Spawned by a dive to the Douro in July 2021, this article explores the history and mystery of the shipwreck of the Douro, captained by Thomas Gowland, which sank in 1843 off the Isles of Scilly. The Douro, suspected of carrying manillas used in the slave trade despite slavery being abolished in the UK in 1807, was lost in heavy weather with all hands. Divers later discovered artefacts, including manillas, raising questions about the ship’s cargo and activities. This article details the ship’s construction, voyage, wreck, and the subsequent discovery of its remains. It also questions whether the location of the Douro at Round Rock is indeed the Douro at all or the Custos.

The Dive

Tom Bryer was my buddy for this dive; this was a memorable dive for all concerned. Skipper Dave McBride showed us all several  “manillas” earlier in the week that had been found on this wreck site. Indeed, Dave was also talking about small arms, which are also supposed to be on the wreck site. With most of the divers on the trip interested in historic wreck diving, it seemed a great opportunity not to miss. Today was a gorgeous summer day with flat, calm seas and just whispers of clouds in the sky.

Immersed in the underwater world, we were greeted by an incredible 10 to 15 metres of visibility, with a misty haze in the distance, adding a touch of mystery to our adventure. At 13 degrees Celsius, the water was the perfect temperature for our dive.

My reliable companion for this dive was Tom Bryer. Our joint mission was to discover some Manillas. As we descended, we were welcomed by the kelp-filled gullies, and it was a straightforward search in the sandy bottom. I was overjoyed to spot one of the anchors, one of five if this site is indeed the Douro. Did we find any Manillas? Well, as the saying goes, ask no questions, and we shall tell no lies.

Divers on the Douro wrecksite
Divers on the Douro wrecksite

One of the problems of diving on the Scillies is that there is no O2 for Nitrox. As Tom was on the air, he signalled to surface while I still had 44 minutes of NDL. I would have stayed down there for hours, and I would love to go back to this site.

One minor hiccup was when I was supposed to deploy my DSMB. However, the reel jammed, signalling ‘broken’ to Tom. In a true display of teamwork, we had to think on our feet, and a crucial skill, we had two options: deploy my secondary or ask Tom to deploy his. In the end, it was a smooth ascent, with Boyles Law and Daltons Law playing their amusing games with my CCR. Tom’s pointing to the shot behind, tactile reference in the midst of the dive, a testament to our problem-solving abilities in diving.

What Anchor Is This?

The Story Unfolds

Uncertainty surrounds the fate of the Douro, a Liverpool ship that sank in 1843 off Round Rock, Isles of Scilly. This occurred 36 years after Britain prohibited its ships from participating in the slave trade.
The vessel was reportedly en route to Portugal at the time of its sinking, transporting textiles and munitions. Divers have since uncovered numerous manillas—bronze, bracelet-like tokens—at the wreck site. These tokens were historically used as currency to exchange for enslaved individuals in West Africa.
The discovery of manillas in the Douro wreck implies that the ship might have been engaged in illicit slave trading or was carrying supplies for this prohibited activity.

Alongside the Emma Graham, a snow brig called the Douro was loading in Liverpool during December 1847. Thomas Gowland, master of the Douro, set sail. Then on 28th January 1843, destination Oporto, the Douro, was wrecked on the western islands of the Isles of Scilly in fog and heavy weather, having started to leak. Conspiracy surrounds the Douro as she is suspected of carrying slave trading Manilla, the slave trade abolished in the UK in 1807. All souls perished that winter’s evening, Gowland’s body buried on the island of St Mary’s.

The Douro

The Douro was a snow brig, a square-rigged sailing vessel with two masts. Specifically, a snow brig has a mainmast and a foremast, with an additional small trysail mast (or snow mast) located immediately behind the mainmast. This configuration allowed the ship to carry more sails and handle better in different wind conditions than other two-masted vessels.

