Noun plural. Mid-16th century.
Historical An iron bar with sliding shackles for confining the ankles of prisoners.
The soft and friendly sounding bilboes (always used in the plural) is a word that utterly belies its true nature: an instrument of restraint, punishment, control and humiliation, used in England and America during the colonial and revolutionary periods on prisoners, criminals and slaves. They have been recovered from wrecked slave ships, including the Henrietta Marie which sank in 1700 on its return to England from delivering slaves to Jamaica. 80 sets of bilboes were recovered, which are thought to have been used to bind 160 slaves together, one set for two people.
There seems to be some confusion regarding the origin of the word bilboes, with some references definitely stating it's a corruption of Bilbao in Spain (the supposed city of origin), some suggesting this as a possible origin, and the Oxford English Dictionary stating categorically that it's a word of unknown origin. It's possible such confusion arises from the similar sounding word bilbo (plural bilbos or bilboes), a type of sword that does originate in Bilbao. Regardless, the word bilboes (as a restraint) evidently predates the Spanish production, and thus it would seem that the OED is right on this one - it's a word whose origins are something of a mystery, even if its cruel use and application is not.
|"The Coalition in the Bilboes or the Sufferings of the Blue and Buff, for Going Out of Their Proper Track"|
by an unknown artist, displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London