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The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman

Over Four hundred and fifty years ago, there lived a man named Hendrick Vanderdecken, a captain, a sailor, a man devoted to the sea. Captain Vanderdecken lived in Amsterdam, in Holland, and for as many years as he could remember, he had loved to be at sea. He knew that was where he belonged, heart and soul, and he could not imagine his life anywhere else.

One day Vanderdecken and his crew set off in their ship, the Flying Dutchman. They were heading toward Batavia, a Dutch port in East India, and their course was set. The journey would take many months, or so they thought. They had no idea that this was a journey that would never end.

The Flying Dutchman was an infamous supernatural ghost ship. Originally, the Dutchman held the sacred task of collecting all the poor souls who died at sea and ferrying them to the afterlife. During the Age of Piracy, the Dutchman would become a ship feared by many across the seven seas.

Ghost ships are vessels found adrift at sea with its crew either dead or missing under mysterious circumstances. They appear in folklore and historical accounts. Probably the most famous fictional ghost ship is the Flying Dutchman, the legend of which dates to the 18th century. Phantom vessels like the Mary Celeste, the HMS Resolute, and the SS Orang Medan are also very real occurrences that have been sighted throughout history.

It is said that all legends have a basis in fact and the legend of the Flying Dutchman bears no exception to this illation. Of all the spectres of ghost ships perceived to be seen and spoken out aloud, the spectre of sighting the Flying Dutchman ship is one that intensifies the aspect of scariness and eeriness.

Many have claimed to see the ghostly vessel of Captain Hendrick van der Decken (the Dutchman) since it sank in 1641. It is because of his brash attitude in the face of God’s stormy wrath that Captain van der Decken and his crew are cursed to sail the high seas until doomsday.

Purported to be a man-of-war, the Flying Dutchman ship is said to have come across turbulent waters in the South-western African Cape of Good Hope in the mid-1600s. The much recounted folklore and the mystery shrouding the vessel are not for the vessel itself but for the man who skippered the ghost ship.

Captain van der Decken had made the perilous journey from Holland to the Far East Indies in order to purchase lucrative goods like spices, silks, and dyes. There had been close calls of course but they eventually arrived. After purchasing as much as the hull could hold and having made the necessary repairs to the ship, captain van der Decken set out for Amsterdam.

After some time the ship reached the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of southern Africa. The Captain was deep in thought as his man-of-war ship began to round the Cape. Suddenly, a terrible gale sprung up, threatening to capsize the ship and drown all aboard, a  fierce and unrelenting storm had met the Flying Dutchman.

The waves rose higher than the deck itself, and the wind blew so mightily, the sails were ripped to shreds. The crew, feeling the booms ripped from their hands, watching the wind pound at the masts, cried to their captain, “We must turn back!”

Many of the sailors were down on their knees, praying that something might save them. “It’s a warning that we shouldn’t travel in this direction,” some of the sailors wailed, and this they believed. Others cursed and swore and talked of mutiny, for their captain had a gleam in his eye now, and they thought he might have gone mad.

The sailors urged their captain to turn around but Captain van der Decken refused. Some say he was mad, others say he was drunk but for whatever reason, the Captain ordered his crew to press on. He lit his pipe and smoked as huge waves crashed against the ship. The winds tore at the sails and water spilled down into the hull. Yet the Captain “held his course, challenging the wrath of God Almighty by swearing a blasphemous oath”

Pushed to their limit, the crew mutinied. Without hesitation, Captain van der Decken killed the rebel leader and threw his body into the turning seas. The moment the rebel’s body hit the water, the vessel spoke to the Captain “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’”

When lightning struck the deck, and raging currents ripped the keel from beneath the ship’s hull, many of the sailors screamed in terror and pleaded with their captain to save them, but Vanderdecken was, by this time, listening only to his own heart. “We won’t give up, we’ll sail for eternity,” he cried. “We shall sail until doomsday!”

People say the ship vanished from sight just moments after Captain Vanderdecken uttered these words.

