The Flying Dutchman
“A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the mast, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief.”
So said a young Royal Navy Midshipman, later crowned King George V, when his vessel, the HMS Bacchante, was sailing around the cape of Good Hope in 1881. The ship he claimed to have seen was believed to be the Flying Dutchman, a vessel so shrouded in myth and paranormal happenings as to be considered the eponymous ‘ghost ship’. You may not know much about naval history or the paranormal but it is guaranteed that the Dutchman is one vessel you will have heard of, if not from any other source than its appearance in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Of course, Disney got the myth wrong. They merged several stories into one with their version of the Dutchman. For a start, they name the captain of that vessel as Davy Jones* and rather than a reference to the 60’s band, the Monkees, this is a link to the sailor’s legend of ‘Davy Jone’s Locker’**. The actual captain of the ‘Dutchman’ was, in fact, a Dutchman, though reports vary on his name – some say he was called Vanderdecken, or possibly Van Der Decken, others Van Diemen and yet more say Van Straaten among others. There are also many versions of the story explaining how the ship came to be cursed and why. The simplest say that the ship was rounding the Cape when an unexpected storm blew up and the Captain, against the wishes of the passengers and crew, sailed on regardless, finally declaring “I WILL round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday!” as the vessel sank with all hands, this arrogant declaration being what doomed his ship to perpetually haunt those waters.
More elaborate versions have a ‘shadowy figure’, Satan himself some claim, appear on the deck to pronounce the curse and some talk of a mutiny the Captain crushes before sailing the ship into the storm. Much of this, however, is speculation. We cannot claim any accurate historical evidence of what was said and done in the hours leading up to a naval disaster that resulted in the loss of all hands. All we really know is that there was a ship, captained by a Dutchman, which sank off the Cape of Good Hope in a storm. In fact, we cannot even really be sure of that, since much of the evidence seems to come from second hand sources.
We also know that there have been many supposed sightings of this ship in the same area, with the latest ones being as recent as 1944. Modern scientific explanations attribute this phenomena to Fata Morgana – mirages caused by the way light is refracted by the sea, causing the reflection of a ship to appear as a ‘ghostly image’ even when the ship itself is out of range of normal vision. That was certainly the opinion of Frank Richard Stockton in his 1910 book Round-about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy. The question that does need to be asked here is: Can this simple explanation based on the principles of optics apply to every supposed sighting of the Dutchman through all the time she has been sailing the seas?
Whatever happened to that vessel and regardless of the veracity of the ghost ship sightings, the Flying Dutchman has been elevated from a naval disaster into a cultural phenomenon. It is said to have inspired Coleridge when he wrote Rime of the Ancient Mariner and led to a host of fictional adaptations ranging from novels by Washington Irving (The Flying Dutchman on Tappan Sea, 1855) to episodes of superhero cartoon series (Spiderman Cartoon: ‘Return of the Flying Dutchman’, 1967). There is also a famous Wagner opera. Many of these versions include elements that do appear in the Disney version. For example, the Dutchman is only allowed ashore once every seven years. There is often also a tale of lost, spurned or dead love to bolster the curse, despite the actual motives of the captain in question more likely to have been linked to the profit inherent in his cargo getting to port on time or even the reports that he was drunk when the incident happened. This cultural phenomenon has gained such power that the term ‘Flying Dutchman’ has a fairly extensive page on Urban Dictionary all to itself (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=flying%20dutchman), though you should only look there if you are of an appropriately strong constitution or are unconcerned by the concept of ghost faeces, and is the name of a number of pubs and restaurants. If you want an appropriately chilling name to give your seafood restaurant, it is certainly better than the image of an empty table with uneaten food that the name Marie Celeste conjures.
Thus, the Dutchman is ranked alongside similar phenomena such as the Marie Celeste as an event that no doubt happened (a ship sank or was abandoned) but where the true facts of the case are obscured in a large amount of mostly fictional accounts that proved more popular than the factual ones they were based upon and even the fictional accounts have become muddled with time and retellings***. The death of the HMS Bacchante’s Lookout soon after seeing the ghost ship has only added to the grim legend – seeing the Dutchman is a prophesy of death, though thankfully the heir to the throne survived his encounter. With so much about it floating around in society, is it really a surprise that when a young midshipman, destined to rule an Empire, or a crewman on a German U Boat in 1944, sail those waters and see an optical illusion they subconsciously insert this into the tales they no doubt heard from other sailors? Or are they really seeing a ghost ship, doomed to sail the Cape until some condition is met?
*Ably played by Bill Nighy, with a strange version of a Scottish accent which does add to the evidence of him not being at all Dutch in this version. Though with a name like Jones a Welsh accent may have been more appropriate.
**Which is possibly derived from either a real life pirate from the 1630s, another sailor of the same name who was known to fall overboard a lot or, more likely, a corruption of Duffy Jonah’s Locker, being a mangled version of the words for a West Indian ghost (a duppy) and the Biblical Prophet Jonah (famous for his whale based adventures). Other theories link it to a pub landlord of that name who was known to throw drunken men into his ‘ale locker’ (his cellar) and give them to the press gangs. Interestingly, Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean is also interested in drafting men to crew his ship against their will.
*** For some reason the name Washington Irving is often linked to these cases… he was also responsible for popularising the misconception that sailors before Columbus all believed the world was flat.
D.A Lascelles knows a bit about Pirates as he contributed to the Pirates and Swashbucklers Anthology. He also knows a bit about ghosts due to being the writer of the Paranormal Romance novella, Transitions. His knowledge of romance, fantasy wargames and UK Cult TV have no relevance here… Nor does his own blog, Lurking Musings.
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This entry was posted on June 27, 2013 by D.A Lascelles. It was filed under The Unexplained (Misc) and was tagged with cape of good hope, Coleridge, Davy Jones, Fata Morgana, flying dutchman, Ghostly Ships, HMS Bacchante, Marie Celeste, Mirages, navy midshipman, Optical illusion, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Cape of Good Hope, The Flying Dutchman, van diemen, van straaten, Wagner, Washington Irving.
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