The legend of the Flying Dutchman
The HMS Leven’s sighting
On 8 July 1822, the Coastal Survey Ship H.M Leven rounded Cape Point on her way to map the eastern coastline of Africa.
The Leven was an adventurous vessel. She had fought in the Napoleonic Wars off the coast of La Vendee. She had mapped the Cape Verde Islands, where her captain died. She had tried on more than one occasion to explore the Gambia River. She would go on to capture slave ships and free their human cargo. In her latter days she would become a hospital ship, a prison hulk and, finally, a humble port receiver.
But by the time the Leven pulled into to Simonstown on 7 April 1823, it was not their epic journey to Mozambique, Madagascar and the Arabian Peninsula that her crew were talking about. They were not toasting the many mates which they had lost to accidents and disease. They were talking about something altogether more sinister.
They were talking about a ghost ship – the Flying Dutchman.
The Leven’s company on her African odyssey was the HMS Barracouta, a 27m brig-sloop. (The Leven was a 35m ship-sloop.) In 1823, the two ships were approaching the southern end of Africa after a long and difficult mission along the eastern coast. Both ships stopped at Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth, 650km east of Cape Town) to refresh their supplies and restore morale.
The Barracouta needed some additional repair work so she remained in port for a few days while the Leven went ahead to Simonstown. But when the Leven arrived at False Bay, her captain, William Fitzwilliam Owen, spotted what he thought was the Baracoutta not very far behind them.
Captain Owen was surprised and confused. The Barracouta should still have been in Algoa Bay being repaired. Even if she had left soon after the Leven in favourable conditions there was virtually no chance that the Barracouta could have caught up with the Leven.
The captain and his officers scanned the distant ship through their telescopes and binoculars and saw her lower a boat which proceeded to row in their direction. Just then, a strange mist descended on the ship and the boat, and when it had lifted, they were gone.
The captain was at a loss to explain the phenomenon. But the sailors were not. A strange ship that suddenly appears near the Cape of Good Hope? One that lowers a boat to make contact but disappears in a mist? The sailors were quite sure that they knew what the captain and the officers had seen.
The sailors of the HMS Leven knew the legend of the Flying Dutchman.
The Curse of Captain Van Der Decken
The legend of the Flying Dutchman was born after a ship captained by Hendrik van der Decken was reported missing at sea in 1641. The ship was on its way back from a successful trading mission to Indonesia. Its cargo holds were full of silks and spices that would make them and the Dutch East India Company a fortune.
As the ship was approaching Cape Point, the weather turned and a storm approached from the west, the wind blowing directly into the ship as it travelled back home. Whether it was the love of his family or the greed of his bounty that spurred him on is not known. What we do know is that the stronger the wind blew, the more determined Van der Decken became to round Cape Point.
As the Flying Dutchman was tossed by the waves and turned by the wind, Van der Decken raised his fist to the roaring skies and swore an oath:
“I shall round this damned Cape, even if I have to sail until Doomsday comes.”
At that moment an angel of the Lord – or was it a devil in disguise – appeared and granted him his wish. The waters calmed, and the crew survived, but to this day the ship sails up and down the Cape of Storms, stuck in a limbo of timeless Sisyphean struggle, unable to find its way home, its crew desperate to contact other seafarers and send word of their plight to their loved ones.
Sightings of the Flying Dutchman
One of the biggest reasons for the enduring notoriety of the Flying Dutchman – apart from the Wagnerian opera about the legend – is the fact that it has been so frequently sighted.
All sightings of the Flying Dutchman bear an uncanny similarity. She has a strange glow, even during the day. She attempts to make contact with other sailors, signaling her intent to lower a boat and and deliver messages to home. And her sails are full even in the calmest weather.
Reports of the ship have come from sailors, passengers and ordinary residents of False Bay, ranging from a crowd of people swimming in the relatively warm waters of Glencairn Beach in 1939 to none other than the King of England, George V, when he was a young man in the Royal Navy.
On 11 July 1881, King George V was a 16-year-old midshipman aboard the HMS Bacchante as it rounded Cape Point on its way to Australia. At four in the morning, young George saw a strange ship that glowed with a strange red light as she approached.
It is said to be bad luck to spot the Flying Dutchman and a terrible mistake to accept the letters for home that her crew wish to give to passing ships. There were two other witnesses of the Flying Dutchman on that night aboard the Bacchante – the lookout, of course, and the officer of the watch. Seven hours later, the lookout fell from his perch on the rigging and died.
The meaning of the legend
The legend of the Flying Dutchman bears the characteristics of two classic myths that people have told each other since people began to tell each other stories.
The first is obviously: the ghost ship. Sailors are a notoriously superstitious lot. Their occupation leaves them vulnerable to forces beyond their control. This fosters a faith in the kindness of supernatural forces that will keep them safe, and a fear of unexplained phenomena that can befall them at any time.
Ghost ships serve as a moral cautionary tale to new recruits and a canon of history for old hands. These tales keep the informal hierarchy below decks in check, and even provide a respectful way to persuade their captains and superiors of the folly of some ways.
The second classic myth is that of Sisyphus, King of Corinth, who was a famous sponsor of shipping and trade routes, but also a vain and deceitful man who seduced his own niece and betrayed even Zeus, the king of the gods. As punishment for his treachery, Zeus ordered Sisyphus to spend an eternity rolling a huge boulder up a hill – but each time he was just a few inches close to the summit, the boulder would roll back down again.
For their vanity and obsession, both Sisyphus and Van De Decken are condemned to spend an eternity doing something which they shall come tantalizing close to achieving – but never be able to complete.