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Good Hope And Eternal Damned

Rajen Bali

Once upon a time, I was on a ship which was going around the Cape of Good Hope, making for the West African port, Boma. It was a rather stormy day and I could not indulge in my regular practice of lounging around the rails – watching the ever-changing seascapes, listening to the ‘Music of the Ocean’ and watching the antics of the jumping fish.

So, it had to be in the comfort of the lounge, sipping some warm cocoa and listening to some fascinating sea-tales from my favourite sailor, Tug Wilson. He came from Southport, North Carolina in the United States and was a fifth generation sailor. Whenever he had the time, he would regale with the legends and myths of the seas.

“Do you know,” Tug said, “that the Cape of Good Hope was at first named   ‘Cape of Storms’ (Cabo de Tormentas) by the first European to reach here on 12 March 1488, the Portuguese Bartolomeu Diaz? Later, King John ii of Portugal named it ‘The Cape of Good Hope’ because of the great optimism generated by the opening of the sea route to India and the East.” He also informed me that there was a mistaken misconception that the Cape of Good Hope was the southern tip of Africa. The actual southernmost point was Cape Agulahs, about 150 km to the east-southeast.” Tug Wilson talked more about the Cape of Storms, ships which got caught in the fury of these storms and were not only destroyed but many became eternally damned ghost ships, their crews cursed to sail the high seas until doomsday.

My interest in ghost ships was aroused to a fever pitch and I went on to do a substantial amount of research in the subject. Let me share some of these fascinating stories with you.

One day in 1641, a great big storm had been blowing in the Cape area with increasing with gusty gale-force winds, making life totally miserable for the ships caught in the storm. The ‘Flying Dutchman’ – a vessel out of Amsterdam – was one of the unfortunate ships that got caught in the storm as it rounded the Cape. The merciless storm was threatening to capsize the vessel and to drown all on board. The crew urged the Captain, Hendrik van der Decken, to turn around. The Captain refused and ordered the ship to press on, merely lighting his pipe and continuously pacing the deck. The Captain smoked away as the merciless gale tore the sails and the waters gushed on to the hull. But, the Captain “held his course, challenging the wrath of the God Almighty by swearing a blasphemous oath.”

Just as the sun was setting on the grim scene, the crew had enough of the lethal goings-on and mutinied. Without the slightest hesitation, Captain van der Decken killed the rebel leader and threw his body in the churning sea.

The moment the body hit the waters, the vessel spoke to the Captain: “asking him if he did not mean to go in to the bay that night.” Captain van der Decken replied, “May I be eternally damned if I do so, though I should beat about here till the day of judgement.”

Hearing this, the voice spoke once again, “As a result of your actions you are condemned to sail the oceans for eternity with a ghostly crew of dead men bringing death to all who sight your spectral ship and to never make port or know a moment’s peace. Furthermore, gall shall be your drink and red hot iron your meat.” Captain van der Decken did not quiver for a moment but just cried “Amen to that.” The ship disappeared that night.

“Beating about there,” is what Captain van der Decken, The Flying Dutchman, and its crew are said to have been doing - sailing the world, for over three centuries!

Sightings of The Flying Dutchman have been reported from time to time. Sailors claim that many ships have been led astray by The Flying Dutchman, causing them to crash on hidden reefs and rocks. Some say that if there is a fierce storm off the Cape of Good Hope, you can see the ghostly Flying Dutchman. But sightings bring extreme bad luck, often gruesome death.

One of the most famous encounters was on 11 July 1881. England’s Prince George of Wales – later to be King George V – and his brother, Prince Victor, were sailing off the coast of Australia on board the ‘Bacchante’. They were on a three years voyage with their tutor Dalton. “At 4 am,” Dalton recorded, “The Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light, as if of a phantom ship, was 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 on the watch on the bridge saw her, as did the midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle but on arriving there was no vestige or sign whatever of a material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea being calm. Thirteen persons altogether saw her.... At 10:45 am, 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.”

‘The Flying Dutchman’, the 1843 opera by Wagner, gave widespread popularity to the legend of this ghost ship. Subsequently, many songs, books, paintings, TV shows and films have been made about The Flying Dutchman.

The oldest ghost ship legend – undated – has to be of the ‘Caleuche’. According to legend and tribal Chilota mythology, appears –and disappears – at night, sailing around Chile’s Chiloe Island. It is a beautiful ship and its story is also beautiful. There appears to be a never-ending party on board with good music and singing.

Over time, other famous ghost-ship legends have involved quite a number of ships, including : ‘Lady Lovibond’ (1748), ‘Octavius’ (1775), ‘Jenny’ (1840), ‘Mary Celeste’ (1872), ‘Ivan Vassali’ (1907)’, ‘Zabrina’ (1917), ‘Carol A Deering’ (1921), ‘Baychimo’ (1931), ‘Ourang Medan” (1947)’, ‘Joyita” (1955), ‘High Aim 6’ ( 2003), ‘Kaz II’  (2007) and ‘Tai Ching 21’ (2008).

The ghost-ships and there damned crews have many interesting stories around them. The ‘Mary Celeste’ affair was so interesting that Arthur Conan Doyle – before he created Sherlock Holmes (?) – wrote a story about this ship and the strange happenings around it.

We too will share another story about these ghost-ships. Later in the year.