Douro Tee Shirt Logo
Model of a Snow Brig
A model of a Snow, similar in design to the Douro.

Official number 1153, the Douro was built in April 1839 and launched in September of that year. The building survey number 1441 from the Lloyds Register foundation dated 4th October 1839 shows her as a “Snow” brig. She was not a schooner, as reported in the news of the era. The ship was built in Sunderland, with the master recorded as Thomas Gowland and voyages destined for Oporto. She had five anchors: three Bower anchors weighing 10.5, 10.0 and 9.5 tons, one Stream anchor weighing 4 tons and one Kedge anchor weighing 1.5 tons.

Bower Anchor

A Bower anchor is one of the primary anchors carried on a ship. It is typically used for anchoring the vessel in open water. These anchors are usually the most significant and robust on a vessel and are designed to provide the maximum holding power. Bower anchors are commonly stored at the ship’s bow and used when the vessel needs to be securely moored in various sea conditions. Here are some key characteristics of a Bower anchor:

  1. Size and Weight: Bower anchors are typically larger and heavier than other anchors on the ship to ensure a firm hold.
  2. Position: They are stowed on either side of the bow, hence the name “Bower” anchors.
  3. Design: Bower anchors, with their traditional feature of flukes (the broad, flat arms) that dig into the seabed to secure the ship, have a rich history. All aim to maximise holding power, a testament to the continuous evolution of these essential maritime tools. Modern designs, while they can.
  4. Usage: Bower anchors are the first choice for anchoring the ship under normal circumstances, with one often deployed at a time to secure the vessel.

Stream Anchor

A stream anchor is a type of secondary anchor, typically smaller than the primary Bower anchors, used for additional anchoring options or in specific conditions where a smaller, lighter anchor is sufficient. Here are some key characteristics and uses of a stream anchor:

  1. Size and Weight: Stream anchors are generally lighter and smaller than Bower anchors, making them easier to deploy and retrieve when a full-sized anchor is unnecessary.

  2. Purpose: They are often used in calm waters, such as rivers or streams, hence the name. They can also be employed when the vessel is moored close to shore or in shallow waters where a large anchor might be impractical or unnecessary.

  3. Position: While Bower anchors are positioned at the bow, stream anchors can be deployed from various locations on the ship, including the stern or sides, depending on the specific need.

  4. Supplemental Use: Stream anchors provide additional security when more than one anchor is required, such as when a ship needs to remain in a fixed position despite changing tides or currents.

Kedge Anchor

A kedge anchor is a small, light anchor used primarily for specific purposes, such as temporarily manoeuvring a vessel in confined areas or anchoring. Here are some key features and uses of a kedge anchor:

  1. Size and Weight: Kedge anchors, designed for ease of handling and deployment, are smaller and lighter than primary (Bower) anchors. This characteristic is crucial for quick adjustments or when the anchor needs to be moved frequently, enhancing the efficiency of maritime operations.

  2. Purpose and Usage:

    • Manoeuvring: Kedge anchors are often used for kedging, a process in which the anchor is carried from the ship in a small boat and dropped at a desired location. The ship can then be hauled toward the anchor by pulling in the anchor line. This technique helps move a ship in or out of a tight spot or to deeper water.
    • Temporary Mooring: Kedge anchors, a reliable and secure anchoring solution, are used for temporary mooring when a quick and secure anchoring solution is required, ensuring the safety of the vessel and its crew.
    • Stabilisation: In some cases, kedge anchors are deployed to stabilise a vessel against currents or winds without needing the more prominent primary anchors.
  3. Deployment: Kedge anchors can be deployed from the bow, stern, or sides of a vessel, depending on the specific needs of the situation.

