The Flying Dutchman: The Most Curs’d Ship of All

The Flying Dutchman is one of the most notorious ghost ships to ever sail the seven seas. This ghastly specter has inspired artists throughout the ages; from Sir Walter’s Scott’s poem Rokeby and Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman to recent appearances in the Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Mans Chest and SpongeBob SquarePants. So where did this legend come from, and what is it all about?

The basic version tells the story of a ship that was stranded in the dangerous waters near the southern tip of South Africa close to where the waters of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans meet. Desperately floundering in the pounding seas, the ship signaled for help near the Cape of Good Hope, asking for a pilot ship to come and guide it into the relative safety of the sheltered harbor. Despite their pleas no ship arrived, and the vessel was lost to the storm.

Later tales expanded the story, and possibly melded with another folkloric legend. Many believe that the captain of The Flying Dutchman was modelled of a real historical figure: Bernard Fokke a 17th Century Captain for the Dutch East India Company who had his own legendary reputation. Captain Fokke was celebrated for his unmatched speed, famously sailing the route between the Dutch Republic and the Indonesian Island of Java in only 3 months and 4 days. Whispers abound that surely the only way that the captain could achieve such a great feat was if he was aided by the devil himself.

In 1821 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine published the story of The Flying Dutchman, naming the Captain as Hendrick Van der Decken, and adding additional embellishments to the legend. This version blamed the demise of The Flying Dutchman squarely on the captain, claiming his refusal to seek shelter in the storm and blasphemous curses against God damned the ship and its crew to wander the waters for eternity, bringing foul weather wherever they go.

Many have claimed to see the ship since, even the future King George V recorded a sighting in the Bass Strait between mainland Australia and Tasmania in 1881 noting the following in the ship’s log:

July 11th. At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her … At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.
– Kenneth Rose, King George V

The rumors of The Flying Dutchman still persist to this day; in some versions the flying part of its moniker has become literal, and it soars between the clouds, while others claim that the ghostly crew reach out to passing ships and try to get them to take letters to deliver to their long dead loved ones…and  it probably goes without saying that you should never take one from their hands.

[Image: The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder]

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