No one ever saw the sailors again, and no one ever saw Captain Vanderdecken. That is, no one ever saw them on land. But some say the captain did receive his punishment for his bravado. People say that he will never rest, and it is also said that those who see the Flying Dutchman — and people do — soon meet their own doom.

So goes the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

Since then, Captain van der Decken has been given the moniker the Flying Dutchman, sailing his ghost ship the world over. Sailors claim the Dutchmen has led ships astray, causing them to crash on hidden rocks or reefs. They say that if you look into a fierce storm brewing off the Cape of Good Hope, you will see the Captain and his skeletal crew. But beware, legend has it that whoever catches sight of the Dutchman will most certainly die a gruesome death.

Map of the Cape of Good Hope from 1727

Accounts vary about the name of the skipper of the Flying Dutchman. According to some, the captain was one Hendrick Van der Decken whose deep contemplation about the plight of his seamen and resultant oblivion to the approaching storm in the coast of the Cape led to the ship being destroyed. In accordance with this anecdote, it has also been iterated about the captain’s utterance to bring the vessel around the Cape even if it meant for him to sail the vessel “until doomsday.”

This statement made by the skipper while the vessel was in its last dregs, it is said that brought about the ghostly plight of the vessel to sail the seas forever, without making ground in any port or harbour ever.

In an alternate folklore relation, the captain of the vessel is said to be one whose onboard activities were satanic and whose pride, when encountered a storm in the Cape led to the ship being mercilessly tossed into its eye instead of turning back. For this sense of courting danger, according to the folklore rendition, the captain and the vessel were cursed to sail the oceans without ever making port or harbour.

The legend of the Flying Dutchman first gained widespread popularity with Wagner’s 1843 opera, The Flying Dutchman. Yet, the reason the legend has endured so long and has been the subject of so many retellings (seen in or inspiring not only Wagner’s opera but also Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Pirates of the Caribbean, a SpongeBob Square Pants character, a Scooby-Doo episode, and more) is because there have been so many supposed sightings of the ghost ship.

The most basic legend surrounding the Flying Dutchman states simply that it is a ghost ship that is doomed to sail for all eternity. Most of the sightings of the Flying Dutchman occur at a distance, and it is reported that the ship possesses a strange glow. Sir Walter Scott wrote that “She is distinguished from earthly vessels by bearing a press of sail when other vessels are unable, from stress of weather, to show an inch of canvas.” In the event that another ship were to hail the Flying Dutchman, the crew members will attempt to send letters to people on land that have long since died. If one were to accept these letters, it is said the person will be certainly doomed. However, by and large the mere sighting of the ship is said to indicate impending doom.

However, even the original legend has spawned some variations. For example, in some cases Van der Decken is simply spelled “Vanderdecken,” while other times the captain is named “Falkenburg.” In other stories, the Flying Dutchman was returning from Batavia, the former name of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia which was once the Dutch East Indies. There are also those who state that the Flying Dutchman sank while on its way to the Far East, although the historian Eric Rosenthal was certain that it was during the return voyage to Holland when the Flying Dutchman sank. The year 1641 is also the year which is widely accepted as when the Flying Dutchman sank, although Lawrence Green, a South African historian and journalist, stated that the year 1680 appeared in records of the Dutch East India Company, and although he acknowledged that Cape Colony’s governors had no record of Van der Decken, the colony itself was not founded until 1652.

The HMS Leven

Since the reported sinking of the Flying Dutchman, the ship has continued to be seen by sailors. The Royal Navy, renowned for its strict discipline, has recorded numerous sightings of the ghost ship by British captains. Captain W.F.W. Owen of the HMS Leven, stated he had seen the Flying Dutchman twice in 1823. During one sighting the ship lowered a raft in order to attempt communication with the Leven, but Captain Owen (apparently aware of the danger) didn’t respond.

There are Royal Navy records found by Lawrence Green which state that a group of mutineers dressed up their own ship to look like the Flying Dutchman in order to commit piracy, although the group of mutineers surrendered themselves at the Cape after reportedly being horrified by a real-life ghost ship.

