At last we are back on track.
Eight-years-old. I confuse my captains
At eight-years-old I overwrote what little I knew about the Flying Dutchman with the Flying Enterprise. What was unforgivable was how that disconnect persisted, so that I might happily utter one name for the other. ‘Captain Carlsen’ somehow integrated with ‘Captain Vanderdecken’.
Recognising later that Van der Decken is simply ‘captain of the deck’ should not excuse me. Then, somehow, somewhere along the way I was blown away by Wagner:
No: you don’t have to hang around for the full eleven minutes of the Overture (scroll to the end of this post and settle down for the full two hours). Just get the flavour, thinking Erich Wolfgang Korngold doing the stuff for Errol Flynn.
Now I recognise what follows is going to be very heavy on quotation: that’s because it is my archaeology, my mental lumber, of a fantasy.
A germ in Chaucer
One need not engage too long in literature to come across the caitiff, outcast, a lost soul, doomed to wander the world for eternity. A bad fate in the classical world was something like that of Odysseus. Ovid extensively bewailed his exile to Tomis (which we know as Constanta, on Romania’s Black Sea coast). Even worse was to lie unburied, as Antigone‘s brother, Polynices.
It’s there in Chaucer’s Parlement of Fowles:
… brekers of the lawe, soth to seyne,
And likerous folk, after that they ben dede,
Shul whirle aboute th’ erthe alwey in peyne,
Tyl many a world be passed, out of drede,
And than, foryeven al hir wikked dede,
Than shul they come into that blysful place,
The Flying Dutchman‘s original?
The one ‘given’ in the Flying Dutchman is nationality. Except he might not have been.
Barend Fockesz was not a Hollander: he was a Frisian. In 1678 Fockesz took his Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie ship to Batavia in record time: he either had some innovation (one suggestion is metal spars rather than wooden) or demonic aid. ‘Crack’ captains tend to drive their crews hard, which does improve their reputation among seamen.
The Flying Dutchman makes it into print
John MacDonald, emphatically of Inverness-shire, tells he was orphaned by the 1745 Jacobite Rising. He took to the sea, and his memoirs, Travels in Various Parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, appeared in 1790 — though we lack provenance for the author and his adventures.
Here he is, as captain’s servant, aboard the Hampshire (it did exist), inbound from India:
We had a good passage for England, till we came between the latitude of the south part of Madagascar and the Cape of Good Hope. There we had tempestuous weather for three weeks, with a foul wind, so that the Captain furled the sails and lashed up the helm, and let the ship drive where she would.
Captain Taylor and his officers were in great rouble of mind. We got so near the Cape, with a lee shore, that we could see the table land, and the Lyon’s Rump, and had the wind continued, we should have dashed against the rocks; but it pleased God the wind changed, and carried us further on the sea. We had very bad weather going round the Cape of Good Hope, insomuch that the whole ship’s company expected every day to be lost. Sometimes the officers on watch were knocked down on deck by a sea coming overboard, and the men were washed overboard, and never seen again. […]
The weather was so stormy, that the sailors said they saw the flying Dutchman. The common story is this, that this Dutchman came to the Cape is distress of weather, and wanted to get into harbour, but could not get a pilot to conduct her, and was lost; and that ever since, in very bad weather, her vision appears. The sailors fancy that if you would hail her, she would answer like another vessel.
What we can take from that, for sure, is the pre-existence of the myth, and a location.
The first playhouse in Australia opened at Sydney on 16 January 1796, with a prologue, spoken by the celebrated Mr. Barrington, but most likely written by Henry Carter:
From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,
True patriots all; for be it understood,
We left our country for our country’s good …
Most often, though, Barrington gets the credit. He included it in his History of New South Wales (1802) — though even that authorship is suspect. Barrington (whose origins were the County Kildare) was transported for pick-pocketing. Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay is available one the Net. Chapter 6 includes this:
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, 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 latitute. 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 phœnomenon 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. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has some one one board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.
About two in the morning I was awaked by a violent shake by the shoulder, when starting up in my hammock, I saw the boatswain, with evident signs of terror and dismay in his countenance, standing by me. “For God’s sake, messmate,” said he, “hand us the key of the case, for by the Lord I’m damnably scarified: for, d’ye see, as I was just looking over the weather bow, what should I see but the Flying Dutchman coming right down upon us, with every thing set — I know ’twas she — I cou’d see all her lower-deck ports up, and the lights fore and aft, as if cleared for action. Now as how, d’ye see, I am sure no mortal ship could bear her low-deck ports up and not founder in this here weather: Why, the sea runs mountains high. It must certainly be the ghost of that there Dutchman, that foundered in this latitude, and which, I have heard say, always appears in this here quarter, in hard gales of wind.”
That had London publication in 1795. Some critics suggest Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner (published 1797) owes Barrington. By the start of the nineteenth century the Flying Dutchman had become a staple of literature.
A sighting in the far north!
George Moore knocked out On Passing Deadman’s Island, in the Gulf of St Lawrence, Late in the evening, September 1804:
See you, beneath yon cloud so dark,
Fast gliding along, a gloomy bark!
Her sails are full, though the wind is still,
And there blows not a breath her sails to fill!
Oh! what doth that vessel of darkness bear?
The silent calm of the grave is there,
Save now and again a death-bell rung,
And the flap of the sails with night-fog hung!
There liveth a wreck on the dismal shore
Of cold and pitiless Labrador;
Where, under the moon, upon mounts of frost,
Full many a mariner’s bones are tost!
Yon shadowy bark hath been to that wreck
And the dim blue fire, that lights her deck,
Doth play upon as pale and livid a crew,
As ever yet drank the church-yard dew!
