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In the 17th century, the Dutch were obsessed with speed. Their empire expanded across the world, with colonies on most major continents. One of their most lucrative colonies was in Batavia, modern day Jakarta, which had a highly profitable trade in spices. At the time, spices were extremely valuable, being used not only for culinary purposes but to disguise bad odours and make medicine. 1
Thanks to the spice trade, the Dutch became a very wealthy empire. However, they were in intense competition with Portuguese and English merchants. Thus, if they could find the fastest routes, and employ the most able captains, it would help secure their dominance of the spice trade.
At the beginning of the century, a journey from the Netherlands to Indonesia would take around one year. Yet, in 1678 Captain Bernard Fokke, made that trip in just over three months. At the time there was no Suez canal to cut through, so this meant that he had somehow sailed around a large portion of Europe, along the entire length of Africa, and across the Indian ocean, in a cumbersome wooden ship, in a meagre amount of time. This was a speed that would only be beaten in more modern times. For the seventeenth century this speed seems unbelievable. However, the sail time was verified by the dates stamped on the letters the captain delivered. 2
After his feat, ominous stories started to circulate about the captain, describing him as a severe taskmaster who made serving under him a misery. Then there was an allegation of diabolical treachery: Fokke had sold his soul to the devil to be the fastest sailor in the world. It is said that in return for his soul, the devil turned the masts of his ship from wood to iron and thus he was able to change sails during even the fiercest of storms, something which a wooden mast made very difficult. Thus, with the devil’s supposed help and his unyielding leadership, Fokke performed one of the fastest voyages of the age. 3
Bernard Fokke and the Flying Dutchman
In the centuries since, some have claimed that Fokke was the inspiration for the legend of the infamous ghost ship, the Flying Dutchman. It is said that this swift captain was later ensnared by the devil and made to sail the world’s oceans forever under his command. 4
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.” 5
Was Bernard Fokke, the captain who supposedly sold his soul to Satan, the inspiration for this eerie tale?
- Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions, by Jonathan Eyers (2011)
- The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands, by Theo Meder (2008)
- Ghostly Tales on Land and Sea, by John Harper (2010)
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- The Legend of the Flying Dutchman
- 5 Chilling Cases for the Existence of the Devil
- Diabolical Dealings: 5 Historic Encounters With the Devil