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phantom ships


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Several 19th-century folklorists noted traditions in Cornwall about phantom ships. Some were to be seen sailing straight ashore, skimming over dry land as if it were sea; the sight was an omen of storms and wrecks. Sometimes dramatic explanations were offered: that the ship bore the ghosts of two pirates, one of whom had murdered the other, or the Devil coming to carry off the soul of an old wrecker (Bottrell, 1873: 247–9).

Tales about spectral ships generally involve re-enactment of tragedy, the vessel appearing near the place where it sank on an anniversary of the disaster. There are two such legends about wrecks on the Goodwin Sands (off Kent). The first concerns the warship Northumberland, one among several driven on to the Sands during a gale in November 1703; 50 years later she allegedly reappeared, with her ghostly crew leaping into the sea. The second concerns the Lady Lovibund, said to have been deliberately wrecked on the Sands on 13 February 1748 (or 1724) by the mate, because the woman he loved had married the captain, who had brought her aboard for their wedding voyage. This ship too supposedly returned every 50 years, in 1798, 1848, and 1898; to the bitter disappointment of journalists, she was not seen in 1998. These tales are often included in modern books on sea-lore, but it is unclear how old they are; the Lady Lovibund, for instance, seems first to have been mentioned in 1924.

The first known reference to that most famous of all phantom vessels, The Flying Dutchman, is in The Life of a Sea Officer, by Jeffrey,Baron de Reigersfeld (Maidstone, c.1830). His account is yet another ‘re-enactment’ story—one of two ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope on the way to the East Indies foundered in a storm and was callously abandoned by the other; in this version, when the ghostly ship is sighted, it is sinking below the waves (A. W. Smith, forthcoming). However, during the 19th century a more dramatic legend evolved in Europe, and became widely known, in England as elsewhere; in this, the Dutchman is not a wrecked vessel, but one that is doomed to sail for ever, because her captain blasphemously swore God could not prevent him rounding the Cape.


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