The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Phantom Ship (1839)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Phantom Ship was written by Captain Frederick Marryat. Marryat (1792-1848) was a naval officer who became a writer in his retirement. Marryat is important in literary history for being one of the fathers of English nautical fiction; his Masterman Ready and Midshipman Easy (1836) were both popular and influential during the nineteenth century. Marryat also helped create modern English boys’ fiction (see: Boy Heroes). The Phantom Ship is a Flying Dutchman story which is more interesting than enjoyable.

Philip Vanderdecken and his mother Catherine live in poverty and hunger, Philip Vanderdecken Sr. having died at sea. So it is with no little surprise that Philip discovers that his father died under mysterious circumstances and then visited Catherine as a spirit. Philip Sr. tells Catherine how, in a moment of hubris and fury, he swore by a fragment of the Holy Cross (which he wore in a relic around his neck) that he would sail around the Cape of Good Hope,

in defiance of storm and seas, or lightning, heaven, or hell, even if I should beat about until the Day of Judgment. My oath was registered in thunder, and in streams of fire. The hurricane burst on the ship, the canvas flew away in ribbons; mountains of seas swept over us, and in the centre of a deep cloud, which shrouded all in darkness, were written in letters of livid flame, these words–UNTIL THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT.1 

For having made this oath and then died, Philip Sr. is cursed to travel the waves forever, as the Flying Dutchman. After Catherine dies Philip enters a sealed room in their house and finds a letter Philip Sr. sent his mother after his death: “One of those pitying spirits whose eyes rain tears for mortal crimes has been permitted to inform me by what means alone my dreadful doom may be averted.”2 The letter states that if Philip Sr. receives the relic on the deck of his ship, kisses the relic “in all humility,” and then sheds a tear of contrition on the wood of the True Cross, he will be allowed to rest in peace.

Being a good son, Philip vows that he will deliver the relic to his father and help him rest at last. Naturally, there are complications. Philip meets a nice girl, Amine Poots, the daughter of a greedy doctor. Despite the fact that Philip is a Catholic and Amine is neither Dutch (her mother was an Arab) nor a Christian (her mother was an Arab), and further that Amine’s mother was a sorceress, Philip and Amine fall in love and marry. They are briefly happy, but soon Philip is summoned to sea on the first of several journeys. On each trip something bad happens and Philip ends up shipwrecked or ruined, and on each trip he only gets a glimpse of the Amsterdammer, his father’s ship. Often one of Philip’s shipmates is Schriften, a small, gaunt, one-eyed pilot whose malice toward Philip is never explained. Schriften often does his best to hinder Philip, trying at various times to steal Philip’s relic or organize the other sailors against Philip. Philip is often separated from Schriften, usually in circumstances which seem to indicate Schriften’s death, but Schriften always comes back. On his last voyage Philip takes Amine with him, despite Schriften’s advice against it. Amine is consistently kind to Schriften and he is friendly to her and wants to prevent her from coming to harm, although he continues to treat Philip badly. On this final voyage Philip’s ship is rammed by the Amsterdammer, and although the Phantom Ship sails right through Philip’s ship, Philip’s ship is wrecked soon thereafter, and Philip and Amine are separated. Philip and Schriften have various adventures around Malaysia while Amine is picked up by the Spanish and taken to Goa. Although she steers clear of the Inquisition for a while she is eventually caught working magic, trying to see Philip’s fate, and is given to the Inquisition. She nobly defends herself against them but is inevitably convicted by them. Philip arrives in Goa in time to see Amine killed, which drives him mad. He only recovers his wits many years later. He resumes his quest, and meets up, yet again, with Schriften. They encounter the Amsterdammer, and the ship they are on sets them adrift for being bad luck. Philip forgives Schriften for his acts because of his kindness to Amine. This causes Schriften to tell Philip that he, Schriften, was the pilot on the Amsterdammer, that Philip’s father killed him, and that until Philip forgave his enemy–Schriften–Philip would never fulfill his destiny. The forgiven Schriften vanishes into the air, Philip is allowed to climb onboard the Amsterdammer, Philip Sr. is allowed to fulfill his vow, the Amsterdammer disintegrates, and God’s grace descends on Philip and his father.

