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Captain Ben Forbes & the Errand of Mercy

Captain Robert Bennet (Ben) Forbes (1804 –1889) commanded the USS Jamestown during America’s first international relief effort, bringing food to County Cork during the Irish Potato Famine.

The “Great Famine,” as it was called within Ireland, was initially caused by a potato blight, which infected crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. However, the effect of the blight was exacerbated by the country’s dependence on this single crop and by the British government’s economic policy of laissez-faire capitalism. Landlords had encouraged their tenants to plant potatoes for their own use so that they could sell the more lucrative produce such as butter, milk, and grain products. In fact, the great majority of potatoes were of a single variety, the Irish Lumper, which was especially susceptible to the blight.

The Conservative party under the leadership of Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel repealed the Corn Laws, which were tariffs on grain which kept the price of bread high. The famine worsened to the point that the repeal has little effect. The measure split the Conservative Party and Peel was forced to resign. The Whig leader, Lord John Russell, became prime minister. The Whigs generally abstained from interfering in the workings of the free market, known as laissez-faire, and they believed that the market would provide the food needed. As a result, Charles Trevelyan, assistant secretary for relief efforts at the British Treasury, worked to limit the British food aid program.

In December, 1846, Father Theobald Mathew of County Cork, Ireland, wrote to Trevelyan several times to beg for assistance for his destitute parishioners. In his fifth letter, he wrote “I am grieved to be obliged to tell you that the distress is universal. Men, women, and children are gradually wasting away.”

"Scene At Skibbereen Cork" by James Mahony, 1847.

In January 1847, ships began arriving in the United States from Ireland with news of the famine. Scotch-Irish President James Knox Polk (1795 – 1849) established a bipartisan Committee for the Relief of the Suffering Poor of lreland that was chaired by Vice President Dallas and consisted of national political luminaries including Webster and fellow senators Calhoun (South Carolina),JohnJ. Crittenden (Kentucky), Lewis Cass (Michigan), and Simon Cameron (Pennsylvania), a

s well as three dozen more lawmakers, lawyers, and business leaders.

He arranged a public meeting at Odd Fellows Hall in Washington, DC, on February 9, 1847, to present the Committee’s recommendations. The keynote speaker was statesman Daniel Webster (1782 – 1852). Webster proclaimed that “A famine, bringing want and distress on a great portion of a whole people, is unprecedented in Christendom in this age.” He affirmed that “The calamities of Ireland have been heard and read throughout the country, and have touched all American hearts.” The next morning, the Washington committee dispatched a letter, signed by Webster and several others, to mayors in Boston, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, officially requesting them to organizing donations on behalf of Irish relief.

Poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 – 1892) submitted a letter in the February 11, 1847, edition of the Boston Courier, stating that “The head is sick and the heart is faint in view of this dreadful apocalypse of woe. Wise legislation in the past might have prevented the great calamity ... but our duty to relieve present suffering is none the less imperative." He called for a public meeting to organize Boston's response. Two days later, the Boston Atlas called for a meeting of at Faneuil Hall, and that “Something must be done-done promptly, substantially, and effectively.”

Captain Robert Bennet (Ben) Forbes

Whittier himself was the keynote speaker at that meeting on February 18, 1847, at Faneuil Hall which attracted over 4,000 people. The assembly created the Boston-based relief committee, formally called the New England Committee for the Relief of lreland and Scotland (NECRIS). Its mission was to organize relief efforts and accept contributions from individuals throughout New England. The Committee was chaired by Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy, Jr.

Two of the people who attended that meeting were brothers Captain Robert Bennet (Ben) Forbes and John Forbes. On Sunday, February 21, the brothers submitted a plan to textile magnate Abbott Lawrence who was vice president of the relief committee. The brothers proposed to send food, in addition to money. In a letter of thanks to previous American monetary donors, Father Mathew stated that “Tenfold more effectual would American aid be if, out of your abundance, bread-stuffs were shipped for Ireland instead of money. We are in the deadly grasp of corn monopolists, who compel starving creatures to pay ... for what could be purchased in your country for little more than one-third of the famine price.”

The brothers also proposed that the Committee should petition Congress to furnish and retrofit a warship currently idle in the Navy Yard. Ben Forbes reported that the sloop-of-war USS Jamestown was almost ready for sea and that he would volunteer to command it. The Committee took the advice and petitioned Congress to lend them a warship to deliver relief provisions to Ireland. President Polk approved a joint resolution passed by Congress on March 3, 1847. On March 28, 1847, Captain Forbes sailed the USS Jamestown, stripped of guns and loaded with more than 8,000 barrels of bread, beans, pork, peas, corn, flour, rice, beef, potatoes and other supplies.

Forbes House Museum, MIlton, Mass.

