The legend of the "Flying Dutchman" is a common one in many European countries, and its story has been used in novel, melodrama, opera and movie. In the most common British version, Vanderdecken, a Dutch sea captain, angered by continually adverse winds, swears a blasphemous oath ("by all the devils") that he will double the Cape of Good Hope if it takes him till Doomsday. For this profanity he is condemned by God or Devil (it is never clear which) to his self-appointed fate. His ghost ship is rarely seen, and then only in stormy seas, beating in against the wind under full sail Ñ and bad luck to the ship which sights her. This latter ship, itself often becalmed, is sometimes entrusted with letters addressed to people long dead.
Although in the British melodramas the curse is absolute, in other versions Vanderdecken is allowed on shore every seven years, in hopes of breaking his curse by wooing a lady who will be faithful to him unto death. In Wagner's opera, for example, he manages to achieve this salvation.
In the German legend the protagonist, von Falkenberg, is condemned to sail the North Sea in a ship with no helm or steersman, playing dice with the Devil for his soul. According to Sir Walter Scott, the 'Flying Dutchman' was a bullion ship aboard of which a murder was committed, the plague subsequently broke out among the crew, and all ports were closed to the ill-fated craft.
The only recent printed source for the song seems to be Doerflinger, who obtained his set from Richard Maitland, then retired at Sailor's Snug Harbor, New York. Broadside variants are to be found in the Harvard Library. A song of the Flying Dutchman was sung on the stage in New York, and printed in several early songsters there. Our version comes from a singer in a folk club in Manchester, and is generally similar to Doerflinger's.
'Twas on a dark and cheerless night to the southern of the Cape,
When from a strong nor'wester we had just made our escape,
Like an infant in its cradle, all hands lay fast asleep,
And peacefully we sailed along in the bosom of the deep,
And peacefully we sailed along in the bosom of the deep.
Just then the watchman gave a shout of terror and of fear,
As if he had just gazed upon some sudden danger near,
The sea all round was cloud and foam, and just upon our lee,
We saw the Flying Dutchman come a-bounding o'er the sea,
We saw the...
Take in our lofty canvas, lads, the watchful master cried,
For in our ship's company some sudden danger lies,
For every man who rounds the Cape, although he knows no fear,
He knows that there is danger when Vanderdecken's near.
Pity poor Vanderdecken, forever is his doom,
The seas around that stormy Cape will be his living tomb,
He's doomed to ride the ocean for ever and a day,
And he tries in vain his oath to keep by entering Table Bay.
All hands to the rail, our gallant crew, as the ghost ship bore to sea,
Our hearts were filled with awe and fear, as she passed along our lee,
The helmsman was likewise entranced, and as all hands sighed relief,
With rending crash and mortal force our vessel struck a reef.