Death, doom and tales of ghostly vessels - there was plenty to be scared of on board Cutty Sark
27 Oct 2022
For many of us, Halloween offers a chance to embrace our fascination with fear. But for the crew of Cutty Sark, every day of the year could hold deadly threat...
Sailing the seas meant being at the mercy of nature. It was fraught with risk and danger, and stories of ‘ghost ships’ - doomed to sail the seas forever - whipped up doubts, fears and superstition.
Anything that could be associated with bad luck became heavy with symbolism and was to be avoided at all costs for fear of making the ship 'cursed'.
The story of the American ship the Mary Celeste, made famous by Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story of 1884, served as a cautionary tale.
Just two years after Cutty Sark had first set sail for China, Mary Celeste was discovered deserted in the Atlantic Ocean. There was no sign of her crew or cargo, and what had happened to her remains a mystery to this day.
In the 19th century, 31 October was a very different prospect to today. Preceding All Saints' and All Souls' Day, Halloween or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’ was a time for honouring saints and praying for the souls of the recently departed.
This perhaps made it all the more poignant that seventeen-year-old apprentice, Sidney Cook, was swept overboard on Halloween in 1888. He was the youngest member of Cutty Sark’s crew to be lost.
On Cutty Sark's twelfth voyage in 1880, the ageing German sail-maker, Alex Jansen joined the ship. When they set sail on a Friday, Jansen predicted disaster for the ship.
The association of Friday with the crucifixion of Christ had long discouraged men from setting sail on that day. Jansen's unceasing prophesies and eerie ability to go without sleep made him both a figure of derision and fear.
Answering to the name of ‘Dutchy’, Jansen was soon nick-named: 'Old Vanderdecken' or the ‘Flying Dutchman’ – a mythical ghost ship - both the bringer and symbol of doom.
When Cutty Sark's voyage finally came to an end almost two years later, one man had been murdered, another had committed suicide, one had been lost overboard, another had died in suspicious circumstances and three more had died of cholera.
Old Vanderdecken's prophesies were frightfully difficult to disregard.