Flying Dutchman

Flying Dutchman
The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder c. 1887 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The legend of the Flying Dutchman concerns a ghost ship that can never make port, doomed to sail the oceans forever. It probably originates from 17th-century nautical folklore. The oldest extant version dates to the late 18th century.

Sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries report the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. If hailed by another ship the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.



The first reference in print to the ship appears in Chapter VI of A Voyage to Botany Bay (1795) (also known as A Voyage to New South Wales) attributed to George Barrington (1755–1804):[nb 1]

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 of Good Hope, 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 latitude. 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 phenomenon 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 on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.[1]

The next literary reference, which introduces the motif of punishment for a crime, was in John Leyden (1775–1811): Scenes of Infancy (Edinburgh, 1803):

It is a common superstition of mariners, that, in the high southern latitudes on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman ... 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 pestilence ... and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.[nb 2]

Thomas Moore (1779–1852) in his poem Written on passing Dead-man's Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Late in the Evening, September, 1804[2] places the vessel in the north Atlantic: "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." A footnote adds: "The above lines were suggested by a superstition very common among sailors, who call this ghost-ship, I think, 'the flying Dutch-man'."

Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), a friend of John Leyden's, was the first to refer to the vessel as a pirate ship, writing in the notes to Rokeby; a poem (first published December 1812) that the ship was "originally a vessel loaded with great wealth, on board of which some horrid act of murder and piracy had been committed" and that the apparition of the ship "is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens."

According to some sources, the 17th-century Dutch captain Bernard Fokke is the model for the captain of the ghost ship.[3] Fokke was renowned for the speed of his trips from Holland to Java and was suspected of being in league with the Devil. The first version of the legend as a story was printed, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine for May 1821,[4] which puts the scene as the Cape of Good Hope. This story introduces the name Vanderdecken for the captain and the motifs (elaborated by later writers) of letters addressed to people long dead being offered to other ships for delivery, but if accepted will bring misfortune; and the captain having sworn to round the Cape of Good Hope though it should take until the day of judgment.

She was an Amsterdam vessel and sailed from port seventy years ago. Her master’s name was Van der Decken. He was a staunch seaman, and would have his own way in spite of the devil. For all that, never a sailor under him had reason to complain; though how it is on board with them nobody knows. The story is this: that in doubling the Cape they were a long day trying to weather the Table Bay. However, the wind headed them, and went against them more and more, and Van der Decken walked the deck, swearing at the wind. Just after sunset a vessel spoke him, asking him if he did not mean to go into the bay that night. Van der Decken replied: ‘May I be eternally damned if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment. And to be sure, he never did go into that bay, for it is believed that he continues to beat about in these seas still, and will do so long enough. This vessel is never seen but with foul weather along with her.[5]

There have been many reported sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries. One was by Prince George of Wales, the future King George V. During his late adolescence, in 1880, with his elder brother Prince Albert Victor of Wales, he was on a three-year voyage with their tutor Dalton aboard the 4,000-tonne corvette Bacchante. Off the coast of Australia, between Melbourne and Sydney, Dalton records:

At 4 a.m. the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there was no vestige nor any 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. Thirteen persons altogether saw her ... At 10.45 a.m. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast crosstrees on to the topgallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms.[6]

Explanations as an optical illusion

Probably the most credible explanation is a superior mirage or Fata Morgana seen at sea.[7]

Book illustration showing superior mirages of two boats
The news soon spread through the vessel that a phantom-ship with a ghostly crew was sailing in the air over a phantom-ocean, and that it was a bad omen, and meant that not one of them should ever see land again. The captain was told the wonderful tale, and coming on deck, he explained to the sailors that this strange appearance was caused by the reflection of some ship that was sailing on the water below this image, but at such a distance they could not see it. There were certain conditions of the atmosphere, he said, when the sun's rays could form a perfect picture in the air of objects on the earth, like the images one sees in glass or water, but they were not generally upright, as in the case of this ship, but reversed—turned bottom upwards. This appearance in the air is called a mirage. He told a sailor to go up to the foretop and look beyond the phantom-ship.The man obeyed, and reported that he could see on the water, below the ship in the air, one precisely like it. Just then another ship was seen in the air, only this one was a steamship, and was bottom-upwards, as the captain had said these mirages generally appeared. Soon after, the steamship itself came in sight. The sailors were now convinced, and never afterwards believed in phantom-ships.

