Saturday, October 30, 2010

Horror On The High Seas: Bilboes

The horror continues here at Triple P as we make our way to your humble hostess’ favorite holiday, Halloween. Today we will talk about a form of restraint commonly used at sea that could easily morph into a device of miserable torture when used with malice.

Bilboes are not to be confused with bilbo. Bilbo, at least at sea, was a term for a flexible Spanish cutlass and was an English corruption of Bilboa, the city where the best of these swords were made in the days of the great Armada.

A bilboe proper was a long iron bar on which shackles could be fixed singly, in pairs or, technically, as many as would fit on the bar itself. A lock would then be secured at the end of the bar and a prisoner or prisoners could be thusly subdued without the necessity for chains and shackles being fixed to anything, particularly aboard ship. For the most part the offender would sit with his legs straight out and the shackles around each ankle rather like one might see prisoners in the stocks on a pillory by land. In the navies of the Golden Age of sail and beyond, men awaiting punishments such as flogging or hanging would be thus confined. A man could also be sentenced to the bilboes for a specific amount of time as punishment outright.

The arrangement could be made more onerous for the prisoner by increasing the weight of the iron bar. This is alluded to in sentencing by the “ponderousness of the bilboe”. Heavy bilboes applied for long periods could crush ankles and made even simple movements impossible. Relieving ones self would surely have been uncomfortable and shameful all at the same time. The use of bilboes by land had become fairly common by the 17th century as pictured above from an article on colonial punishments at Shakespeare even has Hamlet musing about a sleepless night where “… methought, I lay Worse than the mutines in the bilboes.”

Bilboes predictably devolved into a form of torture, whether that is how they were perceived by those who applied them or not. As noted in Thursday’s post, they were used liberally as a form of punishment on transport ships bound from Britain first for the Americas and then finally Australia. Some Captains and officers aboard the notorious “hell ships” like Britannia, kept prisoners in bilboes in their holds for the entire seven to ten month voyage. They were easier to ignore that way and it saved the ship cash in provisions to starve them outright. Of course, the same sort of treatment befell Africans subjected to the misery of the Middle Passage. Though there were ships where freedom of movement, at least in the hold, was allowed, “close packing” virtually required some form of restraint and bilboes were the most efficient.

Pirates took advantage of these easy to use devices as well. The Barbary corsairs were known to keep their galley slave secured in bilboes. Buccaneers and Golden Age pirates used bilboes for securing prisoners, usually in the holds of prizes. Frequently the prize had more men aboard then the pirate, and subduing the enemy was a priority upon boarding. In The Journal of James Yonge, written at the end of the 17th century, the author writes that when the ship he was on was overrun by pirates the crew was locked in bilboes in the hold almost immediately. They were kept chained for weeks in undoubtedly uncomfortable conditions but Yonge notes pragmatically:

What seemed cruel was keeping us so long in shackles but that was necessary, for they were but 16 to our 46.

Given the probable misery of the situation, Yonge seems almost innocently forgiving.

Thus, a happy Saturday to you Brethren. Let’s all of us who have it be thankful for our freedom.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I can only imagine how much worse it would be in rough seas... Hey, freedom isn't free, Pirate Queen.

Oh, wait, you knew that already. Nevermind.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yep; you have to imagine more than one leg was broken during a heavy lurch. And as to freedom yes, I have heard it spoken of.