Her Final Voyage

The Douro was cited as “loading goods” in late December 1842 in Liverpool, which was her last voyage. Newspaper articles of the era state that she was carrying baled goods of cotton and hemp from Manchester. Two ships were loading for Oporto that month, the other being the Emma Graham. Both ships departed Liverpool, the Emma Graham a little earlier than the Douro and Liverpool export documents of the era state that cargo destined from Liverpool to Oporto was:

  • 1 crt 1 hd eware
  • 9 bls baize
  • 2 bls 28 cs 35 bxs 28 trs cotton
  • 1 prcl s bls wolns
  • 49 t hoop iron
  • 106 bxs 29 bls cotns & linen

The question is whether this “hoop iron” is a pseudonym for “Manillas” or indeed hoop iron for wine barrels?

Although the Emma Graham made it to Oporto, the Duro was lost on the evening of 28th January 1843.

On 28th January 1843, the weather on the Isles of Scilly was marked by dense fog and rough seas. According to contemporary reports, the ship encountered severe weather conditions and began taking on water. In response, the crew decided to navigate towards the Isles of Scilly to find safety or make necessary repairs. Unfortunately, the ship floundered in fog and struck rocks near Bishop Rock, ultimately leading to the tragedy where the Douro floundered and sank, resulting in the loss of all on board.

The British Newspaper Archive has several entries in late January 1843 and early February 1843 reporting a devastating shipwreck off the Isles of Scilly on 28th January called the “Douro”. The ship, en route from Liverpool to Oporto, began to leak and attempted to make its way to England. Tragically, it foundered in fog near the Bishop Rock Lighthouse, built in 1858. These articles state the ship’s log was found a few days after the sinking, a grim reminder of the lives lost in this maritime disaster.

The newspaper articles also state that the Douro was carrying a cargo of bales of cotton and hemp. More so, all souls perished that evening, with some three or four bodies recovered the next day. Of these bodies, one was known to be a Thomas Gowland from the “TG” initials on his shirt and ship’s name tattooed on his hand.

There is a burial record of the parish of St Marys in the Isles of Scilly, dated 1843. Page 61 and record 487 states that two men, names unknown, were brought from the Douro wreck on St Agnes. An addendum states that one of the bodies was Thomas Gowland, captain of the Douro. The date of burial was 30 January 1843.

"SCILLY, Jan. 30. - The Douro, Gowland from Liverpool to Oporto, and a vessel of about 400 tones, were wrecked on the Western Rocks, 28th inst. Five bodies have been picked up. One of them has marked on the shirt and on the left arm T.G., supposed to be intended for T. Gowland. Several bales of cotton twist, printed goods and bundles of hemp are on the rocks. The bale of twist is maked K in a diamond, 83 2, and some of the bundles of cotten “Queeb Sheer Mills,: S and B, 24, Manchester; a great many planks and broken cases have also been picked up."

"WRECK OF THE DOURO OF LIVERPOOL - ALL HANDS LOST. This vessel, registered at 400 tons burthen, with a valuable cargo on board, was totally lost, with all her crew, on the night of Thursday last, the 28th January, upon the rocks of the westward of the Scilly islands. On Saturday, the 28th, the log book was found about two miles from the spot where the ship struck, from which it appears that she was bound to Oporto, and had reached a number of miles to the westward of the island, when a severe leak being discovered, obliged the crew to put her back, and was no doubt making all possible haste to England when the said disaster occured"

Who is Thomas Gowland?

Having started to research him via ancestry websites, it isn’t proving easy. There are records of a plethora of Thomas Gowlands around the Durham and Sunderland areas of the era, many of them mariners. I believe our Thomas Gowland was born on 20th Match 1812, which puts him aged 32 at the time of his death. We know that the captain of the Douro was Thomas Gowland, as written on the survey record, and we know he is memorialised in Sunderland.

