Saturday, October 31, 2009

Horror On The High Seas: The Flying Dutchman

Everybody has heard, at one time or another, some reference to The Flying Dutchman. He's basically the high seas version of The Wandering Jew, doomed to sail until Judgement Day because of a deal with the Devil gone horribly wrong. But where did the legend really come from?

The first written reference to The Flying Dutchman came in 1795 in George Barrington's sea tale Voyage to Botany Bay. This was one of the first "sea novels", although it purports to be a true account, and Barrington is rightly referenced as the progenitor of seafaring writers like Marryat, Forrester and my hero and patron saint, O'Brian. From the book:

In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down: one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale... and the supposed phantom was the Flying Dutchman.

The phantom ship is most usually said to be spotted off the Cape of Good Hope and her Captain - who is the actual Dutchman in question - has been given various names. The oldest reference is a 17th century Hollander named Bernard Fokke who was rumored to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for the supernatural speed of his merchantman on cruises between Holland and Java. Later the Captain is given the generic name of Van Der Decken ("of the decks").

An eye witness account of the Dutchman was written down in 1880 by Dalton, the tutor of the future King George V of England. From the account off the coast of Australia:

At 4 AM the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow 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.

Most skeptics dismiss the Dutchman as a refraction of an existing ship visible, it seems, in the sky or just above the water. The phenomena, known as a superior mirage, is common especially in icy waters at dawn or dusk. That's as may be but the legend continues among sailors that sighting the Dutchman - whether she is real or ghost - is a sure omen of doom.

Many great works of art have been inspired by the Dutchman, not the least of which is Howard Pyle's eerie painting at the header. Richard Wagner wrote an opera about the ghostly ship. Marryat's novel The Phantom Ship and Washington Irving's The Flying Dutchman on Tappan Sea both deal with the high seas spook. And the great master of all things cringe worth, Edgar A. Poe, wrote about her in his The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.

On a less highbrow note Disney's The Pirates of the Caribbean series of films has Davy Jones and his calamari-esque self captaining a ship named The Flying Dutchman. And then there's this:
So there it is in a nutshell - or crab shell if you like. The Flying Dutchman may be just a legend or may be more but one thing's sure, if you see her out there on the waves say a little prayer. Better safe than sorry, mates.
Happy Halloween my Brethren and thankee for joining me for Horror on the High Seas week. Let's do it again next year. I'm off to lace on my costume. I'll be a Lady Pirate... but you knew that, didn't you?


Blue Flamingo said...

Lady Pirate? Of that, we had no doubt! Happy Halloween!

Pauline said...

Ahoy Blue Flamingo! Haven't seen ye here abouts lately. Hope yours was a happy one too.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! How does he dooooo it? Nooooobody knows... You were quite the lady pirate last night, all right. And a good time was had by all... Hail to Pauline, the Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

You know, it's not bragging if it's true...