As fiction The Phantom Ship is acceptable Gothic horror. The characterization is one-dimensional, albeit readably so; the characters are no more than types, but Marryat develops them interestingly. The dialogue is pitched high, in the usually shrill and histrionic way of the Gothics, in which shouting and impassioned statements are the norm, rather than calm conversations. But Marryat keeps the Gothic style of overloaded sentences to a minimum and uses a stripped-down style which keeps matters moving. While the horrific moments won’t particularly terrify modern readers, the moments are imaginative and visual, from the Amsterdammer bearing down on Philip’s ship and then sailing immaterially through it to the Amsterdammer emerging from the sea’s surface from the top down to the final destruction of the ship. The novel’s plot is moderately interesting; it is complicated but not overly so and is sufficiently full of colorful incident to keep the modern reader turning the pages. There is the occasional moment of broad humor to offset the many grim incidents, and Marryat puts his personal knowledge of nautical matters to good use.

It is the individual aspects of The Phantom Ship which are of more note. The novel is a Christian fantasy. The characters are open about their faith and are overtly concerned with God’s judgment, free will versus predestination, good and evil, proper Christian forgiveness, and whether their own actions are good or evil. Like most Gothics, The Phantom Ship is anti-Catholic, with a number of pointed comments on the inconsistencies of Catholicism, the hypocrisies of Catholics, and the evils of the Inquisition. But Marryat is smart enough and honest enough as a writer to avoid a unitary, simplistic black-and-white morality. Philip is a good Catholic and a good man. So is the local Dutch priest, Father Mathias, despite his flaws. Most interestingly, Amine is the heroine of the novel. Marryat clearly intended her to be the heroine, despite the facts that she is an occasionally-practicing witch, sorceress, and conjuror. Amine is critical of Christianity and its precepts and makes a number of sharp and even compelling arguments against Christianity. Marryat was a vocal Christian and a didactic writer–Masterman Ready is particularly bad in this regard–and The Phantom Ship is a Christian fantasy, but Amine argues against the dominant ethos of the novel–and wins her arguments. This is unusual for a Gothic, and interestingly seems to have been deliberate on Marryat’s part.

The Phantom Ship has a certain literary significance. It is one of the first major literary treatments of the Flying Dutchman myth. Marryat didn’t invent the myth; a general version of it, “a sea captain because of his wickedness sails his phantom ship eternally without coming to harbor,” is common enough in the folktales and legends of the world to have its own entry in the Stith Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955-1958).3 The modern version of the Flying Dutchman myth seems to have originated sometime in the eighteenth century, and fictional renditions of the myth began with Walter Scott’s poem “Rokeby” (1813). There were at least seventeen appearances of the myth in fiction and poetry before Marryat, including works by Heinrich Heine (which was in turn the source of Wagner’s opera Der Fliegende Hollander (1843)), Wilhelm Hauff (author of The Caravan), and Washington Irving. But The Phantom Ship was the first novel-length treatment of the myth, and was also the first English-language version to address the notion of Vanderdecken’s redemption, and Marryat’s version became the standard English language version of the myth.

The Phantom Ship also contains one of the earliest and best werewolf stories of the nineteenth century. The story of Krantz, Philip’s friend, has often been anthologized as “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains,” and while it was by no means the first werewolf story—the modern werewolf myth began with Charles Maturin’s The Albigenses (1824)—it was the most influential werewolf story and remained a standard version of the myth until the publication of Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933). Marryat invented the finale in which the wounded werewolf transforms into its true human form after death. Marryat was also the first author to portray the werewolf as a beautiful young woman, an erotic subtext which Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf plays up more fully. A comparison between “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains,” The Were-Wolf, and later versions of the werewolf myth is interesting. Many of the motifs are similar, but Marryat and Housman do not make the werewolf a part of the continuum of doppelgänger stories, as Endore did in The Werewolf of Paris and as Robert Louis Stevenson did in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In these doppelgänger stories the werewolf represents the bestial side or the id of human nature. In Marryat and Housman the human version of the werewolf is simply a polite version of the evil creature.

Recommended Edition

Print: Frederick Marryat, The Phantom Ship. Newburyport: Dover Publications, 2015.

Online: volume 14


1 Frederick Marryat, The Phantom Ship (New York: Peter Fenelon Collier, 1897), 20.

2 Marryat, The Phantom Ship, 46.

3 E511, for the curious.