We found a £1,500.00 probate bond DPRI/3/1843/A14 dated December 1843 for Thomas Gowland, master mariner. It states he died at sea on 28th January 1843. His wife at the time was Mary Pope, who he married on 17th August 1833, and she was in Sunderland at the time of his death. We believe Thomas is memorialised at the Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland, County Durham. We found a burial record in the Sunderland district:

Location: Sunderland, County Durham. Church: Holy Trinity. Denomination: Anglican Detail: 9 Mar 1843, Thomas Gowland, of Woodbine St, Bishopwearmouth, age: 31, died 27 Jan 1843, shipmaster, Master of the Ship "Douro" lost off the Scilly Isles with all crew on January 27th 1843.

Thomas Gowland Probate bond 21 Dec 1843

With a date of birth of 1912 and marriage date of 1833, that puts him at 21 years old when he married. Within the 10 years of marrige, we do not think Thomas and Mary had children. Mary married John Rogerson on 7th September 1843 and had one daughter, Elizabeth Rogerson, in the 1851 Census. One thing is for sure: Thomas died on that fateful date and memorialised in Sunderland, he is laid to rest in the cemetery and, is next to St Mary’s Old Church, Old Town, St Marys. He was buried on 31st January 1843.


Manillas were a form of currency used extensively in West Africa, particularly during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. These bracelet-like objects, made from copper or brass, were introduced by European traders and used as money to trade for goods and slaves. The Portuguese were among the first to use manillas in the 15th century, and their use spread with the rise of the transatlantic slave trade. Manillas varied in size and design, and their value depended on material, size, and the demand for slaves and goods. It was not wholly reserved for slave trading but was undoubtedly a unit of currency. The manillas on the Douro were manufactured in Birmingham. But here’s the twist! Slavery was abolished in the UK in 1807, while the Douro sank in 1843.

So, was Thomas Gowland illegally trading and shipping Manillas some 36 years later? Is the “hoop iron” such metal bands which circled barrels of brandy and wine (as per the trades/routes to and from Oporto which the Douro was making) or, as I write, a pseudonym for Manillas? These two questions are certainly not conclusive.

Slave Trade Manillas

These are bronze manillas or slave tokens recovered from the wreck of the schooner Douro, which struck Round Rock and sank in the Isles of Scilly in 1843. Measuring 60mm (2.4 inches) across, these tokens were valued at one slave each. There were also more significant variants known as Prince, Queen, and King manillas, which were significantly more extensive and worth 25, 50, and 100 slaves respectively.

The trade of slaves had been ongoing for many years, bringing substantial wealth, particularly to England. Local Chiefs on the Slave Coast of West Africa captured natives from various tribes and traded them for numerous goods, including manillas. Manufactured in Birmingham between 1830 and 1850, manillas were shipped to Benin on the Slave Coast and exchanged for one slave each. These captives were then transported to the West Indies, generating vast profits if they survived the journey.


The BSAC Scuba Magazine, dated December 2020, features maritime archaeologist Mallory Haas. She was part of the team in the BBC2 series Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson. The full article starts on page 42 with specific reference to the Douro, and the Custos are found on page 45.

In the Samual Jackson documentary Enslaved (available on BBC iPlayer), around 26 minutes into the episode, they dive into the wreck site that they call the Douro. Further into the Scillies piece, they interview Terry Hiron, who says he discovered the Douro in 1972. He says he “lifted” “two or three tons of manillas”, “piles, about four foot high”, and “enough to fill this shed.” The question is that the Liverpool manifest cites 49 “t” (ton?) of hoop iron. If Terry only found 2 or 3 tons, where are the other circa 45 tons? That is, if indeed “hoop iron” is the covert name for Manillas. Was the Emma Graham also carrying Manillas? Also, what happened to the 2 or 3 tons that Terry recovered, I wonder? We know that some are for sale on eBay.
If Terry found the Douro as he claims, how did he specifically identify the wreckage as the Douro? If the newspaper archives are saying the Douro was carrying cotton and hemp from Manchester and Terry Hiron says he lifted two to three tons of manillas, why are manillas not listed in the newspaper reports? One theory could be that only bales of cotton and hemp were found as flotsam and that the manillas obviously sank. But surely the journalists of the time would have queried the ship’s cargo manifest? Thus, how did Terry identify the wreck as the Douro? In the programme, Terry shows off a number of artefacts from the dive site, including a razor and silver cutlery, and there is a discussion of the comparable value of the Manillas and silverware in human terms. We know that Thomas has initials embroidered into his shirt as this was used to identify his body and it is said he had a tattoo of the ship’s name, so surely these silverware items will have borne the initials or names of either Gowland himself or the name of the ship? This raises the need for further investigation to uncover the truth.I am saying that I still have doubts about the wreck site being the Douro. More than likely, it is, but this is not conclusive, and I would like to dive into her again. As we found just one anchor, where are the other four? These uncertainties underline the need for a more conclusive confirmation of the identity of the wreck site.Could it be that both the Douro and the Custos floundered in the exact same location? Only more diving will tell.

