The Flying Dutchman
Sailors in Holland long believed that a Dutch skipper
named van Straaten was condemned as a penalty for his sins to
sail for year after year through the seas around the Cape of
Storms (an early name for the Cape of Good Hope). Crews returning
to the Zudyer Zee (the northern coast of the Netherlands)
after voyaging in this region used to declare that they
had seen van Straaten’s mysterious craft and fled from it in terror.
The legend is a very old one, although its exact date is not
known. The story is found in Dutch, German, and other folklore.
Several German versions call the ill-fated seaman von
Falkenberg and maintain that it was not near South Africa but
in the North Sea that his spectral ship commonly hovered. Others
contend further that the devil paid periodic visits to the captain
on board his ship and frequently the two were seen playing
dice on deck, the stakes being von Falkenberg’s soul.
The tale soon found its way from folklore into actual literature;
among the greatest of writers utilizing it was Heinrich
Heine. In his rendering the sailor has a chance of salvation;
that is, the fates allow him to walk on land again once every
seven years. If during his brief period of respite he contrives to
win the affection of a pure maiden, liberation from perennial
sea-wandering will be granted him as reward.
Heine’s form of the story appealed greatly to the composer
Richard Wagner, who always regarded women devoutly as a regenerating
force, and the great composer based his opera Der
Fliegende Holländer on Heine’s version. It is set in the North Sea,
and the sailor is called van Derdecken; the maiden to whom he
makes advances is Senta. This opera was first staged at Dresden
in 1843, and although it did not win speedy appreciation, it became
popular in the course of time. The novelist Frederick
Marryat also wrote his story The Phantom Ship (1839) on the
subject of the Flying Dutchman.
During the nineteenth century, there were reliable reports
of sightings of the Flying Dutchman. An English ship’s log of
1835 stated that the captain and ship’s crew saw the vessel bearing
down on them ‘‘with all sails set’’ during a heavy gale. Another
entry in the log of the Bacchante in 1881 reported that the
Flying Dutchman crossed their bows, glowing with a strange red
light before suddenly disappearing into a clear, calm night.
Thirteen persons saw the phantom vessel, and two other ships
in the vicinity reported seeing a strange red light. (See also sea
phantoms and superstitions)
Basset, W. Wanderships. Chicago, 1917.
Jal, A. Scènes de la vie maritime. Paris, 1830.
Rappoport, Angelo S. Superstitions of Sailors. London, 1928.
Reprint, Ann Arbor, Mich. Gryphon Books, 1971.