1790~1792: Encounter with a Phantom Ship

George BarringtonGeorge Barrington, ca. 1810. [Larger version here]

George Barrington [1755-1804] is well-known for two things: picking pockets, and writing books. One led to the other, you see.

        Barrington had been caught picking pockets in London -- yet again -- in 1790, and was sentenced to 'transportation'... which means the authorities had given up trying to make him stop picking pockets, and instead put him on a boat to anywhere not England. As a result of this unexpected trip, Barrington wrote books about his sea voyages.

        Of course, this is Anomalies... so I have a strange reason for explaning all of this. In Barrington's first book -- A Voyage to New South Wales, Vol. 1, published in 1795 -- he appears to provide not only one of the earliest mentions of the legend of the phantom ship called the Flying Dutchman, but he also seems to have recorded the first published claim of an actual encounter with the ghostly vessel! Here's the legend of the phantom ship, as Barrington explains it in his book:

"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 [Cape of Good Hope, Africa -- Garth], 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 with 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 phœnomenon 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 some one on board who pretends to have seen the apparition."

As you can see, Barrington was by no means a believer in the actual existence of the ghostly ship... but he felt the need to write this clarification of the legend because he then had to explain what happened to him when his ship was leaving the Cape of Good Hope itself.

        Barrington's book covers the years 1790-1792, when he was sent to Botany Bay, Australia; and it was sometime in this initial trip that Barrington's ship had made anchor at the Cape of Good Hope, Africa. When the time came to leave, Barrington's ship found itself having to anchor near the coast for 24 hours as it waited for a tropical storm to pass. Barrington had the keys for the cabinet that the alcohols were locked up in... which is why the boatswain woke him at 2:00AM. The boatswain was clearly frightened; he stated he had just seen the Flying Durtchman. Barrington sums up what the boatswain told him:

"I was just looking over the weather bow, what should I see but the Flying Dutchman coming right down upon us, with every thing 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 not 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 a couple of swigs of drink, the boatswain seemed to have composed himself some... so Barrington asked him if he was afraid of ghosts. The boatswain answered that he was as good as any other man on that, but admitted that as a child he was frightened. He then also said that the man who was at the helm, a Joe Jackson, had not seen the phantom ship though it had appeared plain as day to the boatswain himself.

        Barrington, convinced there was no phantom ship, headed up to the deck with the boatswain to see if he could figure out what happened. The weather had cleared up by that time, and the moon was shining bright with no clouds in sight. In talking to the others awake on deck, Barrington found that the sky had been very cloudy just a half an hour earlier. The sea was still 'running high,' and the wind was still blowing strong enough for Barringotn's ship to hold it's position until morning.

        Barrington eventually concluded that the boatswain had seen luminous spots in the high water of the night -- luminous spots caused by sea creatures, which Barrington had seen at differing points in his trip -- and that the boatswain had interpreted these lights, seen through a passing cloud, as being open ports and lights on a ship that wasn't actually there.