The Custos

Interestingly, some divers on the Isles of Scilly state that the ship we dived was called the Custos and was sunk thirteen years later on 28th August 1856. However, I’m not convinced. Little is known of the Custos, other than it was built in 1854, its official number is 1965, and Wikipedia says it sank off “Creen Rock” in 1856. Creen Rock is not on any map and I wonder if Creen Rock is a typo of Crim Rock. Crim Rock being further north of Round Rock and Little Crebawethan.
Newspaper archives of the era confirm the Custos sank on 28th August 1856. Wikipedia and some newspapers say she was en route from Liverpool to the Kingdom of Bonny in Africa. Bonny is a port town located in Rivers State, Nigeria, in West Africa. It lies on the eastern side of the Niger Delta, near the Bonny River. Bonny has historically been an important centre for maritime trade, particularly during the Atlantic slave trade era. So, there is a potential link to manillas. However, additional research is needed here. It is rumoured that the Custos were sailing with goods of manillas, though like the Douro, not what the newspapers reported. Although I cannot find any information on the Custos’ manifest, loading or sailing from Liverpool, it is said she was carrying quantities of soap, gunpowder and probably tobacco.
Liverpool Albion - 28th September 1856

"SCILLY, Aug 29. The Custos from Liverool for Africa was wrecked yesterday, on the Creen Rock, crew saved. About thirty-one barrels of gunpowder, some boxes of soap, etc, have been saved"

Liverpool Daily Post - Wednesday 29 October 1856

“Falmouth. Oct. 25. “On the 23rd a quantity of leaf tobacco and some fragments of casks marked H Y and M. and branded Liverpool. 1856-10174 CL 48. On one piece was branded Yemass, 1855 - Liverpool - Mem. This tobacco is probably part of the cargo of the Custos Liverpool to Bony, wrecked."

Conflicting Reports

Two conflicting pieces on Wikipedia and manillas openly for sale on eBay, citing the Custos at Round Rock. Is it possible that the Custos were initially wrecked on Crim but settled on Round Rock? The date of the Custos sinking was August 28th, which would be good weather (one would think). Could the Custos have hit Crim and limped to Round Rock? That would be an exciting twist. It would then put the Douro on Little Credawethan.

“1843: 28th January — The English wooden schooner Douro wrecked on Crebawethan with the loss of all her crew while out from Liverpool for Oporto with a cargo of bailed goods, armoury and brass stops (later determined in the 1970s to be horseshoe shaped manillas or bracelets used as tokens in the slave trade). All her crew was lost and five seamen including the master are buried in St Mary's churchyard."

1856: 28th August — Liverpool full-rigger Custos ( United Kingdom) sank within ten minutes after hitting the Crim Rocks. She was carrying brandy, rum, gunpowder and soap, most of which was lost.[3] She was also carrying Manillas, Muskets, and Barrels of Musket flints as stated in an auction of her cargo on St Marys Island, reported in the-West Briton Newspaper 19/9/1856. These remains can be found around Round Rock currently misidentified as the Douro."

