Where Is Davy Jones’ Locker?
For several centuries men and ships lost at sea have been said to go to Davy Jones’ Locker. Davy Jones is the spirit of the sea—the sailor’s devil—and his locker is the ocean. Davy Jones’ Locker is an idiom for the bottom of the sea: the state of death among drowned sailors and shipwrecks. It is used as a euphemism for drowning or shipwrecks in which the sailors’ and ships’ remains are consigned to the bottom of the sea (to be sent to Davy Jones’ Locker).
A character in Sir Launcelot Greaves, a novel by Tobias George Smollett (1721-71) observes: “I have seen Davy Jones in the shape of a blue flame, d’ye see, hopping to and from on the spritsail yardarm.”
In 1803 the Naval Chronicles stated: “The…seaman would have met a watery grave; or, to use a seaman’s phrase, gone to Davy Jones’ locker.”
In Chamier’s Saucy Arethusa, written in 1837, we find: “The boat was capsized…and…all hands are snug enough in Davy Jones’ locker”.
There have been many explanations as to how Davy Jones came to stand for the sailors’ devil. One is that the name Jones evolved from Jonah, the Old Testament prophet, who ended up in the belly of a whale.
A 19th-century dictionary traces Davy Jones to a “ghost of Jonah”. Other explanations of this nautical superstition have been put forth, including an incompetent sailor or a pub owner who kidnapped sailors. If that is so, why Davy? For Davy seems to be an essential part of the title as shown by variations—David Jones, Old Davy and, simply, Davy. Another suggestion is that, as Jonah became the Welsh name Jones, a popular Welsh Christian name was added.
Not all traditions dealing with Davy Jones are fearful. In traditions associated with sailors crossing the Equatorial line, there was a “raucous and rowdy” initiation presided over by those who had crossed the line before, known as shellbacks, or Sons of Neptune. The eldest shellback was called King Neptune, and Davy Jones would be re-enacted as his first assistant.