Another account states that an individual on a passenger ship reported an encounter with the Flying Dutchman. The passenger ship allowed Van der Decken to send a rowboat with four sailors aboard, one of whom was a Dutch sailor who attempted to give letters to the passenger ship’s chaplain, who refused to accept the letters. The Dutch sailor weighted the letters to the deck with an iron bar, then the group returned to the Flying Dutchman. Eventually due to a lurch the letters were knocked overboard, and the passengers survived.

One report states that the Flying Dutchman entered Table Bay near Cape Town, and that the garrison fired upon it, although there are no records to back up the encounter. However, other sightings near Cape Town have been reported. In March of 1939, the Flying Dutchman was spotted off the South African coastline by dozens of swimmers who were able to provide accurate descriptions of the vessel, despite the small likelihood that any of them had seen a 17th century merchant ship before. The sighting was even reported in the British South Africa Annual of 1939, which stated: “With uncanny volition, the ship sailed steadily on as the Glencairn beachfolk 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.” In 1942, four witnesses reported seeing the Flying Dutchman sail into Table Bay, where it promptly disappeared.

The Flying Dutchman is known for its many ghostly appearances; showing up out of the dark or the fog and then disappearing, often terrifying the sailors who witness it. An interesting point shared by so many of the books and articles written about the Flying Dutchman is that they all list the same half dozen or so famous sightings of the ship; but these reports are all terrible, because in not a single instance is there any reason for the witness to have identified the ship as that of the infamous Dutchman. They saw, or believed they saw, unidentified wooden ships under sail. Let’s have a look at a few:

One of the most famous encounters was made on July 11, 1881 by Prince George of Wales (future King George V) and his brother Prince Albert Victor of Wales. At the time, they were sailing off the coast of Australia.

The future King George V of the United Kingdom was a midshipman aboard the H.M.S. Bacchante, when he reported unambiguously that a ship he identified as the Flying Dutchman had crossed their bow. Thirteen men on the Bacchante and two other ships saw it, and it remains in the Admiralty’s official publications in The Cruise of H.M.S. Bacchante. Prince George’s log records:

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.”

In 1942, Nazi admiral Karl Dönitz, at that time the senior commander of the U-boat forces, is reported to have said that “Certain of his U-boat crews claimed that they had seen the Flying Dutchman during their tours of duty east of Suez.”

In 1939, dozens of people at Glencairn Beach in Cape Town reported seeing the Flying Dutchman charging toward shore under full sail, only to disappear just before disaster.

Lighthouse keepers at the Cape Point Lighthouse are said to have frequently sighted the Flying Dutchman during storms.

In 1835, a British ship came near having a collision with the Flying Dutchman, approaching at night under full sail in a storm, but it vanished at the last instant.

And so on, and so on.

Tall ships remain common all around the world, and have been ever since they first took to the water. Even most modern Navies maintain a multi-masted square rigged ship for training purposes, such as Norway’s Christian Radich, the American USCGC Eagle, and Japan’s Nippon Maru II. Oman is even launching a brand-new three masted, square rigged ship in 2014. Combine these with the hundreds of other square rigged ships afloat and at sea worldwide, and it’s very possible to go out today and see what you might think to be the Flying Dutchman.

Two Dutch sea captains, Bernard Fokke and Hendrik Van der Decken, are often given as the Flying Dutchman. So let’s go back to the original source: the very first time the phrase Flying Dutchman was used in print, in reference to the ship or its captain. In 1790, Irish petty thief George Barrington was sent to Australia for his crimes. After gaining his freedom a few years later, he published the 1795 book A Voyage to New South Wales, in which he told the tale of two Dutch ships, one of which sank in a storm off the Cape of Good Hope with the loss of all hands. The other ship returned safely to England, but upon its next trip following the same route, a storm arose again and they saw their former companion vessel alongside for a fleeting moment. Barrington gave no names of either ship or dates, but said that sailors thenceforth always referred to the ghost ship as the Flying Dutchman. So far as anyone knows, this is the first time the name was used in print.

