Friday, 22 August 2014

The Story of the Flying Dutchman

Few maritime legends were left untouched in the course of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels. From Greek deities to Robert Louis Stevenson, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Davy Jones himself, the rich mythology built by sailors and authors fueled the sprawling and circuitous plot by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. But if Davy Jones is going to be turned into a squid-pirate, then a squid-pirate presumably needs a ship. Which one? Well there are no ships more famous and more infamous than the Flying Dutchman!

The Flying Dutchman, by Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1896.

In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the Flying Dutchman acts as a vessel for Davy Jones (then Will Turner) to ferry souls to the afterlife. Amongst professional mythologists, this role is known as a "psychopomp," which derives from a Greek word that literally means "guide of souls." These are figures who, like Charon in Hercules, are meant to conduct the dead safely to the other side. They are not the judges of the dead (as Charon in the Hercules series quips, "I just row the boat."), merely the guides. In some cultures, they work both ways, not only ferrying the dead to the afterlife, but ferrying new souls through birth. Though the ship comes to this use in Pirates of the Caribbean, the actual plot between Davy Jones and Calypso is heavily influenced by the most celebrated version of the Flying Dutchman's story.

As a piece of nautical lore, the Flying Dutchman was probably invented some time in the 16th century. This was the height of ocean traffic and piracy, and stories of sunken ships and doomed sailors pervaded. The earliest literary reference to the myth dates to a 1795 book entitled A Voyage to Botany Bay. The book was ostensibly a journal of George Barrington's exile to Botany Bay in Australia, after being tried and convicted of pickpocketing in 1790. It is highly likely that he never wrote a word of the book attributed to him, and rather, it was the work of publishers seeking to profit on his notoriety. Scholars still debate the subject. Whether or not Barrington - who received emancipation for ratting out a mutiny and later became a constable - was responsible for the passage on the Flying Dutchman, this excerpt from Chapter VI provides our first recorded mention of it:
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 phoenomenon 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."
After taking a good pull or two at the Hollands, he grew a little composed, when I jokingly asked him, if he was afraid of ghosts? "Why, as to that, d'ye see,"--said he, "I think as how I'm as good as another man; but I'd always a terrible antipathy to those things. Even when I was a boy, I never could find it in my heart to cross a church-yard in the dark without whistling and hallooing to make them believe I had company with me, for I've heard say they appear but to one at a time; for now, when I called to Joe Jackson, who was at the helm, to look over the weather-bow, he saw nothing; tho', as how, I saw it as plain as this here bottle," taking another swig at the Geneva.
Having some curiosity to see if I could make out any thing that could take such an appearance, I turned out, and accompanied him upon deck; but it had cleared up, the moon shining very bright, and not a cloud to be seen; though, by what I could learn from the rest of the people who were on deck, it had been very cloudy about half an hour before, of course I easily divined what kind of phantom had so alarmed my messmate. The sea running very high, and the gale rather increasing, we continued to lay too, and in the morning found we had parted company with the rest of the transports, not one being discernable from the mast head.
John Leyden and Thomas Moore also wrote of the ship, and Sir Walter Scott included a reference to it in his 1812 poem Rokeby: "This is an allusion to a well-known nautical superstition concerning a fantastic vessel, called by sailors the Flying Dutchman, and supposed to be seen about the latitude of the Cape of Good Hope. She is distinguished from earthly vessels by bearing a press of sail when all others are unable, from stress of weather, to show an inch of canvass. The cause of her wandering is not altogether certain; but the general account is, that she was originally a vessel loaded with great wealth, on board of' which some horrid act of murder and piracy had been committed; that the plague broke out among the wicked crew who had perpetrated the crime, and that they sailed in vain from port to port, offering, as the price of shelter, the whole of their ill-gotten wealth; that they were excluded from every harbour, for fear of the contagion which was devouring them; and that, as a punishment of their crimes, the apparition of the ship still continues to haunt those seas in which the catastrophe took place, and is considered by the mariners as the worst of all possible omens."
The Flying Dutchman, by Howard Pyle.
Not long thereafter, the Flying Dutchman becomes a subject of literary fabrication. One of the earliest purely and intentionally fictional stories comes from the May 1821 issue of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. By a circuitous route, this anonymously written story charts the course of the Flying Dutchman as it has been handed down to this day. Vanderdecken's Message Home; Or, the Tenacity of Natural Affection was adapted into a play by Edward Fitzball in 1826. This in turn influenced Heinrich Heine's 1833 novel The Memoirs of Mister von Schnabelewopski, in which appears a Flying Dutchman play that resembles Fitzball's in certain aspects. This episode was expanded and adapted by Richard Wagner for that definitive and celebrated version of the story in his 1843 opera, Der Fliegende Holländer.

