The Legend of the Flying Dutchman
What is the real source of the ancient nautical legends of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship?
by Brian Dunning
August 12, 2014
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Some say it is a spectral schooner seen under full sail, sometimes in the distance, sometimes at night or through the fog, sometimes gliding above the water; its sails may be torn to ribbons, or it may be making great headway even in the lack of wind. Some say the Dutchman refers to the captain of the ship, a man cursed to sail the seas forever and never make land. Some say the captain and his ship are doomed to forever try to round a stormy cape, never quite succeeding and always being beaten back by the howling wind and waves. But whatever the specifics of the legend, the Flying Dutchman has become a mainstay of maritime lore.
With such a famous story, it would seem worthwhile to see whether it grew from some seed of fact. References to the Flying Dutchman have been around for more than two centuries, and sailing ships were plowing the salt water for centuries before that; so it seems a practical certainty that we should be able to nail down exactly what triggered the stories. A good place to start is its most famous iteration in pop culture. In Wagner's 1840 opera Der Fliegende Holländer, it is not the ship that is named the Flying Dutchman, but refers to the captain of the ghostly vessel.
The Dutchman, who is unnamed in the opera, commands a ship with only a spectral crew. He makes port in a storm in Norway, and grapples to the ship of Captain Daland. The Dutchman reveals to the captain that years ago, me made a curse during a storm, swearing to Satan that he would round the Cape of Good Hope even if he had to keep trying until doomsday. Satan took him at his word, and cursed him to never be able to make port until he found a woman who would love him until she died. Fortunately, the captain has a nubile daughter, Senta, who, upon hearing of the Dutchman's terrible plight, falls in love with him. But another suitor, the muscular and handsome huntsman Erik, reminds Senta that she had once promised herself to him. When the Dutchman hears of this, he assumes he is lost forever and casts off with his ghostly crew. But Senta's love was true, and when she sees the Dutchman sail away, she throws herself into the ocean and drowns. The terms of the curse thus fulfilled, the Dutchman and his ship are seen ascending to heaven (thus becoming the "flying" Dutchman), where he will finally be able to rest.
Interestingly, the Cape of Good Hope is not the cape infamous for its stormy seas; that's Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America. The Cape of Good Hope is the tip of the peninsula jutting south from Cape Town, South Africa, and is some 150 kilometers west-north-west from the true southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas.
The ship is known for its many ghostly appearances; showing up out of the dark or the fog and then disappearing, often terrifying the sailors who witness it. An interesting point shared by so many of the books and articles written about the Flying Dutchman is that they all list the same half dozen or so famous sightings of the ship; but these reports are all terrible, because in not a single instance is there any reason for the witness to have identified the ship as that of the infamous Dutchman. They saw, or believed they saw, unidentified wooden ships under sail. Let's have a look at a few:
In 1881, the future King George V of the United Kingdom was a midshipman aboard the H.M.S. Bacchante, when he reported unambiguously that a ship he identified as the Flying Dutchman had crossed their bow. Thirteen men on the Bacchante and two other ships saw it, and it remains in the Admiralty's official publications in The Cruise of H.M.S. Bacchante.
In 1942, Nazi admiral Karl Dönitz, at that time the senior commander of the U-boat forces, is reported to have said that "Certain of his U-boat crews claimed that they had seen the Flying Dutchman during their tours of duty east of Suez."
In 1939, dozens of people at Glencairn Beach in Cape Town reported seeing the Flying Dutchman charging toward shore under full sail, only to disappear just before disaster.
Lighthouse keepers at the Cape Point Lighthouse are said to have frequently sighted the Flying Dutchman during storms.
In 1835, a British ship came near having a collision with the Flying Dutchman, approaching at night under full sail in a storm, but it vanished at the last instant.
And so on, and so on.
Tall ships remain common all around the world, and have been ever since they first took to the water. Even most modern Navies maintain a multi-masted square rigged ship for training purposes, such as Norway's Christian Radich, the American USCGC Eagle, and Japan's Nippon Maru II. Oman is even launching a brand-new three masted, square rigged ship in 2014. Combine these with the hundreds of other square rigged ships afloat and at sea worldwide, and it's very possible to go out today and see what you might think to be the Flying Dutchman.
So to narrow it down, let's work backward from Wagner's 1840 piece, to can see what source materials were available for him to work from. Many researchers have combed the literature, and two identifications are common: two Dutch sea captains, Bernard Fokke and Hendrik Van der Decken, are often given as the Flying Dutchman. So let's go back to the original source: the very first time the phrase Flying Dutchman was used in print, in reference to the ship or its captain. In 1790, Irish petty thief George Barrington was sent to Australia for his crimes. After gaining his freedom a few years later, he published the 1795 book A Voyage to New South Wales, in which he told the tale of two Dutch ships, one of which sank in a storm off the Cape of Good Hope with the loss of all hands. The other ship returned safely to England, but upon its next trip following the same route, a storm arose again and they saw their former companion vessel alongside for a fleeting moment. Barrington gave no names of either ship or dates, but said that sailors thenceforth always referred to the ghost ship as the Flying Dutchman. So far as anyone knows, this is the first time the name was used in print.