To deadman’s Isle, in the eye of the blast,
To Deadman’s Isle she speeds her fast;
By skeleton shapes her sails are furl’d
And the hand that steers is not of this world!
Oh! hurry thee on — oh! hurry thee on
Thou terrible bark! ere the night be gone,
Nor let morning look on so foul a sight
As would blanch forever her rosy light!
I give that in full, doubting it chilled the marrow of the most susceptible maids, because:
- as far as I can see, nobody else has perpetuated it in e-text;
- third-rate writing can be damnably irritating when it penetrates the synapses;
- it amply proves why Moore was of his time, but his reputation was not bright forever.
Inevitably Scott gets in on the action, and when his career was forced to change direction. Around 1810 his reputation came from churning out imitation Border ballads. In 1813 he manufactured a Teesdale legend in Rokeby. The poem flopped, the bills for Abbotsford were mounting, and Scott turned to prose and romantic novels.
In Canto II Scott reflects on:
… seamen love to hear and tell
Of portent, prodigy and spell […]
Or of that phantom ship, whose form
Shoots like a meteor through the storm,
When the dark scud comes driving hard,
And lowered is every topsail yard,
And canvass, wove in earthly looms.
No more to brave the storm presumes!
Then, ‘mid the war of sea nd sky,
Top and top-gallant hoisted high,
Full-spread and crowded every sail,
The Dæmon frigate braves the gale;
And well the doomed spectators know
The harbinger of wreck and woe!
The full Goth
Coleridge and Moore are following the trend established by Horace Walpole. Spine-tingling shockers have sold well ever since.
In 1839 Captain Frederick Marryat cobbled together the whole Flying Dutchman story, with his own additions. One of Marryat’s sources would have been John Howison in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for May 1821 — the first to feature Captain Hendrick Van der Decken.
In Marryat’s story, Philip Vanderdecken is returning from Batavia. He is the son of a VOL captain who had gone missing, but whose cursed ghost returns to haunt his widow. He hears the story of Captain William Vanderdecken from his dying morther:
“It was his third voyage to India, Philip, and it was to have been, if it had so pleased God, his last, for he had purchased that good ship with only part of his earnings, and one more voyage would have made his fortune. O! how often did we talk over what we would do upon his return, and how these plans for the future consoled me at the idea of his absence, for I loved him dearly, Philip, — he was always good and kind to me; and after he had sailed, how I hoped for his return! […]
A violent gust of wind roared round the house, and alarmed me still more. I had a painful, horrible foreboding; when, of a sudden, the windows and window-shutters were all blown in, the light was extinguished, and I was left in utter darkness. I screamed with fright; but at last I recovered myself, and was proceeding towards the window that I might reclose it, when whom should I behold, slowly entering at the casement, but — your father, — Philip! — Yes, Philip, — it was your father!”
William Vanderdecken is cursed because:
‘For nine weeks did I try to force my passage against the elements round the stormy Cape, but without success; and I swore terribly. For nine weeks more did I carry sail against the adverse winds and currents, and yet could gain no ground; and then I blasphemed, — ay, terribly blasphemed. Yet still I persevered. The crew, worn out with long fatigue, would have had me return to the Table Bay; but I refused; nay, more, I became a murderer, — unintentionally, it is true, but still a murderer. The pilot opposed me, and persuaded the men to bind me, and in the excess of my fury, when he took me by the collar, I struck at him; he reeled; and, with the sudden lurch of the vessel, he fell overboard, and sank. Even this fearful death did not restrain me; and I swore by the fragment of the Holy Cross, preserved in that relic now hanging round your neck, that I would gain my point in defiance of storm and seas, of lightning, of heaven, or of hell, even if I should beat about until the Day of Judgment.
‘My oath was registered in thunder, and in streams of sulphurous fire. The hurricane burst upon the ship, the canvas flew away in ribbons; mountains of seas swept over us, and in the centre of a deep o’erhanging cloud, which shrouded all in utter darkness, were written in letters of livid flame, these words — UNTIL THE DAY OF JUDGMENT.’
The ghost presents the widow with a letter. After the usual argy-bargy, Philip finds his mission is to deliver the fragment of the Holy Cross to the deck of the ghost ship. So the theme of Maryatt’s story is established.
Years pass: off St Helena the younger Vanderdecken encounters the survivors of a sunken ship:
“… we saw the Fiend or Devil’s Ship, as they call her, but three days before.”
“What! the Flying Dutchman, as they name her?” asked Philip.
“Yes; that, I believe, is the name they give her,” replied the captain. “I have often heard of her; but it never was my fate to fall in with her before, and I hope it never will be again; for I am a ruined man, and must begin the world afresh.” […]
“It was very strange; the night was fine, and the heavens clear; we were under top-gallant sails, for I do not carry on during the night, or else we might have put the royals on her; she would have carried them with the breeze. I had turned in, when about two o’clock in the morning the mate called me to come on deck. I demanded what was the matter, and he replied he could hardly tell, but that the men were much frightened, and that there was a Ghost Ship, as the sailors termed it, in sight.
And so on. And so forth. Overheated stuff, indeed — and Maryatt found public and critical taste had changed. His Phantom Ship was no great success.
All that was needed was the full operatic excess.
How that came about is typical of this confused narrative.
Heinrich Heine did a satirical skit, Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski, on his character attending a performance of the story — one of several attempts to make the tale into a theatrical piece.
In 1843 Richard Wagner’s full-throated piece hit the stage in Dresden — and both the composer and Der fliegende Holländer were made for all time.