Zombie Pirates!

1 Apr

The concept of zombie pirates and ghost ships has most recently been popularised in the Pirates of the Caribbean films. However, stories of ghostly galleons crewed by undead sailors roving the high seas have been around for centuries. This is hardly surprising – the sea has always had romantic associations for poets and explorers but equally it represents the unknown and, as such, has also carried with it a certain element of dread. In the early days of exploration no one knew what lay outside the realm of human experience in those uncharted waters and hence legends, superstitions and ghost stories were told in order to fill the vacuum. The term ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ entered into popular parlance precisely because there was a time when it was not known which was the worse of those two evils. Tales were told of sea monsters, ships of death and supernatural creatures haunting coastlines, estuaries and the seven seas. Some of these stories are now so famous that the mere mention of them is enough to strike fear into men’s souls – who has not heard the terrifying tale of the Flying Dutchman for instance?

The legend of the Flying Dutchman concerns a ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. Sightings, from the 18th century all the way to the 21st, reported the ship to be glowing with ghostly light. It was said that, if hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman would try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In particular, throughout the lore of the high seas, the sight of this phantom ship was a portent of doom. The first reference in print to the Flying Dutchman appears all the way back in 1795 in Chapter VI of A Voyage to Botany Bay, which is attributed to the former convict-turned-pioneer George Barrington, who referred to it as a Dutch warship lost off the Cape of Good Hope, which re-appeared in the glowing form of a phantom ship complete with a ghostly crew. Further reports in the 19th century confirmed that the crew of this vessel were supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime in the infancy of navigation; for which they were struck down with pestilence and ordained to traverse the ocean on which they perished until the period of their penance expired. The legend of the Flying Dutchman was perhaps best popularised at first by the Scottish writer and poet Sir Walter Scott in the notes to Rokeby: a poem. However, it should be emphasised that this particular ghost ship very much seemed to have a life outside fiction – some of the famous people who glimpsed it between the 19th and 20th centuries included the future King George V and the sailor turned novelist Captain Nicholas Monsarrat. It also directly inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s celebrated poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Other famous ghost ships include the Lady Lovibond, which is said to have been deliberately wrecked on Goodwin Sands in 1748 and to have reappeared off the Kent coast every fifty years since then; the Eliza Battle, a paddle steamer that burned in 1858 on the Tombigbee River in Alabama, and is purported to reappear, fully aflame, on cold and windy winter nights to foretell of impending disaster; and the Octavius, an English trading ship returning from China, which was supposedly found drifting off the coast of Greenland in 1775. The last of these accounts is unsubstantiated, although the captain’s log was found to show that the ship had attempted the Northwest Passage, which had never been successfully traversed at that time. The ship and the bodies of her frozen crew apparently completed the passage after drifting amongst the pack ice for 13 years. There is also the chilling tale of the schooner Jenny, which was supposedly discovered after spending 17 years frozen in an ice-barrier of the Drake Passage. Found by Captain Brighton of the whaler Hope, it had been locked in the ice since 1823, the last port of call having been Lima, Peru. The bodies of the seven people aboard, including one woman and a dog, preserved by the Antarctic cold, were buried at sea by the crew of the Hope – how they got that way has remained an unsolved mystery ever since then. Perhaps the most unsettling recent account of a ghost ship, however, dates from 1947, when the Ourang Medan is said to have been found adrift off the coast of Indonesia with all of its crew dead. The boarding party found the entire crew frozen, teeth bared, gaping at the sun but, before the ship could be towed to a home port, it exploded and sank. Something had got on board, it was said, and literally frightened the crew to death.

The phenomenon of ghost ships has continued unabated into the 21st century.  In 2006 the Bel Amica was discovered off the coast of Sardinia. The Coast Guard crew that discovered the ship – in a strange parallel of perhaps the most famous naval mystery of all time, the case of the Mary Celeste – found half eaten Egyptian meals, French maps of North African seas, and a flag of Luxembourg on board, but no crew or even any signs of a struggle or an evacuation to explain their disappearance. You can click to read more about the Mary Celeste in my post on the subject. With the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic coming up on 15 April it would be remiss of me not to mention the many theories surrounding its demise – click to read about The Titanic Conspiracy. I personally doubt that the high seas will ever stop producing unsolved mysteries for us to read about – just this year a Japanese fishing vessel swept away by the March 2011 tsunami was found floating adrift towards Canada, no crew believed to be on board, but otherwise perfectly preserved. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

9 Responses to “Zombie Pirates!”

  1. lmwills1 April 1, 2012 at 3:18 pm #

    Awesome blog!

  2. akrummenacker April 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

    Great post, I’ve always been fascinated by ghost ship legends.

    Funny that you should bring up ghost ships and whatnot. My second novel involves a twist on the old ghost ships legend. It appears in a mist, looms out of the darkness attacks other vessels and crews. Figures seen moving about on the deck and in the riggings, but there the similarity ends. The one in my story is a living being that absorbs wood and living beings. I’m stopping there so as not to ruin the rest of the surprises.

    Take care.

  3. rich April 1, 2012 at 3:34 pm #

    lord of the rings sort of dabbled with zombie pirates. well, ghost pirates? well, ghosts that got on a ship and went somewhere to join a battle. yeah, so, i guess, no.

  4. nzumel April 2, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    So did anyone claim to see the Lady Lovibond in 1998? Just curious.

    • anilbalan April 2, 2012 at 8:28 am #

      From what I can tell there were no ‘confirmed’ sightings in 1998 but all over the internet there appear to have been ‘alleged’ sightings that year – although from whom, I have no idea!

  5. atothewr April 2, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    How about this song?

    Not so much zombies/pirates, but it is a good sea faring song. Very haunting.

    The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald.


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