One of the more enduring legends of the sea is that of the ghostly ship, the Flying Dutchman, cursed to sail for all eternity, without ever making harbour. In the most common version of the story, the Dutchman is identified as Captain Hendrick van der Decken, the 16th century commander of a Dutch East India Company ship. He was homeward bound from the Spice Islands of the Dutch East Indies, and was trying to enter Table Bay in South Africa, when he was caught in a dreadful storm. In a rage, van der Decken challenged the sea to do its worst, swearing on all that was holy that he would make his landfall, whatever the consequences. His ship foundered at that moment and with his oath still on his lips, so the story goes, he was cursed for all eternity to sail endlessly on. Sailors spoke in hushed terms of the mysterious ship of ghosts with tattered sails that haunted the oceans of the world. They believed that anyone who set eyes on the cursed vessel would die in a shipwreck shortly afterwards.
Like all such legends, there may well be a kernel of truth at its heart. The Dutch East India Company did dominate the trade in spices from the East Indies, and returning ships would stop at their Cape Colony as they rounded the southern tip of Africa. The East Indies was also a notoriously disease-ridden part of the world. So it is not too much of a stretch to think of a ship arriving in distress, perhaps with a crew ravaged by disease, and being unable to make harbour because of poor weather. Those on shore in Cape Town who witnessed the ship being driven over the horizon, and who never heard of her again, might start to ponder what had become of her. In place of hard information, they would speculate about her fate. Speculation leads to a story, the story grows in the telling and in time becomes the myth.
The Flying Dutchman remained principally a South African legend until the late 18th century, when interest in the southern hemisphere was growing in Britain. Cook’s voyages of exploration to the Pacific, the colonisation of Australia, and the British capture of the Cape Colony all helped to bring the story of the Flying Dutchman to the attention of a wider European audience. At first it was told amongst sailors, but soon spread to a wider public. The first literary reference to the ship in English came in a 1790 travel book by John MacDonald. It then reappears five years later in George Barrington’s A Voyage to Botany Bay. The influential Scottish writer, John Leyden, took up the tale in 1803, when he wrote that “...on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman.” The legend had arrived.
19th century Europe was fertile ground for the story. There was considerable interest in the sea, a burgeoning Romantic Movement, and a growing love for the Gothic. Almost uniquely, the Flying Dutchman appealed to all three of those strands. Walter Scott wrote about her in his poems. Coleridge’s spectre-ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was heavily inspired by her. Richard Wagner’s opera Der fliegende Holländer was his interpretation of the legend. This appeal has continued through to our own time, with the Flying Dutchman making numerous appearances in literature, film (most recently in Pirates of the Caribbean), and even in television shows as diverse as Scooby Doo, The Simpsons and, my children reliably inform me, SpongeBob Square Pants.
All this has been fuelled by the many reported sightings of the Flying Dutchman. Most can be dismissed as atmospheric phenomena, or attributed to the power of suggestion, but one in particular is harder to explain. It occurred off the coast of Australia in July 1881, when the teenage Prince George and his brother were aboard HMS Inconstant. The two young royals had been despatched on a three year character-building voyage around the world. This is how the future King George V recorded the encounter in his diary.
“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.”
Perhaps there is something in the legend of the Flying Dutchman after all.