Echoes of a Cursed Ship

Its October, the leaves are falling, the witches are abroad, and I’ve opened the blog up to guest writers again. Yes its Indie October. Throughout October some old favourites among my guests will be returning along with some new voices. Today’s Guest Post comes to you from the shores of Sussex, and the finest Dutchman I know, he’s also the only one I know but that does not detract from how lovely he is, Nils Nisse Visser .

Images licensed by Dreamstime, contributing artists Bram Janssens & Grandfailure

The author behind A Passing Place takes mischievous pride in going off on tangents before getting to the point of any given blog. Well, hold me grog, sailor, because I intend to surpass him in this. Bear with me long enough, and in due time the relevance will become clear, but first:

Once upon a time the Dutch had a mighty fine legend concerning the folly of a sea captain who dared defy the elements and was subsequently doomed to roam the Seven Seas forever, striking fear in the hearts of sailors to this very day.

The story of The Flying Dutchman probably originated at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa in the 17th century. Cape Town was then Kaapstad, founded by the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) to provision their ships. The Cape is notorious for ill-tempered storms. It’s likely that the story of The Flying Dutchman followed the defiance of one captain who refused to be cowed by a tempest and sailed into it, to never be seen alive again. It’s possible that the early stories were also connected to VOC Captain Barend Fokke, whose incredible speed in completing the journeys to and from the East were regarded with suspicion – it was rumoured by envious colleagues that the Devil himself must be involved in such feats.

Although reported sightings of The Flying Dutchman occur all over the world, the waves surrounding the Cape of Good Hope prevail above all other waters. There was a spate of sightings during World War Two, many witnessed by scores of people, including the military. Admiral Dönitz of the German Kriegsmarine noted U-Boat reports about a mysterious schooner under sail in the area.  Lieutenant Commander Nicholas Monsarrat (author of The Cruel Sea (1951)) claimed to have seen The Flying Dutchman near to the location where King George V had seen the ghostly ship in 1881 as a young boy, and a small Australian warship on its way to Cape Town is reputed to have radioed a distress call consisting of two words before disappearing without a trace: Flying Dutchman.

Image ‘The Gust’ by Willem van de Velde, 1680. Artwork in the public domain, photo Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

By this time stories of the ghostly ship had long been hijacked by the English and changed somewhat in nature. For example, they placed the captain (who they named as Hendrik van der Dekken/Decken) and ship in Terneuzen, which had a harbour the size of a toddler’s paddling pool at the time. A sailor would have been hard-pressed to turn a jolly boat around in it, let alone squeeze in a three-masted East Indiaman of considerable tonnage. Tut-tut. Do you research peeps.

What remained was the defiance of nature/God, and subsequent punishment to roam the oceans until Doomsday. Added was the notion that captain and crew were allowed on land once every so many years, and/or attempts to hail other ships to hand over letters to family members long dead and gone – a poignant touch. Needless to say, accepting the letters was a fatal mistake.

Since then Hollywood got its hands on the tale, changing it again to have the ship captained by Davy Jones, as tentacled opposition for Cap’n Jack Sparrow and company, though there’s a nod to possible earlier captains and crews because Davy Jones hadn’t always been captain and others could follow him: “The Dutchman must have a captain”. The romantic entanglement between Davy Jones and sea-goddess Calypso has echoes of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer opera (1843), as Wagner added a redemption-through-love theme to the saga. Until Pirates of the Caribbean hit the screens, Wagner’s interpretation did more than any other to ensure a lasting cultural legacy for The Flying Dutchman.

 Image of Captain Jack Sparrow licensed by Dreamstime, contributing artist Pholtana Wongsuchart

In the meantime, there were Dutch attempts to steal the story back. Piet Visser’s De Vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman) was moderately successful in the Netherlands, seeing a first edition in 1901, a second in 1910, and a third in 1918. Jan Slauerhoff, possibly the most influential poet in Dutch literature and a seaman himself, added to the Dutch oeuvre in his 1928 Eldorado bundle, with no less than three poems about The Flying Dutchman (‘The Eternal Ship’, ‘The Ghost Ship’, and ‘The Flying Dutchman’).

None of this work was ever translated to English, so the book and poems never gained much traction outside of the Netherlands. Both Visser and Slauerhoff rejected the traditional Puritan theme of offending God (nature) and subsequent divine punishment. 

Slauerhoff was influenced by French romanticism and preferred to dwell on the notions of death and decay as a natural state of affairs, rather than the consequence of offending a deity. For English reference, Slauerhoff’s approach was somewhat akin to Rime of the Ancient Mariner, minus the punitive aspect in Coleridge’s epic ballad. The title of Slauerhoff’s bundle, Eldorado, was a homage to Edgar Allan Poe as Slauerhoff felt a great deal of kinship with Poe’s inner struggles and admired Poe’s oeuvre.

