If you’ve ever looked up pirates before, you’ve probably seen reference to Davy Jones’ Locker. Either that, or you’re bored and watching Pirates of the Caribbean (maybe again) and got to the tentacle-beard man. But what’s up with Davy Jones–and what the heck is he putting into his locker?
As a figure in nautical folklore, Davy Jones is like the devil for sailors. When and how the devil took the name Davy Jones has a handful of theories, many of which may be attributed to infamous sailors and pub owners whose faces have been lost to time. A more concrete theory is Jonah (or Jonas), where the “Jones” part of Davy Jones has been aligned with a “ghost of Jonah.” Historians generally agree that the stories behind Davy Jones were largely spread through word of mouth well before any of the codified, written records that surfaced in the 1700s.
Some stories that may have contributed to Davy Jones’ origin include a pirate named David Jones, who sailed the Indian Ocean in the 1630s. Others include a pub owner who would take advantage of intoxicated sailors to imprison them (in their locker) and later sell them off for slave labor. Yet another references Duffer/Duffy Jones, a sailor who straight up fell into the sea.
Around the same time Davy Jones would have been part of the common sailing lexicon, those same sailors would likely have been aware of the duppy. The duppy originates from Bantu mythology and the word roughly means “malevolent spirit.” Why is this important? Well the folklore of the Caribbean Islands revolves around the duppy, and these spirits essentially were the evil ghosts of the sea. “Duppy” was sometimes written as “duffy” too, so you can put on the tinfoil hat and tie all the stories together. However, the first time an English person wrote down the word “duppy” was in 1774, while the first written records of Davy Jones date back to the 1720s.
Funnily enough the Welsh considered the figure Davy Jones to be a patron saint of the seas, who would only punish evil sailors. This is owed to Saint David.
In the 1758 Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, Davy Jones is also described as a little fiendish creature with blue smoke coming from his nostrils.
We’re pretty sure Davy Jones never needed to remember his locker combination, considering Davy Jones’ Locker was just a metaphor for sunken ships. Written recordings of Davy Jones date back to Daniel Defoe’s Four Years Voyages of Captain George Roberts in 1726, where Davy Jones’ Locker is used as a threat. Davy Jones and the story of his locker probably came about at the same time.
Generally talking about Davy Jones and his locker was considered a bad omen among sailors, which is probably why linguists and historians generally have problems finding a single source for Davy Jones’ origin.
In case you were wondering about the Flying Dutchman, wrapping up the legend of the ghost ship and Davy Jones was popularized by Pirates of the Caribbean. Print references to the Flying Dutchman start in the far later 1700s (pushing the 1790s) as a ship that was lost to poor weather.
Know your pirate paraphernalia and you probably won’t get stuck in the locker.