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There is an old maritime legend that tells of a ghost ship, that is said to be cursed to sail the seas forever, never to make port again. An omen of doom, it foreshadows disaster for any and all who see it. This legendary vessel is called the Flying Dutchman.
The origins of the Flying Dutchman
The oldest known print reference to the phantom ship can be found in Travels in Various Parts of Europe, Asia and Africa, which was published in 1790 by John MacDonald. In one of the chapters, he describes sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa, when his ship ran into bad weather.
“One of our best seamen was easing himself on the head, and a sea washed him away. He called out, A rope, a rope, Captain; but he disappeared, and was never seen afterwards.
“The weather was so stormy that the sailors said they saw the flying Dutchman. The common story is, that this Dutchman came to the Cape in 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.” 1
Literary references to the notorious ship continued throughout the end of the 1700s, and into the 19th and 20th centuries. An otherworldly glowing light was said to accompany the vessel. Yet, above all, it was said that the ship’s appearance predicted disasters. The worst omen of all for a sailor, it is said that those who see the Flying Dutchman are doomed to meet a terrible fate.
John Leyden, a Scottish orientalist writing in the 19th century, described how the Flying Dutchman was a “common superstition of mariners.” He wrote about alleged encounters which seemed to confirm MacDonald’s earlier report: the spectral ship was most frequently spotted off the south coast of Africa.
“Hurricanes [there] are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated as the Flying Dutchman. At dead of night, the luminous form of a ship glides rapidly, with topsails flying, and sailing straight in ” the wind’s eye.” The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation, and to have been stricken with the pestilence. They were hence refused admittance into every port, and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expires.”2
Far from being spotted by lone witnesses, the Flying Dutchman is often seen by many sailors at the same time.
King George V witnesses the Flying Dutchman
On 11th July 1881 at 4 a.m., off the coast of Australia, Prince George of Wales, the future King George V of the United Kingdom reported encountering the ship.
As well as the prince, thirteen crew members on board HMS Inconstant attested to witnessing a “strange red light” come out of the pre-dawn darkness. The prince’s log described how a great ship suddenly “came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her”. After it passed, no “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.”
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Later that day, at 10.45 a.m., the seaman who first reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast to his death. As in all reported cases, sighting the Flying Dutchman foreshadowed catastrophe. 3
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