Thursday October 15th, 2009
The most famous of the many Ghost Ships, the Flying Dutchman has inspired artists, writers, film makers and composers the world over since it became a staple of seagoing folklore in the early eighteenth century. The ship that is cursed to sail the oceans of the world for all eternity is a portent of doom, feared by sailors to this very day.
Legend states that the ship was skippered by an unstable drunken Dutchman who went mad whilst attempting to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in terrible conditions. Despite pleas from both crew and passengers the captain refused to turn back. When a mutiny erupted he killed the ring leader and tossed him into the sea. He then continued to drink and blaspheme until the gods themselves intervened and cursed him and his ship. He was given gall to drink and red hot iron to eat and forced to play dice with the devils minions whilst sailing the ocean for all eternity, without rest or human company.
The model for the mad captain is widely believed to be the 17th Century Dutch Captain, Bernard Fokke who was famous for his speedy voyages between Holland and Java and was suspected of being in league with the devil. However the first ever ‘official’ report of the ship to appear in print switched the story to the now traditional Cape of Good Hope. To quote Blackwoods Magazine from May 1821
“She was an Amsterdam vessel and sailed from port seventy years ago. Her master’s name was Captain Hendrik van der Decken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the devil. For all that, never a sailor under him had reason to complain; though how it is on board with them nobody knows. The story is this: in doubling the Cape they were a long day trying to weather the Table Bay. However, the wind headed them, and went against them more and more, and Van der Decken walked the deck, swearing at the wind. Just after sunset a vessel spoke to him, asking him if he did not mean to go into the bay that night. Van der Decken replied: 'May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment.' And to be sure, he never did go into that bay, for it is believed that he continues to beat about in these seas still, and will do so long enough. This vessel is never seen but with foul weather along with her.”
Of course much of this had been culled from George Barrington’s book Voyage to Botany Bay which was published in 1795 and has the first ever reference to the Flying Dutchman to appear in print.
“I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man of war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.”
But before you write the Flying Dutchman as something long since dead in the water take heed. The ghost ship has been seen as recently as the last century when she was spotted by dozens of bathers off the coast of South Africa in 1939 and duly reported in various news papers, “With uncanny volition, the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencairn beach folk stood about keenly discussing the whys and wherefores of the vessel. Just as the excitement reached its climax, however, the mystery ship vanished into thin air as strangely as it had come.”
And that’s not all. The last reported sighting was in 1942 when four witnesses claim to have seen the Flying Dutchman sail into Table Bay and disappear.
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