and America’s First Humanitarian Mission
There has been a seething hatred between the Irish people and the British government for more years than anyone can remember. Undoubtedly, a major cause is what happened to the Irish people during the potato famine in the late 1840s and how the English bureaucrats allowed men, woman and children to literally starve to death. Eyewitness accounts testify that the starvation occurred while food that was grown in Ireland was being shipped to England. Starving men were made to load grains on to ships as their families withered and died.
Despite impassioned pleas to the British authorities from Irish clergy, in particular Father Theobald Mathew, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that the foolish Irish got themselves into the famine and they should help themselves out. Father Mathew wrote a letter to Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary at the British Treasury, the man responsible for famine relief efforts. The famine raged on. Trevelyan believed the famine was a way of reducing the excess Irish population. Father Mathew wrote in a letter to Charles Trevelyan, “I am grieved to be obliged to tell you that the distress is universal. Men, women and children are gradually wasting away.” In another letter to Secretary Trevelyan pleading for aid, Father Mathew described the “5,000 half-starved wretched beings from the country” who were begging on the streets of Cork City. In his book Voyage of Mercy, (St Marten’s Press) Stephen Puleo describes a letter to the Times of London, in which Nicolas Cummings wrote, “I approached with horror, and found children, a woman, and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the detail.” He wrote, “I was surrounded by at least 200 such phantoms, such frightful specters as no word can describe the suffering either from famine or from fever. The demonic yells are still ringing in my years and their horrible images are fixed upon my brain.”
When word of the devastation reached the United States, a remarkable reaction occurred. Americans of all descents emphasized with the Irish and took action. This despite a rampant distrust and dislike of those Irish immigrants who had already escaped the famine. It was not uncommon to see signs offering employment or room rental with the caveat, “Irish need not apply.” Meanwhile in Ireland and England, landowners, the wealthy and bureaucrats enjoyed lavish meals oblivious to the starvation among their poor countrymen.
In America, veteran sea Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and his brother, John Murray Forbes formed the New England Relief Committee including Boston Mayor, Josiah Quincy, Jr., Andrew Carney (founder of Carney Hospital), Edward Everett (Massachusetts Governor and President of Harvard University), Major North Ludlow Beamish, Irish military writer, and Reverend Theobald Mathew, a Catholic priest and social reformer in Ireland. In total, the committee had 21 members with 8 business sponsors.
Most Reverend John Bernard Fitzpatrick, Bishop of Boston, formed the Relief Association for Ireland which collected funds from both Protestant and Catholic churches from across the region. By January of 1847, as the word spread, particularly in Boston, a group Boston businessman partitioned Congress to allow them to use a warship to deliver vitally need food to Ireland. President James K. Polk approved the resolution. In a period of three weeks, the committee had raised more than $150,000 dollars under the leadership of Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. As word spread, more and more people and businesses chipped in. The children of Boston collected pennies, churches took up donations, labor societies contributed manpower and noted speakers such as Daniel Webster helped bring the plight of the starving Irish to National attention.
Captain Robert Bennet Forbes with his brother John petitioned Congress and were able to get the release of two US Naval sloops to their use in transporting the rescue supplies to Ireland. USS Jamestown was the first to be made ready to sail to Ireland with its cargo of food.
Working without pay, Captain Forbes and his crew crossed the ocean in just 15 days. They arrived at the Irish seaport town of Cobh in County Cork, on April 12th, 1847.
Stephen Puleo writing in the Globe Magazine, Feb 5th, 2020, wrote of the voyage, “Sheets of cold rain lashed the decks of the USS Jamestown and gale-force winds battered the three-masted American sloop of war through the swells of the North Atlantic. Captain Robert Bennet Forbes barked orders as his energetic but the inexperienced crew scrambled to haul up the mainsail, a daunting task on this moonless night of raging seas on April 2, 1847. Weak light leaked from deck lanterns, but beyond the ship’s raised prow and forward riggings, the darkness was total — ’ black as Erebus,’ as Forbes described it in the captain’s log, referring to the mythological netherworld that serves as the passageway to Hades.
For the sixth straight day since leaving the Charlestown Navy Yard, the ship and its crew were pounded by miserable weather as they fought their way toward Ireland. Snow, sleet, hail, and cold rendered all ropes ‘stiff as crowbars . . . and the men also,’ Forbes wrote. Wind and waves left the Jamestown, despite her solid oak frame, ‘bounding like an antelope” and unable to carry as much sail as he wished. Dense wet fog rendered visibility to near zero. Snow slickened the ship’s decks, crew members lurched with seasickness, ice floes hampered passage, and worst of all, the Jamestown leaked badly, at times taking on as much as 10 inches of water an hour. Most of the water poured through the rudder case in the wardroom when the sea rose aft or the ship settled. Crew members were forced to pump often and, finally, bore holes in the wardroom deck to allow water to run off into the hold.’
As midnight approached, the wind howled and every rope froze, but Forbes, a 42-year-old merchant and ship owner from Boston, remained unflappable in the captain’s chair, determined to reach his destination ahead of schedule. Forbes and his crew were delivering tons of donated food to Ireland during the terrible famine year of 1847, and he was resolute in the righteousness of his mission. He had convinced the United States government to loan him a warship, persuaded Americans to donate food, and volunteered to lead this voyage that took him thousands of miles from hearth and family.”
Forbes was shocked by what he saw in County Cork. The starvation, deprivation and suffering amounted to nothing less than genocide perpetrated on the Irish people by British bureaucrats. Captain Forbes observed firsthand the starving and dying in the alleys and hovels of Cork. He wrote, “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 the still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity.” As soon as Captain Forbes arrived back in Boston, he began preparing for a return trip on the USS Macedonian. On July 28th he sailed into Cobh with a shipload of 5,000 barrels of corn donated by Bostonians. In all, in today’s dollars, they sent some $7 million dollars’ worth of aid.
Ironically, the Irish had sent aid to America in 1676. The sailing vessel Katherine sailed from Dublin with foodstuffs and other provisions to rescue the starving people of the Massachusetts Bay and the Plymouth colonies during the King Philips War also known as the First Indian War.
Captain Forbes’ humanitarian efforts were recognized by the people of Ireland with a grand banquet, ironically overflowing with food and wine. In Milton Massachusetts, there is the Forbes Museum Inspired by the Forbes family legacy of entrepreneurship, social action and philanthropy, the Forbes House Museum fosters discourse around civic engagement and cultural awareness. https://www.forbeshousemuseum.org.
The USS Jamestown had a varied career having been commission and decommissioned several times. USS Jamestown was a sloop of war. She also served as a hospital ship. She displaced 1,150 tons, was 163 feet long with a beam of 32feet 2 inches. She drew 17 ft 3 inches and had a crew of 163 offices and sailors.
Captain Robert Forbes returned the USS Jamestown to the Federal government in Boston. He wrote, “This expedition will always be remembered in the history of philanthropy.”
He believed it was the greatest accomplishment of his life. Certainly, it was an incredible story. A testimony to the best of the human spirit.