THE LEGEND OF THE PHANTOM SHIP, article in Chambers's Journal 1894
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It is a somewhat singular fact that there is not a single European nation whose mariners do not share in the picturesque and romantic superstition that certain parts of the ocean are haunted by the Spectre of a Ship. The tradition is quite the best known among the lore of the sea. Poets have told the tale in rhythmic heroics; novelists have taken it for their plots; play-writers have dramatised it; and one of the most masterful of modern musicians has founded an opera upon the Old-World legend. Nor can we be permitted to doubt that such an ocean Phantom really does exist. For did not two royal princes see her with their own eyes as short a time ago as the 11th July 1881? Such testimony is not to be disputed by any loyal British subject. In the 'Cruise of the Bacchante' it is stated that, at four o'clock in the morning of the day just mentioned, '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 two hundred yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up. . . . Thirteen persons altogether saw her; but whether it was Van Diemen, or the Flying Dutchman, or who else, must remain unknown.' The verisimility of the spectre is established convincingly by what happened to the unhappy sailor who first sighted her. 'At 10.45 A.M. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the foretopmast-crosstrees and was smashed to atoms.'
The sighting of the phantom ship by the Bacchante had at least the effect of settling one vexed point, the question of her rig. She is a brig, that most homely and commonplace of all craft The discovery is a little disappointing. The imagination, in picturing the Flying Dutchman, conjures up the portrait of a brave old seventeenth-century galleon, gaudy with yellow paint and tarnished gilt-work; a pink-shaped stern castellated into a poop-royal, and crowned atop with a great horn lantern; broad decks guarded by breast-high bulwarks, and flanked on either side by a row of quaint green-coated culverins and carronades; short masts with a great spread of yard, and embellished by huge barricaded tops; and manned by a little crowd of strange-looking Dutchmen, contemporaries of sturdy old Van Tromp; silent, inanimate, ghost-like: kept alive only by the terrible spell which rests upon the ill-fated vessel.
There are many versions of the famous legend of the Flying Dutchman. Quite recently, an American gentleman set himself the task of endeavouring to discover the paternity of the tradition, and who the Hollander was that brought upon himself and his companions such a miserable doom by his act of profanity. The result of his investigations would be extremely interesting, but it does not appear that he has yet given them to the world. Perhaps the story has been nowhere better told than by Captain Marryat in the novel which he founded upon it. Cornelius Vanderdecken, a sea-captain of Amsterdam, coming home from Batavia, is much troubled by head-winds when off the Cape of Good Hope. Day after day he goes on struggling against the baffling weather without gaining a foot of ground. The sailors grow weary, the skipper impatient. Still the bleak sou'-wester continues to blow the old galliot steadily back. For nine dreary weeks this goes on; then a terrible fit of passion seizes Vanderdecken. He sinks down upon his knees, and raising his clenched fists to the heavens, curses the Deity for opposing him, swearing that he will weather the Cape yet in spite of the Divine will, though he should go on beating about until the Day of Judgment. As a punishment for this terrible impiety, he is doomed to go on sailing in the stormy seas east of Agulhas until the last trumpet shall sound, for ever struggling against head-winds in a vain effort to double the South African Cape. Such, in brief, is the legend of the Flying Dutchman, as it has been accepted by English-speaking sailors for many generations past. The rest is the creation of Marryat's imagination: the extirpation of Vanderdecken's sin by the lifelong devotion of his son Philip, and the ultimate crumbling away into thin air of the ship herself when Marryat had finished with her.
Bechstein, in the 'Deutsches Sagenbuch' gives the Dutch version of the phantom ship, which is totally dissimilar from our own, both as regards the name of its evil-minded hero, and the sin for which he was condemned to wander. 'Falkenberg,' he says, 'was a nobleman who murdered his brother and his bride in a fit of passion; and was therefore condemned to wander for ever towards the north. On arriving at the seashore he found awaiting him a boat, with a man in it, who said "Expectamus te." He entered the boat, attended by his good and his evil spirit, and went on board a spectral barque in the harbour. There he yet lingers, while the two spirits play at dice for his soul. For six hundred years has the ship been wandering the seas, and sailors still see her in the German Ocean sailing northward, without helm or steersman. She is painted gray, has coloured sails, a pale flag, and no crew. Flames come forth from her masthead at night.'
