When one hears the name Davy Jones, a fearsome half-man, half-creature with a face covered in tentacles who captains the ghostly Flying Dutchman might come to mind. Thank you, Disney, for that creative vision of one of the most well-known and time-honored legends of the sea. The real Davy Jones, however, is far different than the character from Pirates of the Caribbean. Myths about Davy Jones are almost universal among sailors; most of them point to the belief that he is more of a spirit who haunts the seas than a real person. Indeed, he is the essence of death at sea and his “locker,” or the sea floor, is the hell where drowned sailors and sunken ships were damned for eternity. He is the embodiment of a sailor’s deepest, superstitious fear. Yet, despite the agreement on what Davy Jones is, it is not entirely clear how his legend was born.
There is some evidence that the legend was born from a real living person. An old sailor song from 1594 called “Jones’s Ale is Newe” features a bartender named David Jones who drugged his patrons and sold them as slaves to passing ships. Another explanation of the legend is that Davy Jones derives from the patron saint of Wales, David, whom sailors called upon in times of need; given this argument, the current prevailing myth of Davy Jones would represent an almost complete inversion of its original meaning. The legend could also stem from an actual sailor, David Jones, who made his living pirating the waters of the Indian Ocean in the 1600s. The most interesting theory, however, ties the legend’s origin to the biblical story of Jonah, who is swallowed by a giant whale after being thrown overboard by a ship’s crew. Sailors identified more with Jonah’s shipmates trying to avoid sharing in his misfortune than with the reluctant prophet himself. It is thought that the name Davy Jones derived from a tradition of seamen intoning the biblical figure as “Devil Jonah.”
The first published record of the legend of Davy Jones appeared in 1726, in the book The Four Voyages of Captain George Roberts by Daniel Defoe. More than a hundred years later, he appears in Melville’s Moby-Dick, mentioned by Captain Peleg in connection with a skilled harpooneer who, when he found religion, got so nervous about the state of his soul that whenever he had to face down a whale he quivered for fear of being stove and sent to Davy Jones. (The context is Peleg’s reluctance to refuse such a skilled harpooneer as Queequeg a place aboard the Pequod because he is unconverted.) Peleg’s naming of Davy Jones in connection to being stove might lead us to detect the ghostly presence of this old sea-spirit every time the anxiety of being stove is acknowledged by the whalemen, as it often is in Moby-Dick. To what tune do they pull? “A dead whale or a stove boat!” Behind this we might hear: “A dead whale or Davy Jones!”
The fear and celebration of Davy Jones is just as relevant today as it was in Melville’s day. A battle hymn circulating among the sailors of the U.S. Navy states: “Roll out the TNT, Anchors Aweigh. / Sail on to victory / And sink their bones to Davy Jones.”