History with Haggis: Ghost ships

July 9th, 2010 by | 4 comments

Welcome class, to another edition of History with Haggis. In today’s lecture, we’ll take a look at a rather mysterious subject: ghost ships. Now, that may sound scary, and perhaps it actually is. Or perhaps not, but more on that later. Let’s first take a look at the connection with Monkey Island, because this is, after all, a Monkey Island site.

The most famous ghost in the Monkey Island series is of course LeChuck, and together with his crew of ghost pirates in The Secret of Monkey Island, he mans a ghost ship. In a very poignant scene, we see the ship literally disappear on the horizon, when Guybrush has learnt of the kidnapping of his love, Elaine.

As with many things in the Monkey Island universe, this also has its roots in actual history. Not that ghostly ships ever sailed the oceans, of course, but there is such a thing as a ghost ship. Actually, there are two kinds of ghost ships. The first one is a bit like the ship that LeChuck captains in The Curse of Monkey Island: a ship that is haunted, but not in itself spectral.

A good example of such a ship is the Flying Dutchman. Its captain was determined to sail on despite contrary winds, even if he had to sail around Cape of Good Hope until judgement day. In the words of Estevan, ‘he did’. And so it was that the ghost ship was seen sailing the seas many times and long after the 16th century, even by King George V of England, when he was still Prince of Wales.

This particular legend has had many cultural influences, inspiring an opera by Richard Wagner, and it also features heavily in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. And the story of the Lost Welshman from The Curse of Monkey Island is of course modelled after this naval legend.

The second kind of ghost ship is one which sails on without explanation, while its crew has mysteriously disappeared. An interesting example of this is the story of the Mary Celeste. Other examples of the first kind of ghost ship are the Caleuche, and the Lady Lovibond, which supposedly appears every fifty years.

Now, if you think such legends are only a thing of the past, think again. In the 1960s, a subway train was built for the Stockholm metro system. Unlike all the other trains, it wasn’t painted but kept its silver colour, thus acquiring its nickname ‘Silverpilen’, or The Silver Arrow. It got a bit of a reputation as a ghost train, even claiming lost souls in Stockholm. That it was only seen in use very rarely further fuelled the myth. It’s an interesting enough story, and in line with the ones about ghost ships, so you may want to read more about it.

But let’s go back into the past again. After all, this is not a site about trains, no matter how interesting they are. Those stories about ghost ships must have come from somewhere. I’m sure you would agree that it’s pretty unlikely that people all over the world started imagining the exact same thing. But at the same time, we Monkey Island fans are rational people, using a fictional universe to escape from reality for a while. So, what could be the cause of all those people, including the Prince of Wales, telling these outlandish stories?

Well, there are two possible explanations. One of them is that sightings of ghost ships like the Flying Dutchman are the result of Fata Morgana (named after Morgan LeFlay… uh… Morgan le Fay). Interestingly, one sighting of a supposed ghost ship was explained away in this fashion by the captain of the ship’s crew who saw it. This account is related in the 1910 book Round-about Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, under the chapter ‘When we must not believe our eyes’. Thanks to the captain’s knowledge of the atmosphere, his crew no longer believed in phantom ships.

But I spoke of two explanations, and perhaps the second is even more interesting. There is a natural phenomenon called ‘looming’, which is similar to mirages or Fata Morgana, but not quite the same. One of the possible outcomes is seeing an object, such as a ship, floating in the sky. It is very possible that this is what people saw who reported having seen a ghost ship.

If you’re lucky, you can actually still see ships flying in the sky. This article is sprinkled with modern-day images that showcase this phenomenon (by the way, if any of these photos are yours and you don’t want us to use them, let us know). So, now you know what may be causing these ships to fly. What about you, have you ever seen a ghost ship? Maybe you even took a photo of it? Let us know!

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Posted in History with Haggis

4 Responses to “History with Haggis: Ghost ships”

  1. Dennis says:

    I really like these historical lessons! 😀

  2. TheBearPaw says:

    Hey, really nice article, man!

  3. Talyn says:

    Very fun as always, thanks! Only comment, I think there is a typo in paragraph number four. It should read Cape of Good Hope (or just Cape Horn if it’s referring to sailing in bad areas). Or maybe I’m wrong and that was done on purpose, either or, I love these write ups, thanks!

    • Haggis says:

      Oops! You’re right, it should be Cape of Good Hope. I somehow got my capes mixed up and didn’t even notice it. Thanks for noticing that, I’ll change it right away! 🙂

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