Robert B. Forbes and Irish Famine Relief

Capt. Robert B. Forbes (1804-1889)

Capt. Robert B. Forbes (1804-1889)

On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1847, volunteers from the Boston Laborers Aid Society (consisting almost entirely of Irish immigrants) began the onerous task of loading thousands of barrels of provisions on board the USS Jamestown in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard.

The US Navy sloop-of-war had been loaned for private use. It would be the first time in United States history that a Naval vessel was placed under the command of a civilian master mariner for a private relief mission.[1] The specific purpose for which she had been loaned was to transport relief supplies to Ireland during the darkest days of the Great Hunger.

There had, of course, been tremendous concern in Boston, especially among Irish immigrants, over the terrible potato blight that struck Ireland in 1845, resulting in such starvation. During the winter of 1846-1847, the dismay spread beyond the Irish community to the Bostonian public at large after the potato crop failed (again) on a massive scale and Ireland endured one of its most brutal winters in memory, augmenting the suffering.[2]

A group of Boston businessmen pressed Congress to provide ships to transport supplies being gathered in Boston and New York. Congressman and former Speaker of the House Robert C. Winthrop of Boston led the legislative effort. On March 3, 1847, even as Congress was preoccupied with the Mexican War, a joint resolution passed both Houses and the Secretary of the Navy was authorized to release two vessels into relief service.[3] They were the USS Jamestown, then in Boston, and the USS Macedonian in New York.

The individual placed in command of the Jamestown in Boston was merchant Capt. Robert Bennet Forbes. Born in 1804 in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Forbes had been raised as a mariner from a young age. He was primarily engaged in the China Trade, having made his first voyage there at age 13. By the late 1830s, Robert Forbes was managing the largest American trading operation in China,  known as Russell & Co., and was heavily involved in the opium trade.[4] Forbes invested a good deal of his profits in shipbuilding and became one of the most active and prominent owners of merchant vessels in Boston. A man so successful, so experienced at sea, and so well connected with Boston’s elite made the logical choice for such a high profile voyage.

By March 27, 1847, the Jamestown was fully loaded, rigged, and ready for her voyage of mercy. She carried more than 8,000 barrels of flour, rice, cornmeal, bread, beans, ham, pork, peas and clothing.[5] Forbes would recall that he felt this voyage was payment of a long-standing debt. In his account of the venture, he wrote of the relief supplies shipped from Ireland in 1676, after New England was recovering from the devastating King Philip’s War. Coordinated by a Protestant minister in Dublin, Rev. Nathaniel Mather, the supplies were a godsend to many stricken communities. This relief effort was brought to Forbes’s attention through Rev. James Kendall of Plymouth, Massachusetts. With a businessman’s mentality, Forbes wrote,

The amount of the contributions of Irishmen in 1676, if calculated at compound interest, would amount to a sum so large that I dare not say how much we should still be indebted, after all New England has done and is doing, on that account. Having thus shown conclusively that we have not been paying in full an old debt, and that we have “cast our bread upon the waters” partly for the payment of an old debt and partly to plant in Irish hearts a debt which will, in future days, come back to us bearing fruit crowed with peace and good will…[6]

USS Jamestown arriving in Cobh by artist Rodney Charman

USS Jamestown arriving in Cobh by artist Rodney Charman

The Jamestown departed Boston on March 28, 1847. Her voyage was a swift 15 days, arriving in Cobh on April 12. The Jamestown was welcomed by cheering crowds, a band playing “Yankee Doodle” and numerous British and Irish dignitaries. Many an Irish poem would be written about the day the Jamestown arrived.

Forbes’s cargo began to be unloaded two days later. Breaking away from the speeches and dinners, Forbes met up with Father Theobald Mathew, a Catholic priest and reformer working to aid the poor and starving. Mathew brought him to the outskirts of Cobh, the poorer sections where Forbes could witness the true extent of the Famine. Of this Forbes wrote, “…the valley of the shadow of death was it? Alas, no, it was the valley of death and pestilence itself! I saw enough in five minutes, to horrify me—hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity; some called for water to Father Mathew, and others for a dying blessing.”[7]

On this expedition, Forbes made the grave but perfectly understandable mistake of trying to give away cash to the poor souls he saw in the streets. His generosity soon attracted a crowd, then what might be called a mob, struggling to obtain a  coin or two. They nearly overwhelmed him.

…Every corner of the streets is filled with pale care worn creatures, the weak leading and supporting the weaker, women assail you at every turn, with famished babes, imploring alms—and woe to the man who gives to them! I tried it! I gave sixpences, of which to the extent of a pound sterling I had provided myself; occasionally as pursued with Father Mathew in company, I cast a sixpence back to the crowd, and like the traveller who was pursued by hungry wolves, and who threw out a little something to distract their attention, I passed on at a quicker pace until I could find protection from the heart rending appeals of these poor creatures, by going into a store and finally escaping by the back door…[8]

Slightly more than a week after arriving, his cargo unloaded, Forbes ordered the Jamestown to prepare for the return trip to Boston. He asked Father Mathew to come with him, but Mathew responded, “I cannot leave while post while the people can make use of me.”

Robert B. Forbes House, Milton, Massachusetts, built 1833

Robert B. Forbes House, Milton, Massachusetts, built 1833, now a museum

The Jamestown arrived back in Boston on May 17, 1847. A friend wrote to Forbes, “I consider the mission of the Jamestown as one of the grandest events in the history of our country. A ship of war changed into an angel of mercy, departing on no errand of death, but with the bread of life to an unfortunate and perishing people. She carried with her the best wishes of millions, and it seemed as if Heaven particularly smiled upon you in your speedy passage out and your safe return.”

Despite the suffering he had seen, the good that he and other Bostonians had done, as well as the symbolic significance of the effort, would cause Forbes to write, “I shall ever look back on the voyage of the Jamestown as the happiest event in my life.”[9]

[1] Stephen Puleo, A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900, (2010), p. 62
[2] Edward Laxton, The Famine Ships, (1996), p. 49
[3] Robert B. Forbes, The Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy, (1847), p. v
[4] Dong Wang, The United States and China: A History from the Eighteenth Century to the Present, (2013), p. 50
[5] Laxton, p. 51
[6] Forbes, p. v
[7] Forbes, p. 22
[8] Forbes, p. 23
[9] Puleo, p. 63

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

6 responses to “Robert B. Forbes and Irish Famine Relief

  • thehistorylist

    Thank you for this post. Very interesting. I knew of the relief we sent to Ireland, but not the relief we received from them 170 years earlier.

  • Louisa May Alcatt

    thank you. I knew none of this but have been to the famine graves in Ireland, devastating to know that country can nearly starve to death, LMA

  • James Thaddeus

    Excellent article. The Robert Forbes House Museum is at 215 Adams St, in Milton, and the grounds are open to the public free of charge daily from dawn to dusk. For free, during the day you can see a replica of Lincoln’s log cabin that’s outside, in the backyard – this was built in 1923 by Forbes’ granddaughter, because Robert Forbes was a big Union supporter who helped finance the 54th Mass. Infantry Regiment and who built gunboats for the Union Navy during the Civil War. Tours of the Museum’s interior are available via a per person fee and a call to (617) 696-1815 for a reservation.

  • Jim Dwyer

    Patrick: Eye-opening, as usual. You find these little lost historical nuggets and make them to shine. Thanks so much.

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