Bernard Fokke was an actual figure from history. He was a Dutch sea captain employed by the Dutch East India Company, famous for his fast transits between the Dutch Republic and Java, a route which went under the Cape of Good Hope. Fokke is believed to have used iron yardarms instead of wood, allowing him to remain under full sail when ships with weaker wooden yards would have had to reef. He was born in 1600, but his fastest time logged for the trip was in 1678, indicating a really long career. He is said to have been lost at sea, but insufficient biographical information remains and we don't know exactly when or where. Books about nautical legends frequently say he's the man who sank during a stormy rounding of the Cape of Good Hope, but there appear to be no records confirming this, certainly no records of any oaths he may have sworn before sinking, and no record of him ever having been referred to as the "Flying Dutchman" during his lifetime. In any case, he died a full century before Barrington first used the phrase in print, so it seems almost certain that Fokke's identification as the Flying Dutchman is a connection made only by later storytellers. But it's not a bad connection; if you're looking for a devilish sea captain known for tearing along under full sail when other ships were squared away, Fokke made perfect fodder for your fiction.
A contemporary of Fokke's was Hendrik Van der Decken, another Dutch East India Company captain, who is today known only for having been lost at sea in 1641. Some sources say 1680, but records of the Dutch East India Company's Cape Colony in southern Africa, which was founded in 1652, make no mention of him; so 1641 is the more likely correct date. It's not known where he sank, only that it was between the Dutch Republic and Asia. Lots of captains were lost at sea in those days; but Van der Decken is remembered because the British novelist Frederick Marryat (himself a sea captain) wrote a novel in 1839 called The Phantom Ship and named his fictional captain Philip Vanderdecken. The tale involves encounters with the phantom Flying Dutchman ship, and according to aged seafarers aboard, it was also captained by a Vanderdecken, making it unlucky to sail with Philip. But this was a pure fiction adventure novel, written nearly half a century after other authors had introduced the term Flying Dutchman, so can't be considered any sort of an historical authority.
So to wrap everything up, let's take a look at the timeline of what we know for sure.
1641: Sea captain Hendrik Van der Decken was lost at sea under circumstances lost to history.
1678: Bernard Fokke made the fastest transit for the Dutch East India Company, possibly earning a nickname.
1795: Author George Barrington first wrote of a ghost ship referred to by sailors as the Flying Dutchman.
1839: Author Frederick Marryat wrote a novel that drew heavily on the theme of the ghost ship and the cursed captain named Vanderdecken.
1840: Wagner composed Der Fliegende Holländer, guaranteeing that the idea of the Flying Dutchman would forever be a popular theme.
Now, there were plenty of other books besides Marryat's and other authors in the game (Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, and many others), and uncounted eyewitness accounts around the time of Marryat's book and ever since; but the biggest and most suspicious gap in that timeline is the 100+ years between Captain Bernard Fokke and Barrington's first record of the term Flying Dutchman. At the time he wrote it, 1795, the Dutch East India Company was just closing, having been in decline for the past half century. But during the company's 200 years of sailors plying the same trade routes between Asia and the Dutch Republic, an uncounted number of tales and traditions must have arisen. Without a doubt, we'll never know whether the story of the Flying Dutchman referred to Fokke, Van der Decken, or to a ship, or to some other sea captain lost to the annals of time. Ships sailed and sank, captains lived and died, and old sea dogs told ominous stories and sang their chanteys to the fresh new recruits. And so they might to you, too, should you ever find yourself at sea on a dark and stormy night.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Legend of the Flying Dutchman." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
12 Aug 2014. Web.
1 Oct 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4427>
References & Further Reading
Barrington, G. A Voyage to New South Wales. London: H. D. Symonds, 1795. 45-49.
Glamann, K. Dutch-Asiatic Trade, 1620-1740. Copenhagen: Danish Science Press, 1958.
Marryat, F. The Phantom Ship. London: George Routledge and Sons, 1839.
O'Reilly, J. Songs from the southern seas, and other poems. Boston: Roberts brothers, 1873.
Rose, K. King George V. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983. 11.
Van Hunks. "The Flying Dutchman, Ghost Ship of the Cape." African Ghost Hunting Safaris. Van Hunks, 11 Jun. 2003. Web. 25 Jun. 2014. <http://www.vanhunks.com/cape1/flyingdutchman1.html>
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