Another optical effect, known as looming, occurs when rays of light are bent across different refractive indices. This could make a ship just off the horizon appear hoisted in the air.[8]


The contemporary 1797–98 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, contains a similar account of a ghost ship, which may have been influenced by the tale of the Flying Dutchman.[9][10]

This story was adapted in the English melodrama The Flying Dutchman; or the Phantom Ship: a Nautical Drama, in three acts (1826)[nb 3] by Edward Fitzball (1792–1873) and the novel The Phantom Ship (1839)[nb 4] by Frederick Marryat. This in turn was later adapted as Het Vliegend Schip (The Flying Ship) by the Dutch clergyman, A. H. C. Römer. In Marryat's version, Terneuzen, in the Netherlands, is described as the home of the captain, who is called Van der Decken (of the decks).

Richard Wagner's opera, The Flying Dutchman (1843) is adapted from an episode in Heinrich Heine's satirical novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski (Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski) (1833) in which a character attends a theatrical performance of The Flying Dutchman in Amsterdam. Heine had first briefly used the legend in his Reisebilder: Die Nordsee (Pictures of Travel: the North Sea) (1826) which simply repeats from Blackwood's Magazine the features of the vessel being seen in a storm and sending letters addressed to persons long since dead. In his 1833 elaboration, it was once thought that it may have been based on Fitzball's play, which was playing at the Adelphi Theatre in London, but the run had ended on 7 April 1827 and Heine did not arrive in London until the 14th.[nb 5] Heine was the first author to introduce the chance of salvation through a woman's devotion and the opportunity to set foot on land every seven years to seek a faithful wife. This imaginary play, unlike Fitzball's play, which has the Cape of Good Hope location, in Heine's account is transferred to the North Sea off Scotland. Wagner's opera was similarly planned to take place off the coast of Scotland, although during the final rehearsals he transferred the action to another part of the North Sea, off Norway.

Another adaptation was The Flying Dutchman on Tappan Sea by Washington Irving (1855), in which the captain is named Ramhout van Dam. He had already used the story (based on Moore's poem) in his Bracebridge Hall (1822).

The Flying Dutchman has been captured in paintings by Albert Ryder, now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., and by Howard Pyle, an artist famous for illustrations of pirates.

The story was dramatised in the 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, starring James Mason (who plays the Dutch Captain Hendrick van der Zee) and Ava Gardner. In this version, the Flying Dutchman is a man, not a ship. This two-hour long film, scripted by its director Albert Lewin, sets the main action on the Mediterranean coast of Spain in the summer of 1930. Centuries earlier the Dutchman had killed his wife, wrongly believing her to be unfaithful. Providence condemned him to roam the seas until he finds the true meaning of love. In the only plot device taken from previous versions, once every seven years the Dutchman is allowed ashore for half a year to search for a woman who will love him enough to die for him, releasing him from his curse, and he finds her in Pandora, played by Gardner.

In Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, the ship made its first appearance in Dead Man's Chest (2006) under the command of the fictional captain, Davy Jones. The story and attributes of the ship were inspired by the actual Flying Dutchman of nautical lore. During filming, Johnny Depp referred to it as "the Davy Jones Crocodile Machine" after forgetting its actual name.