Another Dutch account of the old legend says that the skipper of the phantom ship was a native of Amsterdam, one Bernard Fokke, who lived in the seventeenth century. He was a daring, reckless seaman, who had the masts of his ship encased with iron to strengthen them and enable him to carry more sail. It is recorded that he sailed from Holland to the East Indies in ninety days; and in consequence of having made many wonderful voyages, came at last to be reputed a sorcerer, in league with the devil. In one voyage he disappeared for a while, having been spirited away by Satan, and on his return was condemned—the legend does not say by whom—to sail for ever the ocean between the southern capes with no other crew than his boatswain, cook, and pilot. Many Dutch seamen believe that his vessel is still to be fallen in with in the Southern Ocean, and that, when he sights a ship, he will give chase for the purpose of coming alongside to ask questions. If these are not answered, all is well; but should those hailed be so injudicious as to make any reply, ill-luck is certain to befall them.
Although, perhaps, no version of the famous old nautical tradition is so quaint and full of a weird kind of romance as the English one, yet there are others which are wilder, and glow with a more lurid colour. The Germans particularly exhibit that quality of eerie fancifulness which enters into most of their lore in the stories they have of the phantom ship. They tell of a spectral ship, to be met with in remote ocean solitudes, whose portholes grin with skulls instead of the muzzles of cannon. She is commanded by a skeleton, who grips in his bony hand an hour-glass; and her crew is composed of the ghosts of desperate sinners. Any honest trader that chances to encounter this grisly apparition is doomed to founder. Coleridge took his idea of a death-ship, in the 'Ancient Mariner,' from an old German legend. She is a vessel that approaches without a breeze and without a tide, wnose sails glance in the misty sunlight 'like restless gossamers;' and in her cabin Death plays at dice with the woman Nightmare for the possession of the mariner's crew. She wins, whistles thrice, and off shoots the spectre-barque.
In a volume of a German 'Morgenblatter' for the year 1824 is contained another story of a phantom ship. A lookout man sights and reports a vessel. When questioned concerning her, he says he saw a frigate in a faint haze of light, with a black captain, and a skeleton figure with a spear in its hand standing on the poop. Skeleton shapes noiselessly handled the cobweb-like sails and ropes. The only sound which he heard as the mysterious craft glided past was the word 'water.' The history of this strange ship seemed to be known to one of the sailors on board, who recounted it as follows: 'A rich Spaniard of Peru, one Don Lopez d'Aranda, dreamed he saw his son, Don Sandovalle, who had sailed with his bride for Spain, on board his ship with a ghastly wound in his head, and pointing to his own form, bound to the mainmast of the vessel. Near him was water, just beyond his reach, and the fiendish crew were mocking him and refusing him drink. The crew had murdered the young couple for their gold; and the curse of the wandering Dutchman had descended upon them. They are still to be seen cruising off the entrance to the Rio de la Plata.'
The French version of the time-honoured legend is given by Jal, in his 'Scenes de la Vie Maritime.' He says: 'An unbelieving Dutch captain had vainly tried to round Cape Horn against a head gale. He swore he would do it; and when the gale increased, laughed at the fears of his crew, smoked his pipe, and drank his beer. He threw overboard some of them who tried to make him put into port The Holy Ghost descended on the vessel; but he fired his pistol at it, and pierced his own hand and paralysed his arm. He cursed God; and was then condemned by the apparition to navigate always, without putting into port, only having gall to drink, and red-hot iron to eat, and eternally to watch. He was to be the evil genius of the sea, to torment and punish sailors, the spectacle of his tempest-tossed barque to presage ill-fortune to the luckless beholder. He is the sender of white squalls, of all disasters, and of storms. Should he visit a ship, wine on board turns sour, and all food becomes beans—the sailors' particular aversion. Should he bring or send letters, none must touch them, or they are lost. He changes his appearance at will, and is seldom beheld twice under the same circumstances. His crew are all old sinners of the sea, marine thieves, cowards, murderers, and so forth. They toil and suffer eternally, and get but little to eat and drink. His ship is the true purgatory of the faithless and idle sailor.'