The story itself, three and a half pages, is a short but effective visitation from the unfortunate souls trapped forever by the vanity of Captain Vanderdecken. Strobes of lightning illumine the infamous ship as it nears and dispatches a boarding party towards a passenger ship caught in the torrential storms off the Cape. It is easy to appreciate how such visits could continue for the near two centuries since its publication.
Our ship, after touching at the Cape, went out again, and, soon losing sight of the Table Mountain, began to be assailed by the impetuous attacks of the sea, which is well known to be more formidable there than in most parts of the known ocean. The day had grown dull and hazy, and the breeze, which had formerly blown fresh, now sometimes subsided almost entirely, and then, recovering its strength for a short time, and changing its direction, blew with temporary violence, and died away again, as if exercising a melancholy caprice. A heavy swell began to come from the southeast. Our sails flapped against the masts, and the ship rolled from side to side as heavily as if she had been water-logged. There was so little wind that she would not steer.
At 2 P.M. we had a squall, accompanied by thunder and rain. The seamen, growing restless, looked anxiously ahead. They said we would have a dirty night of it, and that it would not be worth while to turn into their hammocks. As the second mate was describing a gale he had encountered off Cape Race, Newfoundland, we were suddenly taken all aback, and the blast came upon us furiously. We continued to scud under a double-reefed mainsail and foretopsail till dusk; but, as the sea ran high, the captain thought it safest to bring her to. The watch on deck consisted of four men, one of whom was appointed to keep a lookout ahead, for the weather was so hazy that we could not see two cables' length from the bows. This man, whose name was Tom Willis, went frequently to the bows as if to observe something; and when the others called to him, inquiring what he was looking at, he would give no definite answer. They therefore went also to the bows, and appeared startled, and at first said nothing. But presently one of them cried, "William, go call the watch."
The seamen, having been asleep in their hammocks, murmured at this unseasonable summons, and called to know how it looked upon deck. To which Tom Willis replied, "Come up and see. What we are minding is not on deck, but ahead."
On hearing this they ran up without putting on their jackets, and when they came to the bows there was a whispering.
One of them asked, "Where is she? I do not see her." To which another replied, "The last flash of lightning showed there was not a reef in one of her sails; but we, who know her history, know that all her canvas will never carry her into port."
By this time the talking of the seamen had brought some of the passengers on deck. They could see nothing, however, for the ship was surrounded by thick darkness and by the noise of the dashing waters, and the seamen evaded the questions that were put to them.
At this juncture the chaplain came on deck. He was a man of grave and modest demeanor, and was much liked among the seamen, who called him Gentle George. He overheard one of the men asking another if he had ever seen the Flying Dutchman before, and if he knew the story about her. To which the other replied, "I have heard of her beating about in these seas. What is the reason she never reaches port?"
The first speaker replied, "They give different reasons for it, but my story is this: She was an Amsterdam vessel, and sailed from that port seventy years ago. Her master's name was Vanderdecken. 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 now nobody knows. The story is this, that, in doubling the Cape, they were a long day trying to weather the Table Bay, which we saw this morning. However, the wind headed them, and went against then more and more, and Vanderdecken walked the deck, swearing at the wind. Just after sunset a vessel spoke him, asking if he did not mean to go into the bay that night. Vanderdecken replied, 'May I be eternally d--d if I do, though I should beat about here till the day of judgment!' And, to be sure, Vanderdecken 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."
To which another replied, "We must keep clear of her. They say that her captain mans his jolly-boat when a vessel comes in sight, and tries hard to get alongside, to put letters on board, but no good comes to them who have communication with him."
Tom Willis said, "There is such a sea between us at present as should keep us safe from such visits."
To which the other answered, "We cannot trust to that, if Vanderdecken sends out his men."
Some of this conversation having been overheard by the passengers, there was a commotion among them. In the meantime the noise of the waves against the vessel could scarcely be distinguished from the sounds of the distant thunder. The wind had extinguished the light in the binnacle, where the compass was, and no one could tell which way the ship's head lay. The passengers were afraid to ask questions, lest they should augment the secret sensation of fear which chilled every heart, or learn any more than they already knew. For while they attributed their agitation of mind to the state of the weather, it was sufficiently perceptible that their alarms also arose from a cause which they did not acknowledge.
The lamp at the binnacle being relighted, they perceived that the ship lay closer to the wind than she had hitherto done, and the spirits of the passengers were somewhat revived.
Nevertheless, neither the tempestuous state of the atmosphere nor the thunder had ceased, and soon a vivid flash of lightning showed the waves tumbling around us, and, in the distance, the Flying Dutchman scudding furiously before the wind under a press of canvas. The sight was but momentary, but it was sufficient to remove all doubt from the minds of the passengers. One of the men cried aloud, "There she goes, topgallants and all."
