The myths and ghost stories were likely to have originated from the 17th-century Golden Age of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and of Dutch maritime power. The oldest known extant version of the legend dates from the late 18th century. Reported sightings in the 19th and 20th centuries claimed that the ship glowed with a ghostly light.
In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship functions as a portent of doom.
The Story of the Flying Dutchman
A Voyage to New South Wales (1795)
I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-of-war was lost off the Cape of Good Hope, and every soul on board perished; her consort weathered the gale, and arrived soon after at the Cape. Having refitted, and returning to Europe, they were assailed by a violent tempest nearly in the same latitude. In the night watch some of the people saw, or imagined they saw, a vessel standing for them under a press of sail, as though she would run them down; one in particular affirmed it was the ship that had foundered in the former gale, and that it must certainly be her, or the apparition of her; but on its clearing up, the object (a dark thick cloud) disappeared.
Nothing could do away the idea of this phenomenon on the minds of the sailors; and, on their relating the circumstances when they arrived in port, the story spread like wildfire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few Indiamen, but what has someone on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.
About two in the morning I was waked by a violent shake by the shoulder, when, starting up in my hammock, I saw the boatswain, with evident signs of terror and dismay in his countenance, standing by me.
“For God’s sake, messmate,” said he, “hand us the key of the case, for by the Lord I’m damnably scarified; for, d’ye see, I was just looking over the weather bow, what should I see but the Flying Dutchman coming right down upon us, with everything set -- I know ’twas she -- I cou’d see all her lower-deck ports up, and the lights fore and aft, as if cleared for action. Now as how, d’ye see, I am sure no mortal ship could bear her lower-deck ports up and pot founder in this here weather. Why, the sea runs mountains high. It must certainly be the ghost of that there Dutchman, that foundered in this latitude, and which, I have heard say, always appears in this here quarter, in hard gales of wind.”
After taking a good pull or two at the Holland’s [a bottle], he grew a little composed, when I jokingly asked him if he was afraid of ghosts?
“Why, as to that, d’ye see,” said he, “I think as how I’m as good as another man; but I’d always a terrible antipathy to those things. Even when I was a boy, I never could find it in my heart to cross a churchyard in the dark without whistling and hallooing, to make them believe I had company with me, for I’ve heard say they appear but to one at a time; for now, when I called to Joe Jackson, who was at the helm, to look over the weather bow, he saw nothing; tho’, ask how, I saw it as plain as this here bottle,” taking another swig at the Geneva.
Having some curiosity to see if I could make out anything that could take such an appearance, I turned out, and accompanied him upon deck; but it had cleared up, the moon shining very bright, and not a cloud to be seen; though, by what I could learn from the rest of the people who were on deck, it had been very cloudy about half an hour before, of course I easily divined what kind of phantom had so alarmed my messmate.
George Barrington, A Voyage to New South Wales (London, 1795), pp. 45-47.
It is lore nevermore.