The realm of oceanic navigation is one that involves superstition. Haunted ships have always been typecast into being omens of ill luck and potentially fatal incidents. The Flying Dutchman ship however, is talked of much eloquently and when the aspect of superstition is involved.

The Dutchman is called the harbinger of death and destruction for those vessels which have sighted it. It has also been retold countless times that letters and missives used to be passed onto those ships that passed the Dutchman in their route. The opening of these letters and missives by the crew resulted in the ships getting destroyed and the crew parting with their lives.

Right from the time the myth emerged in the 1600s; various sightings of the ghost vessel were reported in the Cape of Good Hope. All these sightings happened when the weather was extremely stormy and the gales were lashing hard.

“The Flying Dutchman” by artist Albert Ryder

Bernard Fokke was an actual figure from history. He was a Dutch sea captain employed by the Dutch East India Company, famous for his fast transits between the Dutch Republic and Java, a route which went under the Cape of Good Hope. Fokke is believed to have used iron yardarms instead of wood, allowing him to remain under full sail when ships with weaker wooden yards would have had to reef. He was born in 1600, but his fastest time logged for the trip was in 1678, indicating a really long career. He is said to have been lost at sea, but insufficient biographical information remains and we don’t know exactly when or where.

Books about nautical legends frequently say he’s the man who sank during a stormy rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, but there appear to be no records confirming this, certainly no records of any oaths he may have sworn before sinking, and no record of him ever having been referred to as the “Flying Dutchman” during his lifetime. In any case, he died a full century before Barrington first used the phrase in print, so it seems almost certain that Fokke’s identification as the Flying Dutchman is a connection made only by later storytellers. But it’s not a bad connection; if you’re looking for a devilish sea captain known for tearing along under full sail when other ships were squared away, Fokke made perfect fodder for your fiction.

A contemporary of Fokke’s was Hendrik Van der Decken, another Dutch East India Company captain, who is today known only for having been lost at sea in 1641. Some sources say 1680, but records of the Dutch East India Company’s Cape Colony in southern Africa, which was founded in 1652, make no mention of him; so 1641 is the more likely correct date. It’s not known where he sank, only that it was between the Dutch Republic and Asia.

Lots of captains were lost at sea in those days; but Van der Decken is remembered because the British novelist Frederick Marryat (himself a sea captain) wrote a novel in 1839 called The Phantom Ship and named his fictional captain Philip Vanderdecken. The tale involves encounters with the phantom Flying Dutchman ship, and according to aged seafarers aboard, it was also captained by a Vanderdecken, making it unlucky to sail with Philip. But this was a pure fiction adventure novel, written nearly half a century after other authors had introduced the term Flying Dutchman, so can’t be considered any sort of an historical authority.

The latest sighting of the vessel was reported in the 1940s by people who gave accurate description of a vessel of the 1600s without having any prior knowledge about the vessels of that era. At present, the oceanic realm seems to be quiet with respect to the sighting of the Dutchman though its allure has not lessened in any manner whatsoever.

In contemporary times, more than ghost ships, the threat of pirate vessels looms on a really massive scale. And while the spectre of the Dutchman cannot be overruled, skippers and the crew would be more wary of pirate vessels taking advantage of the situation under the guise of a centuries-old ghost vessel rather than sighting an actual ghost ship itself.

Perhaps the Flying Dutchman is merely a ghost story told by sailors, but it would seem strange that so many people, especially those in the Royal Navy, would report a similar ghost ship in the area where Van der Decken’s vessel sank.

Today, scientists insist that the Dutchman’s ship is nothing more than a mirage, a refraction of light off of the ocean waters.

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The Origins of the Flying Dutchman | northatlanticblog

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Flying Dutchman facts, information, pictures | Encyclopedia.com …

Ghost ship: The Mysterious Flying Dutchman – Marine Insight

The Flying Dutchman: A Classic Nautical Tale – Monterey Boats

The Flying Dutchman, Harbinger of Watery Doom | Atlas Obscura

Flying Dutchman | legendary ship | Britannica.com

 


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