Of all the sailors’ superstitions and nautical folklore, the legend of the Flying Dutchman may be the most well-known. Perhaps you recognize the name as the ghostly ship manned by the crew of Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
If your childhood was anything like mine, the name “Flying Dutchman” immediately brings to mind the goofy, green ghost from SpongeBob SquarePants. If you’re a bit more high-class, then you might be thinking about Richard Wagner’s iconic German opera The Flying Dutchman. Whoever you are, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard the name of the Flying Dutchman at one point or another.
What a lot of people don’t know about this legend is that it has its origins in a very real location and, in fact, it may also be based on a real person. As happens with sailors’ tales, the story has been changed over time to include supernatural elements as well as general redactions.
To begin our exploration into the origins of this myth, we need to take a trip to the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, a place that used to have a much more menacing name.
The Cape of Storms
The Cape of Good Hope is a large headland extending from the southern region of the African continent. The first European voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope was led by Bartolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer who was trying to establish better trade routes with the Far East. Rounding the cape in 1488 was a major milestone in global exploration for Europeans.
Bartolomeu Dias, though, did not refer to this point as the Cape of Good Hope. He called it the Cape of Storms. This name is a more accurate allusion to the horrible tempests that swell up off the coast in this area.
In addition to the storms, the region is spattered with dangerous rock outcrops that can tear the hull of a ship to bits. Because of these natural threats, the Cape of Good Hope has been the final resting place for many Portuguese ships trying to make their way over to India or the Far East over the years.
With so many sunken ships, the Cape of Good Hope, or “Cape of Storms” as it was called until it was renamed by John II of Portugal, is the perfect birthplace for a nautical ghost story. But, the exact origins of the Flying Dutchman tale are still somewhat unknown.
The Origins of the Flying Dutchman
The very first reference to the legend in literature was in Travels in various parts of Europe, Asia and Africa during a series of thirty years and upward by John MacDonald, written in 1790. According to this source, the Flying Dutchman was a ship that would appear around the Cape of Good Hope during especially tumultuous storms.
It’s highly likely that the story of the Flying Dutchman had been passed down orally for generations long before John MacDonald ever wrote his book.
The Flying Dutchman legend is believed to have originated during the 21 years that the Dutch East India Company (which is supposed to be the largest company to have ever existed in recorded history) had a monopoly on the Dutch spice trade.
Some sources have claimed that the model for the story was a 17th-century captain named Bernard Fokke who was employed by the Dutch East India Company to make trips from the Dutch Republic to Java. The remarkable speed with which Fokke was able to make his journeys sparked rumors that the captain was in league with the Devil.
The very first full version of the Flying Dutchman story was printed in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1821. The main character of the story is also a 17th-century captain for the Dutch East India Company, but his name was Hendrick van der Decken, who most historians agree was probably not a real person.
As that version of the story goes, van der Decken and his crew were trying to traverse Table Bay (the body of water off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope) in order to deliver a series of letters to people who had been long dead.
These letters were said to have brought them bad luck. So, unfortunately for the crew, the wind would not blow in their favor. Captain Hendrick van der Decken walked out onto the deck and swore that he would eventually sail around the Cape of Good Hope, even if he had to wait until Judgment Day.
In some versions of the story, the Devil appeared to Captain van der Hecken and doomed his ship to sit on the water until Judgment Day. In other versions of the story, it was an angel that appeared to the captain. Fearing the supernatural visitor, the captain shot at the angel and this defiant act against God sealed the ship’s fate.
Since this legend was concocted, people have been claiming that they’ve seen the Flying Dutchman appear like an apparition in the midst of a storm off the coast of the Cape of Good Hope or in other parts of the world.
Reported Sightings of the Flying Dutchman
One of the most famous sightings of the Flying Dutchman was reported by Prince George of Wales (who would later become King George V). Prince George was on a three-year expedition with his brother in 1881 that eventually took them to the Bass Strait, which sits off the coast of Australia between Melbourne and Sydney. The prince kept a log of his journey and, in his entry for July 11th, he wrote:
“July 11th. 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.”
According to Prince George’s account, the Flying Dutchman not only has the ability to appear and disappear mysteriously but also to dissolve people into mere atoms.
The latest reported sighting of the Flying Dutchman was during World War II. A German submarine boat under the command of Nazi Admiral Karl Dönitz claimed to have seen the Flying Dutchman during their voyage to the east of the Suez Canal in Egypt.
Wagner’s Flying Dutchman
The famous 1843 opera The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner made a couple of modifications to the original Flying Dutchman legend. For one, the main character in the three-act opera was a captain named Daland who encounters the Dutchman in a dream.
The Dutchman tells him the story of how he became stranded at sea after invoking Satan. However, every seven years he is able to return to land and, if he is able to find a wife, then his curse will be lifted.
Daland’s daughter, who has already married someone else, falls in love with a picture of the Dutchman and resolves to set him free of his curse by marrying him. In the final act of the opera, Daland’s daughter Sentra pledges her fidelity to the Dutchman and flings herself into the sea, freeing him of his curse. The opera ends with Sentra and the Dutchman floating up into heaven together.