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Jim’s Australiana Spot – 2UE - January 15, 2017

The Flying Dutchman of our East Coast!!

Two grandsons of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert Victor and Prince George, who were the two eldest sons of Edward, Prince of Wales, visited Australia in 1881.Prince Albert Victor was born in January 1864 and his brother, George, on June 3 1865, which gives us the date for the 'King's Birthday' (or 'Queen's Birthday') official holiday to the present day.

The two boys joined the navy in 1877 at the ages of thirteen and eleven and, in 1879, the Royal Family assented to a government idea that a special squadron be formed to cruise the world and visit the far-flung ports of the British Empire - It was a massive public relations, flag-waving expedition, led by the fastest warship of the day, HMS Inconstant, a fully rigged ironclad steamship of almost 6,000 tons.

The princes were assigned to HMS Bacchante as cadets and later qualified as midshipmen. They were given a special cabin and took along a tutor, John Dalton who also edited and amended the journals kept by the princes and made their two journals into one narrative, which was published in 1886 as The Cruise of Her Majesty's Ship Bacchante.

The two young princes stayed in Albany for three weeks and then travelled to Adelaide on the steamer Cathay and, after several weeks in Adelaide, travelled overland along the Coorong and Murray River by coach, horse and train via Ballarat to Melbourne, where they again caught up with the 'detached squadron'. The two teenagers hunted kangaroos, saw a football game, were given cockatoos as pets, inspected Ned Kelly's armour and had quite a jolly time in the Australian colonies.

It was on the voyage from Melbourne to Sydney that the princes encountered the ghostly spectre of the Flying Dutchman. The princes were now travelling on the squadron's flagship, HMS Inconstant, commanded by Admiral Sir Richard Meade, 4th Earl of Clanwilliam,

The legend of the Flying Dutchman came into nautical folklore quite late, it is not mentioned until the 18th Century. The story goes that a blaspheming Dutch captain sailed into the teeth of a monstrous gale attempting to round the Cape of Good Hope and refused to listen to pleas from crew and passengers to turn back. Swearing he would round the Cape if it took all eternity.

When the crew threatened to mutiny he swore an oath defying them and the Almighty to stop him, then he shot the leader of the mutineers and a ghostly figure appeared and announced that he would henceforth sail the seas and never return to port.

The ship is sometimes seen as a ghostly spectre, other times as a fireship and at times as a very real vessel. There are reports of the ship trying to pass mail to other ships and appearing to ram vessels in bad weather and then suddenly disappearing.

Detailed accounts of encounters with the ghost ship have been given by many ships, including a British Naval vessel in 1835 and, more recently, a German U-Boat crew in WW2 and, in 1939, by dozens of swimmers at Glencairn Beach, South Africa, who saw the ship pass close to shore and all, independently, later described what was obviously an 18th Century Dutch East India man, although none of the witnesses knew what they were describing. In 1942 four separate independent witnesses described the same vessel entering Table Bay, Capetown. In both of these cases it suddenly disappeared.

One of the best accounts of the legend is found in the 1795 publication, A Voyage To Botany Bay, the supposed journals of George Barrington, the famous jewel thief and society dandy who was transported to Sydney Cove as a convict in 1791. These journals were most likely written by greedy journalists in London using other legitimate accounts of the new colony and whatever else they could think up - and using Barrington's name and notoriety to sell books. But the explanation is interesting. Here it is:

I had often heard of the superstition of sailors respecting apparitions and doom, but had never given much credit to the report; it seems that some years since a Dutch man-o-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 wild-fire, and the supposed phantom was called the Flying Dutchman. From the Dutch the English seamen got the infatuation, and there are very few India men, but what has some one on board, who pretends to have seen the apparition.

All we can say is that, in 1881, the legend was believed by many people, especially sailors. Certainly the thirteen witnesses on the Bacchante - and others on Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who saw the Dutchman around 4 am on July 11th 1881, had no doubt about what they saw. Here is the account direct from the princes' journal:

July 11th.  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 on the port bow. The look-out man on the forecastle reported her as close on the port bow, where also the officer of the watch from the bridge clearly saw her, as did also the quarterdeck midshipman, who was sent forward at once to the forecastle; but on arriving there no vestige nor any sign whatever of any material ship was to be seen either near or right away to the horizon, the night being clear and the sea calm.  Thirteen persons altogether saw her, but whether it was Van Diemen or the Flying Dutchman or who else must remain unknown.

The princes' journal then quotes in German a stanza of verse about the legend. The family of Queen Victoria all spoke fluent German, in fact it was the language used by the Queen and her family in private always. The account continues:

The Tourmaline and Cleopatra, who were sailing on our starboard bow, flashed to ask whether we had seen the strange red light. At 6.15 A.M. observed land to the north-east. At  10.45 A.M. the ordinary seaman who had this morning reported the Flying Dutchman fell from the fore topmast crosstrees onto the top gallant forecastle and was smashed to atoms. At 4.15 P.M. after quarters we hove to with the head yards aback, and he was buried in the sea. He was a smart royal yardman, and one of the most promising young hands in the ship, and every one feels quite sad at his loss.

There is no doubt the future king believed the legend and believed that he and others saw the Flying Dutchman that night. Admiral Meade became ill in Sydney and the princes' journal adds that this, also, was part of the curse of seeing the ghost ship:

Perhaps the curse of the Flying Dutchman had some effect on Prince Albert Victor. He led a brief and rather unspectacular life characterised by little achievement and suffered an early demise. However, the meeting with the ghostly harbinger of doom doesn't seem to have harmed his brother, the future King George V, too much at all.

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