Pirates have always intrigued people. Whether it was the fearsome Black Beard, privateers like Captain Henry Morgan (whom you can find out more in this article Who Was Captain Morgan?), or the stylish rogue Calico Jack Rackham, the men who sailed under the Jolly Roger have been romanticized to the point they've become a fascination. Portrayed in romance novels and films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean series, people are constantly looking into the history of these sea-faring brigands.
One piece of obscure maritime myth is the figure of Davy Jones, whose infamous locker was the bottom of the sea. A being to be feared and dreaded, aye, but who (or what) was this devil of the waves?
The Origins of Davy Jones
To really get down to who Davy Jones was, you have to understand that the sea was simultaneously the main source of life and death for sailors. The sea was what gave them bounty, but it was also a source of fear and dread. Pagan cultures often assigned the most capricious and mean-spirited gods to the seas, for they well knew the force and unpredictability with which unwelcome waves could come upon mariners. Gods like the Philistine's Dagon, the Norseman's Aegir, and the mercurial Greek god Poseidon are all examples of how the sea was tolerant at best, malicious at worst. It's this vicious brew that gave the legend of Davy Jones its beginnings.
The first written record of the name Davy Jones being used comes from 1751. The reference was in The Adventures of Paragrine Pickle by Tobias Smollett. This book described Davy Jones as a devil with "saucer eyes, three rows of teeth, horns and a tail, and blue smoke that came out of his nostrils." Quite a depiction, and let's not forget that Davy Jones is described as a fiend instead of a man, which elevates him to the status of a malignant ocean spirit rather than an individual whom the legend was based on.
One of the biggest curiosities regarding this maritime specter is his name. Of all the things to call this particular sea devil, why name him Davy Jones? Was it for a vicious pirate captain? A piece of old slang that's since fallen out of use? Something else entirely?
Well, one of the potential origins is that the name Davy is actually a perversion of the word duppy, which refers to a malignant spirit in Jamaica. Given that Jamaica is right in the center of the Caribbean, this isn't an unreasonable theory. Another story is that the spirit's first name refers to Saint David, who is the patron saint of sailors. As to the name Jones it could have come from the association with Jonah. "Jonahs" were people considered bad luck on board a ship, and like the biblical story they might be thrown overboard to appease whatever creatures waited for them in the depths.
And what about Davy Jones' Locker? Well, lockers were used by sailors to store their possessions, and anyone who sank to the watery hell that was the bottom of the ocean was said to be stored in Davy Jones' Locker. This followed long-held beliefs in many that those who drowned at sea would forever be held in its watery grip, even in the afterlife. There are some legends that refer to a 16th century publican by the name of Davy Jones who would hold people in a locker and then sell them as slave labor to pirates, but there's nothing to say one way or another whether the beast of the storm-lashed seas had anything to do with this very human monster.
Will We Ever Know?
By the mid 1800s Davy Jones had become completely enmeshed in sailing mythology. In fact, his personal mythos has grown significantly since then. Some people claim Davy Jones was a vicious pirate that made people walk the plank, and was punished for his life of wickedness by being condemned to the sea. Others say that he was a sailor damned for pride, cowardice, or for giving insult to the sea. Whatever his story, though, Davy Jones remains as an ill omen for anyone who sees him, especially if that person had been looking forward to a long and happy life on land.