Historically Speaking

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Archive for September 22nd, 2011

Flying Dutchman

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 22, 2011

The Flying Dutchman can either mean the Dutch sailor who was supposedly condemned to sail the seas off the Cape of Good Hope until Judgement Day or his ghostly ship which, if seen by sailors, is considered to be a very bad omen indeed.  Some say the tale is based on a true story and that the Captain’s name was Van der Decken, Ramhout van Dam or Falkenburg.  Others will tell you that it’s based on the historical figure, Bernard Fokke, who lived during the 17th century and was known for the unbelievable speed with which he could travel from the Netherlands to Java. 

Now oddly enough, from 1849 until 1892, there was an express train that ran between London and Bristol which was known as “The Flying Dutchman.”  It was the companion train of “The Flying Scotchman” which traveled between London and Edinburgh.  Not to be outdone, out in British Columbia in 1862, the first steamship to enter the Stikine River was none other than “The Flying Dutchman.”  What’s more, an English thoroughbred racehorse who won all of his first two season’s race starts back in the 1840s was named “The Flying Dutchman.”  And most recently, in 2007 an amusement park in Efteling in the Netherlands named its water coaster ride constructed by Dutch manufacturer Vekoma.

From all of this, we know that the expression “Flying Dutchman” has been around since the early 1800s at least.  But how far back can we trace the expression?  The Baltimore Sun announced the performance of “The Flying Dutchman” in the April 15, 1839 edition of the newspaper.  Now we know that the reference wasn’t to German composer Richard Wagner‘s opera “Der fliegende Holländer” since the composer claimed in his autobiography in 1870 that he had been inspired to create the opera following a sea crossing he made from Riga to London in July and August 1839. 

There was, however, a novel by Heinrich Heine entitled, “The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski” published in 1834 that contained within its pages the story of “The Flying Dutchman.”  However, he was not the first to mention the character in question.  In fact, the first print reference is found in the book by George Barrington entitled “A Voyage To Botany Bay” published by 1795.  The following excerpt can be found in Chapter VI:

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.

Now it’s possible that the Captain in question was indeed Bernard Fokke but it’s also just as possible that the captain in question was Van der Decke, the captain of a Dutch ship that sank off the cost of Cape of Good Hope back in 1641.  Folkore has it that as the ship began to sink in stormy waters, the Captain shouted out, “I will round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until Doomsday!

Regardless of who the captain of the ghost ship happens to be, it has been sighted a number of times including on 1881 by the crew of the HMS Bacchante as the ship rounded the tip of Africa; in 1879 by the crew of the SS Pretoria; in 1911 by the crew of a whaling ship; in 1923 by members of the British Navy who then provided documentation to the Society of Psychical Research; in 1939 by people on shore as well as German Admiral Karl Doenitz as he maintained his U-boat; in 1941 by a group of people at Glencairn Beach; in 1942 by four people at Table Bay; and in 1959, it’s alleged that the Magelhaen nearly collided with “The Flying Dutchman.”

What Idiomation can confirm is that while the legend of “The Flying Dutchman” has been around for at least 100 years more than the first printed reference, there does not appear to be an earlier printed reference than the one by George Barrington (1755–1804) in 1795.  However, that an Irishman should happen upon the story and write it down suggests that the legend he heard was at least 50 years old, pegging it to the mid 1700s. 

Interestingly enough, the spoken word tradition of passing stories down from generation to generation with only a few written comments found along the way tags the beginning of the tale of “The Flying Dutchman” to the turn of the 18th century …. the early 1700s … and with both captains separated by a mere generation, the legend could easily be about either captain.

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