In 1641, before the Dutch East India Company had set up a refreshment station at the southern tip of Africa—at the point that the cold currents of the Atlantic Ocean and the warm current of the Indian Ocean converge—a captain called van der Decken ran into a deadly storm at the Cape of Good Hope (also known as the Cape of Storms) where Cape Town is now a flourishing city. As the ship ran aground on the rocks and began to sink, Captain van der Decken cried out, “I WILL round this Cape even if I have to keep sailing until doomsday!” And so, according to the legend of the Flying Dutchman, he does.
The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder c. 1887 (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
In 1839, Richard Wagner suffered a stormy sea crossing from the Baltic city of Riga to London, and the experience inspired him to write his opera based on the ghostly legend of the Flying Dutchman. The Dutchman is redeemed by Senta’s love in Wagner’s opera, but legend has it that he is doomed to sail forever.
Thirty-eight years after Wagner’s opera was first produced, the Royal Navy ship, the Bacchante, was sailing off the coast of Cape Town in July 1881. Prince George, the future King V of England, later wrote this in his diary:
“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. The lookout man on the forecastle reported her as close to the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her… Thirteen persons altogether saw her.”
Sixty years later, during World War II, there was another reported sighting around Cape Town, and this time the writer, Nicholas Montserrat, claimed to have seen the phantom ship.
I’ve been thinking about this because, as we have been enduring record breaking temperatures this summer, and even a straight-line derecho windstorm, in Cape Town they have been enduring a frigidly cold winter with torrential rains and gale force winds. Even in this modern day, ships are washed up on the coastlines around Cape Town during the violent storms, and their rusting hulls will lie there until the powers that be can work out what to do with them.
This weekend, I will be leaving the long, slow, lazy days of the Baltimore summer, with its choruses of cicadas, and I will be transplanting myself to another time and place for a couple of weeks—I will be making my way to the Cape of Good Hope, the Flying Dutchman’s Cape of Storms. Let’s hope I don’t run into any ghostly specters.legendary, opera, Wagner, weather