Death In The Drink – Welcome to Davy Jones’ Locker

I’ve just received the final pdfs of The Buccaneering Book Of Pirates, which will be published by Egmont in the UK and Stirling in the US this Christmas.  One of the reasons I accepted the commission was Mark Robertson’s superb illustrations for The Giant Book Of Giants, my previous book for Egmont.  I love how he fills his canvas with precise detail and I thought he’d do a book full of pirate pictures justice.  I wasn’t wrong, and I am going to have great fun with powerpoint telling these stories in schools and libraries.

I can’t reveal much about the project at the moment but one of the stories in it is going to feature Davy Jones’ Locker.  The only Davy Jones I’d ever heard of when I was a kid was that singer from The  Monkees, who I later saw in the West End playing Jesus in Godspell. Surely there was no connection between that Davy Jones and piracy? I did some research in the Encyclopedia Brittanica at the National Library and it turned out no else in the world was sure who  Davy Jones was either.  Davy Jones’ Locker was just a fancy way of saying ‘meeting your doom at the bottom of the sea’. It was the perfect opportunity to marry a smidgen of fact with fiction, and I have been featuring Davy Jones’s Locker in stories for the last twenty years.

But was there really a Davy Jones at some point and how did his name become synonymous with death in the drink? Most kids today would probably associate Davy Jones with the underwater monster, part corpse, part octopus, in  The Pirates of the Caribbean film. But Davy Jones has been featured in the popular media for nigh on 250 years.  The earliest known mention of him is in Defoe’s Four Years’ Voyages of Captain George Roberts, published in 1726.  It’s a brief allusion. A longer description that gives us an insight into what people in the 18th century believed Davy Jones’ Locker to be can be found in Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickles.  Smollet describes him as the king of the dead sailors at the bottom of the sea. His eyes are as big as saucers, he has three rows of teeth and horns like the devil’s.  When he breathes, blue smoke pours out of his nostrils.

He may live at the bottom of the sea but, like all capable monsters, he can be glimpsed lurking in the rigging of ships, or at the tiller of some lost schooner.  A bit like the infernal captain of the doomed Flying Dutchman, then.  And, indeed, that legend could have been the source of the Davy Jones’ Locker phenomenon.  Another source could be an English pub landlord called Jones who was in the habit of locking drunk lads in his locker and stowing them on passing ships, for a fee. Jones could also be a reference to the prophet Jonah, who spent three days in the belly of a whale – a locker of sorts! Davy might be a reference to Duffy, a West Indian ghost very much feared by pirates and seamen in the Caribbean.  And, of course, there really was a sailor called Duffer Jones, who had the unfortunate habit of falling into the sea every time he got drunk.

Whoever the source of the legend was, he has scared and entertained generations of children.  It’s nice to think that, in a small way, I am continuing in a noble if ghostly tradition.  Davy Jones, I salute you….

Related posts!

Yo ho ho and a Bottle of Rum – what Pirates drank.

Breaking Bread with Pirates – find out what pirates ate and drank.

In Search of Pirate Islands – a short film clip about Spinalonga, a deserted pirate island.

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