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Flying Dutchman: The Sailors Bane

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The legend of the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that once struck fear into the hearts of countless sailors, originates from 17th century nautical folklore. The ship itself has been vaguely described by many sources, but all of them attest to its ghastly glow – a light that attracts sailors like a beacon or a lighthouse. It is said to be unable to make port in any harbor, doomed to sail the seas for all eternity, with its crew longing only to see their landlocked loved ones. But, more importantly, where did this legend come from, and why has it survived so many years?

the flying dutchman
The Flying Dutchman, circa 1887.

In 1795, George Barrington wrote the novel A Voyage to Botany Bay. In Chapter VI, he writes:

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man of war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. 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 that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object, a dark thick cloud, disappeared. Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

In 1803, John Leyden wrote:

It is a common superstition of mariners, that, in the high southern latitudes on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman. […] The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation; and to have been stricken with pestilence […] and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.

In 1880, Prince George of Wales and his brother Prince Albert Victor of Wales, who were the sons of King Edward VII, were sailing across the sea. While off the coast of Australia, their tutor wrote:

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.

Smashed to atoms is exactly what seems to happen to most that cross paths with the Flying Dutchman. From death and plague to sickness and vertigo, the Flying Dutchman seems to emanate an aura of doom and destruction, leaving very few to survive and return home with their stories of dread and despair.

Fear has always been an extremely powerful motivator. Whether it is the fear of failure, fear of death, or fear of humiliation, everyone has felt the powerful pull of fear. Similar to vampire, werewolf, and zombie folklore, the Flying Dutchman spread fear through the hearts of countless sailors, leaving them awake on dark and stormy nights. With so many testaments of its existence, it is no wonder that the legend grew and continued to thrive. Combine that solidified fear with 18th century forms of technology and you can easily see why so many sailors found themselves terrified by the unknown and unexplainable happenings of the Flying Dutchman.

But who knows, maybe it is real? Maybe one of us will find ourselves stumbling across it one day, with our atoms being smashed to pieces only moments later. Just to be safe, I’m going to remain on land.