Iron Bilboes of the
Director of Archaeology
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society
Of all the artifacts recovered from the wreck site of the Henrietta
Marie, none serve as stronger icons for her involvement in the
slave trade than the crude iron restraints known as bilboes. They
succinctly express the grim nature of a voyage in which a group of
people was forcibly held, and shipped as a cargo. Bilboes gave the
slavers a physical and psychological advantage, allowing them to
control the Africans from the time they were put aboard the ships
until they could be safely delivered to the markets of the
Americas. By inhibiting the likelihood of resistance and rebellion
by the captives, they prevented physical injury to
crew or cargo that might result from any such insurrection. A
sufficient number of components-shackles, bolts and wedges- were
found on the wreck that, when assembled, once formed just over
eighty bilboes; enough to hold more than 160 people.
Throughout the history of the slave trade, items of restraint can
be found to have been called by many names, including fetters,
irons, manacles, hand bolts, gyves, shackles and handcuffs.
Whatever the name, their purpose was singular; to limit or deny
the free movement of a group of African men, women and children
and make them available for sale.
Folklore holds it that bilboes came to England from Spain during
the Armada campaign of 1588, when the invading Spanish supposedly
carried them by the dozens in anticipation of taking English
prisoners (Earle, 1896). The word bilbo is believed to be derived
from the name of the northern Spanish port, Bilbao (ibid.).
Bilboes, certainly were used in early colonial Spain, and have
been recovered from two Spanish shipwrecks in the Americas; the
Molasses Reef wreck, tentatively dated to ca. 1513, and thought to
have been a slaver capturing Lucayan Indians (Keith, 1988), and
the galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha of 1622.
They were used both on land and sea to hold and punish those who
committed offenses against society. In the earliest American
colonies, bilboes served effectively as low-cost, self-contained
"prisons". In Boston during the 1630’s offenders would
be "sett in the bilbowes", which had been imported from
England, in the town square in full public view (Earle, op.cit.).
An early treatise on sea service describes that among the duties
of the boatswain, "... he is (in the nature of a Provost
Marshal at land) to see all offenders punctually punished, either
at the capstan, or by being put in the bilboes..." (Boteler,
Exactly when bilboes were put to use in the slave trade is
unclear, but contemporary references from European sources provide
the reasoning for their implementation. Restraining the Africans
could effectively prevent rebellion and suicide, which always
loomed as threats to the success of any slaving voyage. An
uprising by slaves was not only perceived as a threat to a
ship’s crew, but to any profit as well. If the Africans did
manage to take up arms, the Europeans would have been compelled to
protect themselves, and possibly injure or kill them. From the
slaver’s perspective, this would be destroying cargo, which,
obviously, ran counter to their purpose.
The owners of the Dispatch, writing in 1725, instructed their
captain, William Barry,
soon as you begin to slave let your knetting be fix’d breast
high fore and aft and so keep ‘em shackled and hand Bolted
fearing their rising or leaping Overboard , to prevent which let
always a Constant and Carfull watch be appointed to which must
give the strictest Charge for the preservation of their own lives,
so well as yours and on which the voyage depends..."
Other writers involved in the slave trade express similar reasons
for shackling, but also, they describe the manner in which the
Africans were held. Consistently, it is seen that it was usually
the adult male captives who were joined by irons, in pairs.
Captain Thomas Phillips of the Royal African Company’s Hannibal,
which sailed to Guinea in 1693-94, describes, "When our
slaves are aboard we shackle the men two and two, while we lie in
port, and in sight of their own country, for ‘tis then they
attempt to make their escape, and mutiny...(Dow, p.73)."
Alexander Falconbridge, who served as a surgeon in the slave trade
during the latter part of the 18th century, wrote, "The men
negroes, on being brought board ship, are immediately fastened
together, two by two, by hand-cuffs on their wrists and by irons
rivetted on their legs. (1788, p.19)", but he goes on to
describe how this situation could become problematic. "It
often happens, that those who are placed at a great distance from
the buckets [toilets], in endeavouring to get to them, tumble over
their companions, in consequence of being shackled. These
accidents, although unavoidable, are productive of continuous
quarrels... (ibid., p.20)." Capt.William Snelgrave, a slaver
with over thirty years’ experience, describes, from 1754, a
somewhat more judicious use of restraint for the Africans,
"When we purchase the Negroes, we couple the sturdy men
together with irons; but we suffer the Women and Children to go
freely about: And soon after we have sail’d from the coast we
undo all the mens Irons. (Dow p.131)." Finally, James Barbot
recorded in his narrative of the voyage of the English slaver Don
Carlos, a scenario where the Africans mutinied, and probably felt
that, for once, their bilboes were being put to the best use;
"... as having premeditated a revolt, and seeing all the
ship’s company, at best weak and many quite sick, they had also
broken off the shackles from several of their companions feet,
which served them, as well as billets they had provided themselves
with, and all other things they could lay hands on, which they
imagin’d might be of use for this enterprize. Thus arm’d, they
fell in crowds and parcels on our men..."
