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The Flying Dutchman

picture of the ship, the “Flying Dutchman”

The legend of the Flying Dutchman has been recounted a thousand times, so that whatever grounding in fact it may have had is hopelessly blurred, yet it still teases the imagination. For two centuries individuals and small groups would insist that they had seen the phantom ship themselves. Richard Wagner wrote a powerful opera on the theme, and in 1951 Alfred Lewin retold Wagner's version of the story in the film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

That a Dutch ship did founder off the southern tip of Africa is unquestioned; there were many such wrecks. The earliest recorded were in 1644, when two Dutch East India Company ships, the Eiland and the Mauritius, were lost near the Cape of Good Hope. Whether either of these was the ship in the legend, or whether its name is listed at all, is doubtful. The notoriously treacherous seas in that area continued to claim ships and their crews for nearly two hundred years, and different story tellers give a variety of dates ranging through that period.

Perhaps the story originated as a cautionary tale for those captains willing to risk the lives of their men by attempting to round the Cape in bad weather.

A ship is said to have been returning to the Netherlands from what is now Indonesia. Some say that the captain was deep in thought and failed to notice an approaching storm, but the more likely explanation is that he was anxious to be at home and to unload his rich cargo, which would have consisted mainly of cloves, nutmeg and other valuable spices and may also have included silks and porcelain.

For whatever reason, the captain chose to push his craft forward into the teeth of a howling gale. When he was advised against this, he declared that no power, either earthly or spiritual, would force him to seek shelter. Indeed, he said, he would round the Cape if it took him all of eternity to do it.

The scene can be imagined: waves towering above the ship and crashing savagely amongst terrified men, men who were trying in vain to control and lower sails while booms swung wildly towards them. One can see them struggling to keep their footing as the ship pitched and yawed and finally broke up or slid beneath the awful waves.

No doubt there were seamen who had survived such a disaster, and probably they had memories of captains who courted calamity by mercilessly driving men to attempt the impossible. How sweet for them to imagine one such captain sailing on through a dark eternity, his vessel crewed only by ghosts, repeating through the days and years his futile efforts to conquer the elements.

Sightings of unexplained sailing ships, often apparently airborne, near the Cape of Good Hope in subsequent years added strength to the story. Creditable witnesses, including a young sailor who’d later be Britain’s King George V, attested to such sightings. Once ships under sail ceased to ply the waves such reports stopped, and there are sound scientific reasons for this to be so—but why spoil a good story?

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