The old Norsemen had a curious and vague tradition of a phantom ship, which they called Mannifual. The French maritime chronicler, Jal, gives an account of her; so likewise does Thorpe in his work on 'Northern Mythology.' She was so gigantic that her masts were taller than the highest mountains. The captain rode about on horseback delivering his orders. Sailors going aloft as boys came down respectable middle-aged men; and in the blocks about her rigging were dining-halls where they sustained life during their heavenward wanderings. When passing through the Strait of Dover on her way northward, she stuck; but the captain with ready invention ordered her sides to be liberally besmeared with soap, and she slipped through, leaving the cliffs of France and England white for ever afterwards. Down to within a century ago, this gigantic ship was known among English sailors by the name of The Merry Dun of Dover; but she seems quite to have disappeared from the maritime lore of this country. The seamen of Normandy still believe in her existence, and call her the Chasse Froude. They say that she is so immense that it takes her seven years to tack. On one occasion, in turning, her bowsprit swept away a whole battalion of soldiers from the Dover cliffs, whilst her stern boom was demolishing the forts of Calais. When she rolls, whales are tossed high and dry by the swell. Many extravagant particulars of this colossal fabric are given by Jal; and in 'Les Traditions Populaires' of Sebillot, exaggeration runs into wild absurdity.
The fishermen of Normandy have another picturesque legend, upon which Tom Hood founded his poem, 'The Phantom Boat of All-Souls' Night.' They believe that if their masses for the souls of their friends in purgatory are rejected, a ghostly barque will come gliding in to the harbour with a spectral crew of the souls of those who had been drowned at sea. People may recognise their lost ones amongst the grisly group; but at midnight a bell strikes, and the phantom vanishes in a wreath of smoke. In a local History of Dieppe it is stated that 'the watchman of the wharf sees a boat come within hail at midnight, and hastens to cast to it a rope; but in the same instant, the boat disappears, and fearful cries are heard, which make the listener shudder, for they are recognised as the voices of sailors who perished at sea that year.' The same account says that this boat appears on the night of All-Saints' Day.
The French traditions of the phantom ship are indeed all very gruesome. The natives of Brittany tell of a great spectre vessel manned by huge human figures and gigantic dogs, which wanders ceaselessly about the oceans, never entering harbour or casting anchor. The crew are composed of the souls of men guilty in their lifetime of terrible crimes; and the dogs are demons in disguise, who take care that the unhappy wretches shall not have too comfortable a time. The orders in this dreaded fabric are delivered by means of great conch-shells, which seems a providential arrangement, since the noise made by them is so great as to be audible for leagues, and gives vessels a chance of avoiding contact with the fatal spectre. There is, however, nothing to be feared if an Ave is promptly repeated and the protection of Saint Anne d'Auray invoked.
The Italian legend is a local one, as old as the year 1339, when Venice was first wedded to the Adriatic by the ceremony of a ring being dropped over the prow of a gondola into its limpid blue waters. During a tempest, a fisherman was bid to row three mysterious men first to certain churches in the city, then out to the entrance of the port. The boatman with terror beheld a vast Saracen galley rushing in before the wind, crowded with most fearful-looking demons. The three men in his boat, however, caused her to founder before she could get near the city, thus saving Venice. When they stepped ashore again, one of them handed the waterman a ring, by means of which these three strangers were discovered to be St Mark, St Nicholas, and St George. Giorgione has painted this phantom vessel, with her crew of spectral demons leaping overboard, affrighted by the saints; and the picture may still be seen in the Venetian Academy.
The Icelanders have a superstition which they call 'Skipamal,' or the speaking ship. The idea is a pretty one. They conceive that utterances come forth from the motionless hulls of vessels; but few can understand the strange language. In a volume of Icelandic Legends compiled by Arnanson, a story is told of one who could interpret these singular sounds. He overheard a conversation between two ships one night. Said the first vessel: 'We have been long together, but to-morrow we must part.'
To which the other replied: 'Never. Thirty years now have we been together; we have grown old together; and when one is worn out, the other must lay by.'
