The Origins of the Flying Dutchman

It is known as a ghost story told by sailors for centuries, a character on Spongebob Squarepants, and even a villain in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. For most people who hear the name “Flying Dutchman,” they know mostly its fictional portrayals in media, although they do not know that the legend is based on some fact, and that sightings of such a ship have been reported for centuries.

“The Flying Dutchman” by artist Albert Ryder

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.

But what was the cause of such a haunted ship? There is one legend that was the first and tells the original story of the Flying Dutchman. Reportedly in 1641, the Flying Dutchman (the name of the ship) was sailing back to Amsterdam in Holland after a journey to the Far East. While approaching the southern tip of Africa, the captain of the ship Captain Hendrick van der Decken, who was under the employ of the Dutch East India Company, did not notice an approaching storm. Eventually he heard the lookout shout in terror, and realized the Flying Dutchman had sailed into the middle of a fierce storm. The crew fought for hours to try and escape the storm, and seemed at one point almost successful when there was a loud crunch and it became apparent the ship had rammed into some rocks. While the ship sank, Van der Decken realized he was about to die and shouted angrily “I will round this cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday!” Because of this, Van der Decken and his ship were cursed after sinking off the Cape of Good Hope, leading to the ghost ship seen by sailors.

Map of the Cape of Good Hope from 1727
Map of the Cape of Good Hope from 1727

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.

There are also two other ghost ships similar to the Flying Dutchman. One is a ship called the Libera Nos, which is manned by Captain Bernard Fokke and his skeleton crew (they are reportedly literally skeletons) which haunts the Cape of Good Hope. The second is a ship called the Van Diemen, a Dutch ghost ship which haunts the seas near Indonesia. However, most ghost ships reported since are generically referred to as the “Flying Dutchman.”

The HMS Leven
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.

Flag of the Dutch East India Co.
Flag of the Dutch East India Co.

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 HMS Bacchante
The HMS Bacchante

The most famous sighting of the Flying Dutchman occurred on July 11th, 1881. The HMS Bacchante, an ironclad corvette of the Royal Navy was rounding the tip of Africa when the lookout and the officer of the watch both reported seeing the Flying Dutchman. The midshipman recorded the event in his diary, stating that “At four A.M., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows,” and “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 two hundred yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up.” One of the two witnesses fell from the rigging to his death seven hours later, and the midshipman who would later be known as King George V, published his account as The Cruise of H.M.S. Bacchante. Oddly, the Admiralty examined the manuscript prior to its publication to check for errors, and found none. Other ships in the squadron reported as having seen the Flying Dutchman at the time, leading to thirteen witnesses in all.

Part of what helped spread the Flying Dutchman legend was an opera by the famous German composer Richard Wagner, who is known for other pieces such as The Ride of the Valkyries and Der Ring Des Nibelung.  The opera which Wagner composed in 1843 regarding the Flying Dutchman was known as Der fliegende Holländer, or The Flying Dutchman, although it features the captain and crew of the Flying Dutchman cursed for all eternity unless the captain (who is permitted to return to land every seven years) can find a wife who will love him which will break the curse. This aspect is not a part of the original legends, but may have influenced the character Davy Jones, captain of the Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

The Flying Dutchman as it appears in Pirates of the Caribbean
The Flying Dutchman as it appears in Pirates of the Caribbean

Today, the two most popular incarnations of the Flying Dutchman are the character from Spongebob Squarepants and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, although the accuracy of these depictions compared to the original legends varies. In Spongebob Squarepants, the Flying Dutchman (referred to as “Dutchy” by the title character) is the captain, although both he and the ship are ghosts and emit a strange green glow. In Pirates of the Caribbean, the Flying Dutchman is the name of the ship, although the captain (himself a Dutchman) is Davy Jones, an entirely separate sea legend. The ship is also crewed by fish-like pirate monsters, and the duty of the Flying Dutchman is to escort dead sailors to the afterlife. These have little bearing on the original legend, although Davy Jones (or whoever happens to be captain of the Flying Dutchman) is permitted to step on dry land once every seven years.

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.

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