The Flying Dutchman is one of the greatest sea stories and mysteries of the last four centuries. It may not be the only ghost ship legend, but it is the most famous and compelling. Numerous sightings have been reported since the ship’s story was first popularized in the 17th century, including one by a future king of England.
The Story of the Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman’s story describes a European ship that’s doomed to sail the sea for all of eternity. The ship is considered a terrible omen if seen at sea, signaling some upcoming doom for other ships and sailors unlucky enough to see the vision.
Depending on the story, the ship was captained by a Dutchman named Hendrick Van der Decken or perhaps Captain Falkenberg, who may have been trying to sail through the North Sea or around the Cape of Good Hope. Hendrick Van der Decken is described as gambling his life, and his soul, for a good trip but is then condemned to sail that course for the rest of time. On the other hand, Captain Falkenberg played dice for his soul with the devil, some stories state. No matter which version of the story is told, the devil or some other horror is involved, as are the deaths of everyone on board and the ship’s perpetual trip through the ocean waters.
In some iterations of the story, a captain by the name of Bernard Fokke, from Holland, is the captain of the ship. Rumors circulated around him during his lifetime, suggesting that he had sold his soul to the devil, due to the speed with which he traveled from the Netherlands to Java.
Credit: Ronnie Robertson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A Famous Sighting of the Flying Dutchman
No matter how far fetched or believable a legend seems, there are always those who claim earnestly or manipulatively to have seen or taken part in it. This is no different for sightings of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman. One of the most famous sightings occurs in 1880 by the future King George V, who claims to have seen the Flying Dutchman cross the bow of his ship while at sea in his adolescence. His log entry reads:
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.
He goes on to say that altogether thirteen people saw the vessel and that the man who reported the ship fell from the top of the “foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle” and died the next morning.
The Origins of the Flying Dutchman Legend
The first reference, in print, to the story of the Flying Dutchman, is found in Travels in various part of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward. It was written by John MacDonald in 1790 and reads:
The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the Flying Dutchman.The common story is that this Dutchman came to the Cape in distress of weather and wanted to get into harbour but could not get a pilot to conduct her and was lost and that ever since in very bad weather her vision appears.
This excerpt suggests the basics of the story that many were likely already aware of. A ship in distress, lost lives, and a vision is seen in the distance. These are all elements that pop up whenever the story is told. Five years later, there’s another commonly referenced mention of the ship. In A Voyage to Botany Bay, the author George Barrington describes the ship and his misapprehensions regarding the story’s veracity. He states that he’s heard of the ship but “never given much credit to the report.” He also mentions the ship disappearing, the souls perishing, and sailors believing they’d seen a ship perusing them through a storm that they claimed to recognize as the Dutchman.
Other literary references to the ship, such as that from Thomas Moore and Sir Walter Scott, describe the vessel in poems. Moore wrote about a ghost ship written on passing Deadman’s Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Late in the evening, September 1804. He noted that the poem’s lines came from the common superstition regarding ‘the flying Dutch-man.’ Sir Walter Scott wrote in Rokeby; a poem that the ship was “loaded with great wealth” and that some horrific act had been committed on board. Seeing the ship is considered, he said, to be the “worst of all possible omens.”
The story of The Flying Dutchman was first printing in May of 1821 in Edinburgh Magazine. It placed the vents in the Cape of Good Hope and used Hendrick Van der Decken as the captain of the vessel.
The Flying Dutchman in Popular Culture
Over the last century, stories depicting the Flying Dutchman have become more popular. These include a cartoon version in Scooby-Do as well as in SpongeBob SquarePants. The ship appeared in a 1967 episode of the Spider-Man cartoon and in the well-loved Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, released in 2006.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was likely inspired to write The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in part due to the popularity of ghost ship stories. Several elements of the poem, such as the dice game, are directly connected to the legends. Many other poems, plays, novels, films, and television series have taken their inspiration from this famous legend. There is a great deal of creative space to be explored due to the details’ vague and changing nature, allowing storytellers the freedom to add and play with the subject matter.