Then continued the first ship: 'That will not really be so; for, although it is fair weather this evening, to-morrow morning will it be bad; and no one will go to sea but your captain, while I and all the other ships will remain. You will sail away, and nevermore come back, and our companionship is at an end.'
The other vessel replies: 'Never; for I will not stir from this spot.'
'But,' expostulates the first ship, 'you must: this is the lost night of our companionship.'
'When you do not go, I will go not. The Evil One himself must take a hand in it else.'
Then the captain of the ship that was to sail came on board and ordered her to be got under way; but the staunch old fabric would not stir, and his crew mutinied. He shipped a fresh one; but they could not get the vessel out, and likewise rebelled. He called on the Deity — still without success; then invoked the Evil One, upon which his vessel flew out into the raging storm, and was lost; and her spectre still haunts the northern ocean, flitting pale and ghostly among the icebergs.
The Americans have many poems on the subject of the phantom ship. Whittier, in 'The Garrison of Cape Ann,' writes of
The spectre-ship of Salem, with the dead men in her shrouds,
Sailing sheer above the water, in the loom of morning clouds.
Again, his 'Wreck of the Schooner Breeze' is the story of a
Weird unspoken sail;
She flits before no earthly blast,
With the red sign fluttering from her mast,
The ghost of the schooner Breeze.
Longfellow, in 'The Ship of the Dead,' embodies an old New-England tradition. The legend runs that a ship was sent to sea from New Haven one day in January 1647, but was nevermore heard of again. In the following June, just before sunset, a ship like her was beheld sailing up the river against the wind, slowly fading out until she vanished from view. The apparition was accepted as a premonition of the loss of the vessel.
Bret Harte, in his poem called 'A Greyport Legend,' relates a strange, wild superstition of the mariners of that town. The tale goes that a number of little children went on board a dismasted hull to play; the wind rose; the craft broke loose, drifted away to sea, and was lost
When fogs are thick on the harbour reef,
The mackerel fishers shorten sail,
For the signal, they know, will bring relief,
For the voices of children, still at play,
In a phantom hulk that drifts away,
Through channels whose waters never fail.
Instances of traditions and superstitions founded upon the idea of a phantom ship might be multiplied until this article assumed the dimensions of a stout volume; but want of space forbids that the list should be further extended. It is not difficult to conceive the paternity of the romantic old legend. The sudden disappearance of a distant ship through some subtle, imperceptible wreathing of mist upon the horizon, would be sufficient to suggest the notion of a spectral vessel. Herman Melville, in his admirable work 'Typee,' has a quaint idea, out of which might easily grow a tradition of a phantom ship. 'I heard,' he says, 'of one whaler which, after many years' absence, was given up for lost. The last that had been heard of her was a shadowy report of her having touched at some of those unstable islands in the far Pacific whose eccentric wanderings are carefully noted in each new edition of the South Sea charts. After a long interval, however, the Perseverance—for that was her name—was spoken somewhere in the vicinity of the ends of the earth, cruising along as leisurely as ever, her sails all bepatched and bequilted with rope-yarns, her spars fished with old pipe-staves, and her rigging knotted and spliced in every possible direction. Her crew was composed of some twenty venerable Greenwich pensioner-looking old salts, who just managed to hobble about deck. The ends of all the running ropes, with the exception of the signal-halyards and poop-downhaul, were rove through snatch-blocks, and led to the capstan or windlass, so that not a yard was braced or a sail set without the assistance of machinery. Her hull was encrusted with barnacles, which
completely encased her....What eventually became of her, I never learned; at any rate, she never reached home.'
Nor is the belief in the Flying Dutchman a superstition of the past. Sailors in this age give just as great credence to the ancient legend as they did a couple of centuries ago. Indeed, no race is more persistent in credulity than seamen. They continue to cling to traditions that have come down from mariners of a date when the ocean was still shrouded in mystery and romance. Friday's sailing is as unlucky as ever it was; the St Elmo's Fire is yet full of significance; and a Finn amongst the crew ruins the prospects of a voyage at the very outset. It will take many generations, even in this prosaic age of iron and steam, for the sailor to abandon his old beliefs; and it may be safe to predict that the very last fragment of superstition he will be willing to give up will be the legend of the Phantom Ship.
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