From the African perspective there are few accounts of the slave
trade, but one, that of Olaudah Equiano, who was captured and put
into slavery as a boy, describes the psychological terror induced
by the sight of his countrymen in shackles and chains. After
having been sold to English slavers in the mid-1700’s, he
entered their ship to await transport to the Americas;
" When I looked around the ship too, and saw a large furnace
of copper boiling, and a multitude of black people of every
description chained together, every one of their countenances
expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted of my fate;
and, quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless
on the deck and fainted. (Bontemps,1969 p.27)"
From even these few accounts, it can be seen that bilboes served
as a way to ensure that African captives taken into the slave
trade were more easily kept and transported during at least
portions of the voyage to the Americas. By being able to restrain
their unwilling merchandise, the slavers could ensure a safe and
The basic design of the Henrietta Marie bilboes is one that went
virtually unchanged for at least two centuries in western Europe
and the American colonies. Two U-shaped shackles fit over the
ankles or wrists of the slaves, too tight to slip hands or feet
through. Loops at each terminus slid onto a bolt of iron round
stock. The bolt had a larger diameter head forged onto one end,
and a slot pierced into the other. The large head served as a stop
to keep the loops from sliding over the end of the bolt. The same
effect was achieved at the other end by hammering an iron wedge
into the slot locking the shackles, and thus the prisoners, to the
bolt. Eighty-one bolts and 165 shackles have been found at the
site of the Henrietta Marie. Many of these were found as intact
sets, but bolts with one shackle, and many individual components
were also found. It is unclear how they were stored, but
presumably it was as intact sets, and the wrecking process put the
collection into its relative disarray.
There are telling differences which give clues to the intended
victims who were once held by these restraints. Most significant
is the size of the U-shaped shackles. Some are large, and presumed
to have fit only the ankles of large men. Others may have been
wrist shackles for large adults or ankle shackles for those who
were smaller. Others, whose diminutive form is quite startling,
suggest they were used to shackle the wrists of small adults or
the ankles of juveniles. It seems the shackles could also be
custom fit by compressing or expanding the "U". This
appears to have been done to some of the recovered examples, with
two shackles of the same size on the same bar having different
Though the functional design of these bilboes is identical, there
are slight stylistic differences, which suggest that more than one
artisan worked to create this collection. Some bolts are short,
meant for the shackles to fit tightly. Others are long enough to
allow a gap of approximately 6 inches between shackles. Bolt
lengths vary between 6 1/2 to 17 inches. Some of the barstock used
in their construction is a heavy, 3/4 inch diameter, and in others
a more slight 1/2 inch diameter is found. The design of the
finished ends also varies; with some having rounded heads, others
pointed. The shackles also have varying qualities; some are formed
of barstock of 3/8 inch diameter, some of 1/2 inch. Some shackles
have large, flaring loops, and some are formed with blended lines
nearly the same width as the barstock from which they were made.
Two shackles from two different bilboes from the Henrietta Marie
were seized with cord, presumably for a cushioning effect to
prevent chafing of the captives’ skin. It is unknown if these
were special sets, or if all the shackles were once similarly
wrapped, with the cordage of the others long ago destroyed by the
natural actions of the marine environment. Considering the similar
nature of the deposition for the collection though, this seems
unlikely. A more likely theory for having "cushioned"
shackles reflects on the assumed recalcitrance of a few slaves. No
contemporary reference indicates the Africans were held in irons
for the duration of Middle Passage, and this makes sense. Bilboes
would have surely caused considerable chafing if worn for
prolonged periods, and increased the likelihood of infections and
other health problems among the slaves. Anything negatively
affecting the well being of the cargo like this impeded the
ship’s ability to operate profitably, and would have been
avoided. Inevitably, though, some of the Africans would have been
"bad"; therefore, for the crew’s safety required
prolonged restraint. Perhaps these were special shackles designed
to hold unruly slaves for longer periods without affecting their
It appears likely that one of the merchants who had consigned
goods to the Henrietta Marie, ironmonger Anthony Tournay, was also
the supplier of the bilboes. Tournay was a wholesaler of iron
goods, and shipped 33 tons of iron trade bars on her last voyage.
He had close business and social ties to Sir Ambrose Crowley, the
most prominent ironware manufacturer of the time, and who
contracted to provide various iron slave restraints to the Royal
African Company (Tattersfield, 1994). It is not farfetched to see
at least some of these bilboes as having been channeled by Tournay
from Crowley’s ironworks to the Henrietta Marie.
These bilboes represent the essential horror of the transatlantic
slave trade. In 1700 people were forced to wear these very devices
and suffer as much as any human can. As they sat in the equatorial
swelter, bound to their neighbor aboard the Henrietta Marie, the
Africans were probably unsure of what the future held for them,
but the bilboes represented the beginning of a new life -- one
where they were barely considered human, and would never again be
1732 Barbot, James Jr.
" A Supplement to the Description of the Coasts of North and
South Guinea." in Collection of Voyages and Travels, Awnsham
and John Churchill, eds., London.
1685 Boteler, Nathaniel
Six Dialogues about Sea Services. Reprinted 1929 as NRS, Vol. LXV.
1789 Equiano, Olaudah
"The Life of Oaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the
African," in Great Slave Narratives, Arna Bontemps, editor.
Beacon Press, Boston, 1969.
1896 Earle, Alice Morse
Curious Punishments of Bygone Days. Reprinted 1969 by Singing Tree
1788 Falconbridge, Alexander
"An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa."
Reprinted 1973, AMS Press, New York.
1988 Keith, Donald H.
"Shipwrecks of the Explorers" in Ships and Shipwrecks of
the Americas, George F. Bass, ed., Thames and Hudson, New York.
1746 Phillips, Thomas
"Thomas Phillips’ Journal" excerpted in Slave Ships
and Slaving, George F. Dow, ed., Cornell Maritime Press,
1754 Snelgrave, William
"A New Account of Guinea, and the Slave Trade" excerpted
in Slave Ships and Slaving, George F. Dow, ed., Cornell Maritime
Press, Cambridge, 1968.
1994 Tattersfield, Nigel
"An Account of the Slave Ship Henrietta Maria of London
1697-1700." Manuscript on file at Mel Fisher Maritime
Heritage Society, Key West, Florida.
a printable version in Acrobat PDF format, please click here.
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