"On sale here are 3 Slave tokens in the form of 2 blue glass beads and a brass manilla from the wreck of the illegal slave trader Custos-(previously and wrongly known as the Douro)These artefacts were salvaged from the wreck site by my wife and I in 2004. These items were declared to the Receiver of Wreck when found and have thus been issued with an official droit number. These items were found on the sea bed at Round Rock among the western rocks, here in the Isles of Scilly; at a wreck that has always been believed by many to be the 'Douro' which sank in 1843; therefore these items were declared under that ship name. However, my more recent research points towards a different culprit entirely called the ‘Custos’ which sank in a similar place a little later in 1856. This ship was indeed an illegal slave trader on its way to Nigeria that was clearly still operating years after the abolition of slavery in England in 1808. As I understand it a single manilla was worth one slave and a single bead was worth 7 slaves. Appalling when you think about it but that's history and here are a few tangible pieces of that terrible time."

Suffice to say, the problem is that our dive site’s location was Round Rock, and the Douro was reportedly sunk on Little Crebawethan. We thus have two ships (Douro and Custos) in three locations (Round Rock, Crim Rock and Little Crebawethan. So that, on the face of it, nothing is conclusive. However, there is undoubtedly mystery here that needs unravelling. While the fishermen found the wreckage and bodies on Little Crebawethan, perhaps the wreck site on Round Rock is the Douro? Or part of the Douro? Or part of the Douro and the Custos?


Cargo and Illegal Trade: The Douro, a vessel of significant historical importance, was laden with a diverse cargo. Its precious contents were cotton, hemp, hoop iron (likely manillas), and small arms. Intriguingly, the manillas were used as currency in the slave trade, hinting at the persistence of illegal trading activities even after the British abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. This illicit commerce was particularly rampant in regions where slavery still thrived, such as Brazil and Cuba.

Discovery of the Wreck: The wreck of the Douro was discovered much later in the 20th century. Divers found various artefacts, including manillas and small arms, which confirmed the ship’s cargo and the nature of its trade.

Identification of Thomas Gowland: Captain Thomas Gowland’s body was identified by the initials “TG” on his shirt and a tattoo of the ship’s name on his hand. This helped confirm his identity and provide closure regarding his fate.

Impact of the Weather: The dense fog and rough seas on January 28, 1843, played a crucial role in the ship’s demise. These conditions made navigation difficult and contributed to the Douro striking the rocks near Bishop Rock.

Memorials and Burial: While Thomas Gowland is memorialised in Sunderland, his body was buried in the cemetery adjacent to Old Town Church on St. Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly. His burial took place on 30th January 1843, shortly after his body was recovered following the shipwreck. The grave is in the cemetery adjacent to Old Town Church on St. Mary’s. This distinction highlights the practice of erecting memorials in a person’s hometown, even if they were buried elsewhere.

Douro or Custos: There is a certain mystery here to unravel. Was the Douro an innocent victim of misidentification. Was it indeed the Custos that we dived? If so, then the Douro possibly remains undiscovered.

And Finally

The figurehead from the Douro shipwreck was recovered and is now displayed at the Shipwreck Treasure Museum in Charlestown, Cornwall. This museum also houses numerous artefacts from the Douro, including the undeclared cargo of manillas, textiles, small arms, and various ship fittings. The museum showcases these artefacts to tell the broader story of maritime history and the tragic events surrounding the Douro’s sinking.

What Next?

Get back to the site we dived and logged as the Douro. For starters, let’s find that anchor again and measure it. Let’s also see if we can get to Crim Rock to dive into the perceived site of the Custos. Head to Sunderland and visit the memorial to Thomas Gowland and his grave in St Mary’s. Of course, pop into the Shipwreck Treasure Museum and research the Custos more. Pop over to Crim Rock and take a plunge there. Update this blog.

Last Updated

24th June 2024