With kind permission of Corin Spinks, Corinography
Painting “The Flying Dutchman” by Louis M. Eilshemius, 1908.
Painting by Jan van der Mee, 1961. For the clever clogs who noted the earlier statement that this stuff hadn’t been translated: This is my own translation.

It’s not known where Visser got his inspiration from. Although there’s much justifiable criticism about his writing, his interpretation is refreshing, if not ingenious. His take on The Flying Dutchman is an origins story of the cursed ship, rather than the consequence (Scary McScaryboatface scaring scared seafolk). Like the original Dutch and English versions, the curse is a punishment, but there is no tug of war between Heaven and Hell, nor divine retribution. Instead, Visser allows for the remarkable human ability to walk a path of self-destruction – and in this case a trajectory into madness. Interestingly enough, the final demise of sanity takes place in the company of historic pirates of the Caribbean, rather than merchant sailors at Cape Town.

Visser’s weakness is his writing, although it must be said that in his day (early twentieth century) he received praise for innovate storytelling and it was said he thoroughly modernised the type of stories he excelled at. Unfortunately, that praise doesn’t withstand the eye of a modern reader. The entire first chapter of De Vliegende Hollander is basically one long info-dump. When he gets around to actual storytelling, there are a few genuinely entertaining gems to be found, such as the character of Griet Kals, an innkeeper who has much in common with Victor Hugo’s Madame Thénardier (Everybody raise a glass to the master of the house!).

2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Hale Centre Theatre, Anna Daines Rennaker as Eponine and Camille Van Wagoner as Madame Thenardier, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo.

Unfortunately, Griet Kals and the protagonist’s cousin Lottie are the only female characters in the book. Amusing as Griet Kals is, she remains a caricature, and Lottie gets all of two sentences in, exclaiming how fortunate she is that a dashing manly hero has appeared to save a damsel in distress.

Equally unfortunate, Piet Visser lived and wrote at a time in which boys and men were taught to be devoid of emotion. Therefore, the most interesting aspect of his story – the psychological process of impending and then full insanity, is dealt with in one single brief sentence: He went completely insane. For a modern audience, with a preference for show-not-tell and with an almost insatiable appetite for psychological motives and processes, this tends to be a disappointment.

The cover of the second edition of Piet Visser’s De Vliegende Hollander, and two internal illustrations by O. Geerling featuring Captain Peter van Haelen addressing his crew and The Swift Christina, afore she became The Flying Dutchman. Source: Project Gutenberg.

At long last the relevance of this long rant, in which I’ve hoped innate fascination with The Flying Dutchman has kept you going. To reward your patience, the relevance is twofold.

First-of-all, it can be said that the Harvey Duckman Pirate Special which was recently published (and which y’all ought to be reading by now), sustains the enduring legacy of The Flying Dutchman, containing no less than two stories on the topic: Peter James Martin’s ‘The Rat Who Served on The Flying Dutchman’ (A Brennan and Riz Story), and my own ‘Learning the Ropes’ (A Smugglepunk Tale).  

Secondly, Piet Visser was my great grand uncle. I don’t mind admitting that my mind is a rather peculiar place which I barely understand myself – what I do know is that my set of thought processes have made much of this family connection to Piet Visser, and hence The Flying Dutchman. It probably wouldn’t stand in a court (and doesn’t need to be as the pre-1923 copyright rule applies), but as far as my noddle is concerned Piet’s literary legacy is a family inheritance to treasure…and fiddle with.

Arr, me hearties, I’ve been fiddling the tune of The Flying Dutchman in a great many ways, but seeing that I’ve run out of space, you’ll have to wait for part two of this yarn to find out how…till then, Fair Winds to ye.

With kind permission of Corin Spinks, Corinography. Author Nils Nisse Visser, self-proclaimed guardian of Piet Visser’s The Flying Dutchman, looking pretty at Rye Bay, Sussex.

About Nils Nisse Visser


Nils is a free-lance writer, occasional poet, archer, Homelessness activist, who was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands in 1970 (which was the best year ever to be born *Mark), he grew up in the Netherlands, Thailand, Nepal, Oklahoma, Tanzania, England, Egypt and France. Taught English at various Dutch secondary schools for 18 years, but his firm belief that education is most effective when it is fun raised a few eyebrows. Having been told too often that he lived in his imagination, he took the hint and moved there on a full-time basis. He currently lives in Brighton in the county of Sussex in England. 

Rather confusingly he sometimes writes as Nils Visser, Nisse Visser or Nils Nisse Visser. For which he apologies.

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