Captain Ben Forbes’s great-great-grandfather was William Forbes, 5th Lord of Newe. Lord Newe’s fourth son, John Forbes married Margaret Farquharson of Belenach in 1699 and died in 1739. His son Archibald’s eldest son was the Reverend John Forbes, who was appointed minister at St. Augustine in East Florida in 1763 and he emigrated the following year. In 1769, the Reverend Forbes traveled to Boston, where he married Dorothy Murray (1745-1837), daughter of James Murray. The couple returned to St. Augustine and had three children: James Grant Forbes (1769-1825), John Murray Forbes (1771-1831), and Ralph Bennet Forbes (1773 – 1824). Dorothy Murray Forbes eventually returned to Boston with the children. His youngest son Ralph married Margaret Perkins (1773-1856) and had three sons Thomas Tunno Forbes (1802-1829), Capt. Robert Bennet (Ben) Forbes (1804-1889), and John Murray Forbes (1813-1898).

The three brothers built their initial fortunes working with their uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins (1764-1854). In 1817 at the age of 13, Ben Forbes joined the crew on his uncle Thomas' Canton Packet and made his first voyage to China. After more than 10 years at sea, he was promoted captain. When his uncle’s company merged with Russell & Company in 1830, Captain Ben took command of the opium storehouse vessel Lintin. In 1847, Captain Forbes turned from the opium trade to become the first civilian commander of a U.S. Navy vessel commissioned for the first private mission of international relief.

USS Jamestown, by George M. Atkinson

Captain Forbes detailed his mission in a report to the Committee called “the Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy.” He wrote “This expedition will always be remembered in the history of philanthropy; and as the servant of the generous people of Boston, of Massachusetts, and parts of New England, who gave their mite to the alleviation of the suffering poor of Scotland and Ireland, it becomes my pleasing duty to record the origin, progress and successful termination of the voyage, and to account to the ‘Committee of Distribution,’ which enabled me to carry out the voyage, for my stewardship.”

Captain Forbes and his “very light and not very efficient” crew crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 15 days and cast anchor in the outer harbor of Cork, Ireland, April 12, 1847. The wealthy civic leaders of Cork offered Forbes and his officers sumptuous feasts and accolades. As Forbes reported, “much was said that would sound well here, indeed the sentiment of gratitude to America, yes sir, to America, for the small relief conveyed in the Jamestown, pervades all the Irish, whether, civil, naval, military or ecclesiastical; and I am sure will be remembered in all time to come.” However, Forbes saw for himself the true destitution of the majority of the populace. He wrote:

I went with Father Mathew, only a few steps out of one of the principal streets of Cork, into a lane; 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. From this very small sample of the prevailing destitution we proceeded to a public soup kitchen, under a shed, guarded by police officers, here a large boiler containing rice, meal, &c., was at work, while hundreds of spectres stood without begging for some of this soup, which I can readily conceive would be refused by well bred pigs in this country. I do not say this with the least disrespect to the benevolent who provide the means and who order the ingredients ; the demand, for immediate relief, is so great at Cork, that if the starving can be kept alive, it is all that can be expected ; the energies of the poor are so cramped and deadened by want and suffering of every type, that they care only for sustenance, and they are unable to earn it; crowds flock in, from the country to the west and south-west and south-east of Cork, the hospitals and poor houses and jails, are full to overflowing, though numbers die daily to make room for the dying…

On April 21, Captain Forbes sailed the USS Jamestown back to Boston. Upon his arrival on May 17, he immediately urged the Committee to return the Jamestown with more provisions and to send more ships. Over the next few years, over 120 ships would bring food and funds to the people of Ireland and Scotland, which was also affected by the famine. In spite of this effort, modern historians estimate that about 800,000 people perished from hunger and disease, including cholera. At least a million people emigrated from Ireland as a result of the famine. Today, Ireland observes National Famine Commemoration Day every May.

The United States continues its charitable international relief efforts – that started with Captain Ben Forbes and the USS Jamestown.

For more information:

  • The Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy, by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes (1847, Eastburn’s Press)

  • Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission, by Stephen Puleo (2020, St. Martin’s Press)


Poem composed by Joseph Hamilton, Esq., of Dublin, and given to Captain Ben Forbes

Remember Forever

Beneath a flag with many a stripe and star,

A warlike vessel ~ sailing far;

A well known harbor of Hibernia sought,

And succour for her starving people brought.

The crew and natives in one tongue conversed,

And though her sides for many a gun were pierced,

She carried neither rocket, shell, or bomb,

Because on mercy's message she had come.


Remember forever, this kind visitation,

When famine and fever are scourging the nation.

Give hearty welcome to Columbia's stars,

To all her worthy officers and tars,

We'll toast her kind Senate and her President,

And all who have this gen'rous succour sent,

May plenty, health, truth, mercy, love and peace

Be soon enjoyed by all the human race,

And may the flag Columbia sent so far

With succour, never lose one stripe or star.


Remember forever, this kind visitation,

When famine and fever are scourging the nation.

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