The chaplain had brought up his prayer-book, in order that he might draw from thence something to fortify and tranquillise the minds of the rest. Therefore, taking his seat near the binnacle, so that the light shone upon the white leaves of the book, he, in a solemn tone, read out the service for those distressed at sea. The sailors stood round with folded arms, and looked as if they thought it would be of little use. But this served to occupy the attention of those on deck for a while.
In the meantime the flashes of lightning, becoming less vivid, showed nothing else, far or near, but the billows weltering round the vessel. The sailors seemed to think that they had not yet seen the worst, but confined their remarks and prognostications to their own circle.
At this time the captain, who had hitherto remained in his berth, came on deck, and, with a gay and unconcerned air, inquired what was the cause of the general dread. He said he thought they had already seen the worst of the weather, and wondered that his men had raised such a hubbub about a capful of wind. Mention being made of the Flying Dutchman, the captain laughed. He said he "would like very much to see any vessel carrying topgallantsails in such a night, for it would be a sight worth looking at." The chaplain, taking him by one of the buttons of his coat, drew him aside, and appeared to enter into serious conversation with him.
While they were talking together, the captain was heard to say, "Let us look to our own ship, and not mind such things;" and, accordingly, he sent a man aloft to see if all was right about the foretopsail-yard, which was chafing the mast with a loud noise.
It was Tom Willis who went up; and when he came down he said that all was tight, and that he hoped it would soon get clearer; and that they would see no more of what they were most afraid of.
The captain and first mate were heard laughing loudly together, while the chaplain observed that it would be better to repress such unseasonable gaiety. The second mate, a native of Scotland, each other without offering to do anything. The boat had come very near the chains, when Tom Willis called out, "What do you want? or what devil has blown you here in such weather?" A piercing voice from the boat replied, in English, "We want to speak with your captain." The captain took no notice of this, and, Vanderdecken's boat having come close alongside, one of the men came upon deck, and appeared like a fatigued and weather-beaten seaman holding some letters in his hand.
Our sailors all drew back. The chaplain, however, looking steadfastly upon him, went forward a few steps, and asked, "What is the purpose of this visit?"
The stranger replied, "We have long been kept here by foul weather, and Vanderdecken wishes to send these letters to his friends in Europe."
Our captain now came forward, and said, as firmly as he could, "I wish Vanderdecken would put his letters on board of any other vessel rather than mine."
The stranger replied, "We have tried many a ship, but most of them refuse our letters."
Upon which Tom Willis muttered, "It will be best for us if we do the same, for they say there is sometimes a sinking weight in your paper."
The stranger took no notice of this, but asked where we were from. On being told that we were from Portsmouth, he said, as if with strong feeling, "Would that you had rather been from Amsterdam! Oh, that we saw it again! We must see our friends again." When he uttered these words, the men who were in the boat below wrung their hands, and cried, in a piercing tone, in Dutch, "Oh, that we saw it again! We have been long here beating about; but we must see our friends again."
The chaplain asked the stranger, "How long have you been at sea?"
He replied, "We have lost our count, for our almanac was blown overboard. Our ship, you see, is there still; so why should you ask how long we have been at sea? For Vanderdecken only wishes to write home and comfort his friends."
To which the chaplain replied, "Your letters, I fear, would be of no use in Amsterdam, even if they were delivered; for the persons to whom they are addressed are probably no longer to be found there, except under very ancient green turf in the churchyard."
The unwelcome stranger then wrung his hands and appeared to weep, and replied, "It is impossible; we cannot believe you. We have been long driving about here, but country nor relations cannot be so easily forgotten. There is not a raindrop in the air but feels itself kindred to all the rest, and they fall back into the sea to meet with each other again. How then can kindred blood be made to forget where it came from? Even our bodies are part of the ground of Holland; and Vanderdecken says, if he once were to come to Amsterdam, he would rather be changed into a stone post, well fixed into the ground, than leave it again if that were to die elsewhere. But in the meantime we only ask you to take these letters."
The chaplain, looking at him with astonishment, said, "This is the insanity of natural affection, which rebels against all measures of time and distance."
The stranger continued, "Here is a letter from our second mate to his dear and only remaining friend, his uncle, the merchant who lives in the second house on Stuncken Yacht Quay."
He held forth the letter, but no one would approach to take it.
Tom Willis raised his voice and said, "One of our men, here, says that he was in Amsterdam last summer, and he knows for certain that the street called Stuncken Yacht Quay was pulled down sixty years ago, and now there is only a large church at that place."
The man from the Flying Dutchman said, "It is impossible; we cannot believe you. Here is another letter from myself, in which I have sent a bank-note to my dear sister, to buy some gallant lace to make her a high head-dress."
