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Saturday, May 15, 2010

May 16, 1847, USS Jamestown Returns to Boston After Historic Voyage to Cork to Aid Famine Victims

Painting of USS Jamestown in Boston Harbor, by Ted Walker, Marine Artist

On this day in history, the USS Jamestown returned to Boston Harbor after carrying food, medical supplies and clothing to the people of Cork during the height of the Irish Famine. 

The journey was headed by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, a wealth China trade merchant from Milton, MA, who had left Boston on March 28, 1847 with a crew of 38 men and 800 tons of supplies.

Henry Lee's book, Massachusetts Helps to Ireland During the Great Famine, gives a masterful account of this extraordinary episode in Boston's history.

"Contributions of food continued to arrive from all over New England," Lee wrote.  "The cargo consisted largely of Indian corn and bread but included also hams, prok, oatmeal, potatoes, flour, rye, beans, rice, fish and sixteen barrels of clothing."

The fifteen day voyage faced foul weather and a blend of rain, sleet, wind and fog requisite for that time of year, but finally, they arrived in Queenstown Harbor.

A cruel irony became apparent to Forbes as Ireland's provincial rulers greeted Forbes and his crew with an invitation to a sumptuous feast.  Forbes and his crew found this banquet most embarassing, however, as Irish citizens lay dying in the streets nearby.

Forbes was more interested in seeing firsthand the suffering everyone had heard so much about.  He was escorted around Cork by Father Tehobald Mathew, the famous temperance priest.  Forbes later described the event:

"It was the valley of death and pestigence itself.  I would gladly forget, if I could, the scenes I witnessed."

Forbes was overwhelmed by the plight of the dying, and when he returned home, arriving in the Charlestown Navy Yard on May 16, he immediately set his sights on the USS Macedonian, another ship that he would fill with supplies for the people of Cork.

Reverend R.C. Waterson later wrote, "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."

- Excerpts from Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston's Colorful Irish Past  by Michael P. Quinlin.  

(Thanks to Ed Walker and Fred Robinson for permission to use the image above.)