Famous witnesses of the Flying Dutchman


  1. ^ George Barrington (originally Waldron) was tried at the Old Bailey in London in September 1790 for picking pockets and sentenced to transportation for seven years. He embarked on the convict transport Active which sailed from Portsmouth on 27 March 1791 and arrived at Port Jackson (Sydney), just to the north of Botany Bay, on 26 September, having anchored briefly at Table Bay in late June. The various accounts of his voyage and activities in New South Wales appear to be literary forgeries by publishers capitalising on both his notoriety and in public interest for the new colony, combining turns of phrase from his trial speeches with plagiarised genuine accounts of other writers concerning Botany Bay. See George Barrington’s Voyage to Botany Bay edited by Suzanne Rickard (Leicester University Press, 2001). A Voyage to Botany Bay & A Voyage to New South Wales, both issued in 1795, were revamped versions of An Impartial and Circumstantial Narrative of the Present State of Botany Bay, which had appeared in 1793/4, but which did not include the Flying Dutchman reference.
  2. ^ Leyden says Chaucer alludes to a punishment of a similar kind in his poem The Parlement of Foules: "And breakers of the laws, sooth to sain, / And lecherous folk, after that they been dead, / Shall whirl about the world alway in pain, / Till many a world be passed out of dread.
  3. ^ The 48-page text published c. 1829 acknowledges Blackwood's 1821 story as the source, although the two have little in common.
  4. ^ Originally published in instalments in the New Monthly Magazine (London) March–October 1837, January–February 1838 & February–August 1839 before appearing in book form in 1839. Marryat's gripping story added no new elements to the legend.
  5. ^ The play was not published until its revival in 1829. On all these points see Musical Times (London), March 1986, p. 133.
  1. ^ Barrington 2004, p. 30
  2. ^ Published in Epistles, Odes, and other poems (London, 1806)
  3. ^ Eyers, Jonathan (2011). Don't Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. A&C Black, London, UK. ISBN 978-1-4081-3131-2.
  4. ^ The author has been identified as John Howison (fl. 1821–59) of the East India Company. See Alan Lang Strout: A Bibliography of Articles in Blackwood's Magazine 1817–1825 (1959, p. 78).
  5. ^ Music with Ease (2008). "Source of the Legend of The Flying Dutchman". Music with Ease. Retrieved 2008-02-23. 
  6. ^ Rose, Kenneth (1988) King George V
  7. ^ Round-about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy by Frank R. Stockton
  8. ^ Meyer-Arendt 1995, p. 431
  9. ^ Fulmer, O. Bryan (October 1969). "The Ancient Mariner and the Wandering Jew". Studies in Philology 66 (5): 797–815. JSTOR 4173656. 
  10. ^ John Clute and John Grant, ed (1999). The encyclopedia of fantasy. Macmillan. pp. 210. ISBN 978-0312198695.  Excerpt available at Google Books.
  • Barrington, George (2004) [1795], Voyage to Botany Bay, Sydney University Press, ISBN 1920897208 
  • Meyer-Arendt, Jurgen (1995) [1972], Introduction to Modern and Classical Optics, Prentice-Hall, Inc., ISBN 0-13-124356-X 

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Flying Dutchman — Flying Fly ing, a. [From {Fly}, v. i.] Moving in the air with, or as with, wings; moving lightly or rapidly; intended for rapid movement. [1913 Webster] {Flying army} (Mil.) a body of cavalry and infantry, kept in motion, to cover its own… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Flying Dutchman — n. 1. a fabled Dutch sailor condemned to sail the seas off the Cape of Good Hope until Judgment Day 2. his ghostly ship, considered a bad omen by sailors who think they see it …   English World dictionary

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  • Flying Dutchman — Fly|ing Dutch|man 〈[ flaııŋ dʌ̣tʃmæn] m.; ; unz.〉 das erste moderne internationale Schwertboot [engl., „Fliegender Holländer“] * * * Fly|ing Dutch|man [ fla̮iɪŋ dat̮ʃmən ], der; , …men […mən] [engl. = Fliegender Holländer (viell. in Anspielung… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • flying dutchman — fly·ing dutch·man loc.s.m.inv. ES ingl. {{wmetafile0}} TS mar. imbarcazione a vela da regata per due persone attrezzata con randa, fiocco e spinnaker {{line}} {{/line}} DATA: 1965. ETIMO: ingl. flying dutchman propr. olandese volante …   Dizionario italiano

  • Flying Dutchman — noun 1. the captain of a phantom ship (the Flying Dutchman) who was condemned to sail against the wind until Judgment Day • Hypernyms: ↑apparition, ↑phantom, ↑phantasm, ↑phantasma, ↑fantasm, ↑specter, ↑spectre 2. a phantom ship …   Useful english dictionary

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