounding the Cape of Good Hope during a storm. The ship was accompanied by another ship on this voyage which weathered the storm but was assailed by a phantom ship (which became the Dutchman) after rounding the cape in similar weather.
An early version of the story appeared as a story in Blackwood’s magazine in 1821. In this version the Dutchman encounters a terrible storm when rounding the Cape of Good Hope, and the cruel and arrogant Captain will not take heed of his crews pleading to make for a safe harbour. Instead, in the worsening storm, he challenges God to sink his ship. At this challenge a glowing form appears on deck and the Captain draws his pistol and fires at it, cursing that he does not need help from the holy spirit. The glowing phantom curses the ship to sail forever against the wind, bringing misfortune to all those who sight it.
In other stories the captain of the ship: a man named Vanderdecken (or Van Straaten, or Van Falkenberg depending on the version) was becalmed on a voyage for so long that he swore he would sell his soul to the Devil in exchange for a strong wind. As always the devil accepted the bargain and the Flying Dutchman was doomed to sail with the wind from that moment on as an omen to other sailors. In some versions the Devil wins the captain’s soul in a game of dice. It is obvious that the tradition has been added to and changed over the centuries although it is now impossible to trace the origin apart from evidence from the earliest version in print as aforementioned.
Although there is no real evidence of a ship called the Flying Dutchman it has been speculated that the story may owe part of its origin to a 17th Century Dutch Seafarer named Bernard (or Barend) Fokke, whose voyages were so remarkably fast for the time, that it was suspected he may have been aided by the Devil.
There is even a story that King George the V sighted the Flying Dutchman on 11th July 1881 while serving as a naval officer. The apparition appeared off the Australian coast and was recorded by his tutor, a man named Dalton, who also recorded that the ordinary seaman who first saw the ship fell from the topmast and was killed that very day.
There have been many sightings of phantom ships that have been identified with the Flying Dutchman, many perhaps can be accounted for by the phenomena of refraction known as Fata Morgana, where – under certain atmospheric conditions – an object out at sea can appear refracted above the horizon.
The legend of the Flying Dutchman is one that has captured imaginations for centuries and will no doubt continue to develop in some form for years to come. It has an elemental quality: of storms and the cruel sea, a romantic appeal that has kept many legends from disappearing from the modern psyche.