Davy Jones’s locker

Davy Jones is the spirit of the sea, a nautical demon. His locker is where he keeps sunken ships, the grave of sailors how have perished at sea.

The origin of the name is obscure. It dates to at least 1726 when it appears in The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts, written by Daniel Defoe:

But now they had no Goods at all, he believed, having disposed of them all, either by giving them to other Prizes, &c. or heaving the rest into David Jones’s locker, (i.e. the sea).1

Perhaps the most vivid early description of Davy Jones is from Tobias Smollett’s 1751 The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle:

“By the Lord! Jack, you may say what you wool; but I’ll be d—d if it was not Davy Jones himself. I know him by his saucer eyes, his three rows of teeth, his horn and tail, and the blue smoke that came out of his nostrils What does the blackguard h—‘s baby what with me? I’m sure I never committed murder, except in the way of my profession, nor wronged any man whatsomever since I first went to see.” This same Davy Jones, according to the mythology of sailors, is the fiend that presides over all the evil spirits of the deep, and is often seen in various shapes, perching among the rigging on the eve of hurricanes, shipwrecks, and other disasters to which the sea-faring life is exposed; warning the devoted wretch of death and woe.2

The locker is from at least 1774. From The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell:

“They are gone to Davy Jones’s Locker.” This is a common saying when anything goes over board.

And from Janet Schaw’s Journal of a Lady of Quality from the same year:

We certainly would have thought it was Davy Jones the terror of all sailors, come to fetch us away […] and every thing else gone to Davy Jones’ locker, that is to the Devil.3

While the origin of Davy Jones and his locker is not known for certain, there are several possible explanations. Perhaps the most likely is that Davy is a variation of the West Indian/African duppy, meaning spirit or ghost and the Jones is from Jonah. So Davy Jones may be duppy Jonah.4

Jonah, of course, is a biblical reference. In that story, God is angry at Jonah and sends a storm to waylay him at sea. In fear that they will perish with him, Jonah’s shipmates throw him overboard. Hence, a Jonah in sailor slang is a bringer of bad luck. From the first chapter of the book of Jonah 1:10-15, King James Version:

Then were the men exceedingly afraid, and said unto him, Why hast thou done this? For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

Then said they unto him, What shall we do unto thee, that the sea may be calm unto us? for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous.

And he said unto them, Take me up, and cast me forth into the sea; so shall the sea be calm unto you: for I know that for my sake this great tempest [is] upon you.

Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring [it] to the land; but they could not: for the sea wrought, and was tempestuous against them.

Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee.

So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.

Edward Long’s 1774 The History of Jamaica contains the first known use of duppy in English:

They firmly believe in the apparition of spectres. Those of deceased friends are duppies; others...like our raw-head-and-bloody-bones, are called bugaboos.5

This is later than the appearance of Davy Jones, but it is certainly possible that duppy was known in sailor parlance long before it made its way into print. Still we can’t be certain that duppy Jonah is the origin.

Another explanation links Jonah with St. David, the patron saint of Wales, a name that would certainly be invoked by Welsh sailors. Others link the name to an alleged real person. In some tales, Davy is a pirate. In other’s he’s the barkeeper in the 1594 ballad Jones’ Ale Is Newe. Neither of these last two have any real evidence to support them, and the link the ballad is somewhat mystifying because the song has nothing to do with death or the sea, only drinking.

1Daniel Defoe, The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (London, 1726), 41.

2Tobias Smollett, The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, Vol. 1, 1904 Printing (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1751), 86-87.

3Bartlett Jere Whiting, Early American Proverbs and Proverbial Phrases (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1977), 94.

4Hugh Rawson, Devious Derivations (New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1994), 58-59.

5Edward Long, The History of Jamaica (London: T. Lowndes, 1774), v.2, p.416.

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