Tom Willis, hearing this, said, "It is most likely that her head now lies under a tombstone, which will outlast all the changes of the fashion. But on what house is your bank-note?"
The stranger replied, "On the house of Vanderbrucker & Company."
The man of whom Tom Willis had spoken said, "I guess there will now be some discount upon it, for that banking house was gone to destruction forty years ago; and Vanderbrucker was afterward a-missing. But to remember these things is like raking up the bottom of an old canal."
The stranger called out, passionately, "It is impossible; we cannot believe it! It is cruel to say such things to people in our condition. There is a letter from our captain himself, to his much-beloved and faithful wife, whom he left at a pleasant summer dwelling on the border of the Haarlemer Mer. She promised to have the house beautifully painted and gilded before he came back, and to get a new set of looking-glasses for the principal chamber, that she might see as many images of Vanderdecken as if she had six husbands at once."
The man replied, "There has been time enough for her to have had six husbands since then; but were she alive still, there is no fear that Vanderdecken would ever get home to disturb her."
On hearing this the stranger again shed tears, and said if they would not take the letters he would leave them; and, looking around, he offered the parcel to the captain, chaplain, and to the rest of the crew successively, but each drew back as it was offered, and put his hands behind his back. He then laid the letters upon the deck, and placed upon them a piece of iron which was lying near, to prevent them from being blown away. Having done this, he swung himself over the gangway, and went into the boat.
We heard the others speak to him, but the rise of a sudden squall prevented us from distinguishing his reply. The boat was seen to quit the ship's side, and in a few moments there were no more traces of her than if she had never been there. The sailors rubbed their eyes as if doubting what they had witnessed; but the parcel still lay upon deck, and proved the reality of all that had passed.
Duncan Saunderson, the Scotch mate, asked the captain if he should take them up and put them in the letter-bag. Receiving no reply, he would have lifted them if it had not been for Tom Willis, who pulled him back, saying that nobody should touch them.
In the meantime the captain went down to the cabin, and the chaplain, having followed him, found him at his bottle-case pouring out a large dram of brandy. The captain, although somewhat disconcerted, immediately offered the glass to him, saying, "Here, Charters, is what is good in a cold night." The chaplain declined drinking anything, and, the captain having swallowed the bumper, they both returned to the deck, where they found the seamen giving their opinions concerning what should be done with the letters. Tom Willis proposed to pick them up on a harpoon, and throw it overboard.
Another speaker said, "I have always heard it asserted that it is neither safe to accept them voluntarily, nor, when they are left, to throw them out of the ship."
"Let no one touch them," said the carpenter. "The way to do with the letters from the Flying Dutchman is to case them up on deck, so that, if he sends back for them, they are still there to give him."
The carpenter went to fetch his tools. During his absence the ship gave so violent a pitch that the piece of iron slid off the letters, and they were whirled overboard by the wind, like birds of evil omen whirring through the air. There was a cry of joy among the sailors, and they ascribed the favourable change which soon took place in the weather to our having got quit of Vanderdecken. We soon got under way again. The night watch being set, the rest of the crew retired to their berths.
The Flying Dutchman, or Der Fliegende Holländer in its original German, is one of the early great operas by nineteenth century Romantic composer Richard Wagner. Inspired by the story of the Flying Dutchman and his own harrowing ocean voyage from Riga to London in 1839, Wagner's opera was one of his first to explore the forms that he would later perfect in operas like Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan and Isolde,  and the epic four-part Der Ring des Nibelungen (the original ring-cycle!). Perhaps you are familiar with how film soundtracks have particular songs or melodies associated with particular characters? That is called a "leitmotif" and it is virtually Wagner's creation, experimented with in Der Fliegende Holländer.

Wagner's opera is a story of love's redemptive power: the Flying Dutchman is not merely the ship, but the captain, and he is forced to wander the seas, accursed, until he can earn the faithful love of a woman. Every seven years he is permitted to return to the land to procure the bride that would release him from the punishment wrought by the uttering of a blasphemy. In the opera, the time has come again and a providential collision between his ship and that of a merchant sets the wheels of fate in motion. This idea of faithful, redemptive love is another common thread in Wagner's work, and he saw it as a birth to new creative prowess when it debuted in 1843.

As previously mentioned, Disney folded the Flying Dutchman into its Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, but their version pales in comparison to the sheer power and Romantic drive of Wagner's original. The following performance of the three-act opera was held at the Bayreuth Festival in 1985 and stars Simon Estes as the Dutchman.

Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer in 16 parts.
English, Spanish and German subtitles can be activated in closed-captioning. 
Perhaps Disney will some day try to translate Wagner's opera into an animated film. Who knows?

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