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In160 years ago an American naval ship - the USS Jamestown - left the Charlestown Navy Yard on a humanitarian voyage that captured the world’s imagination.

It was the height of the five year famine in Ireland (1845-49), and scores of Irish people were dying in the streets.  The magnitude of the despair, disease and the daily death rates horrified the world.

Concerned Bostonians called a meeting at Faneuil Hall and 4,000 citizens attended.  Robert Bennet Forbes, a wealthy China trade merchant from Milton, petitioned Congress to borrow the USS Jamestown to bring food, provisions and medical supplies to Ireland.  On March 17, longshoremen in Charlestown began loading the vessel.

Boston historian Henry Lee wrote, “Contributions of food arrived from all over New England.  Those with relatives in Ireland…came carrying sacks of flour or potatoes entreating the crew to let them be put on board….The cargo consisted largely of Indian corn and bread, but also included hams ,port, oatmeal, potatoes, flour, rye, beans, rice, fish and sixteen barrels of clothing.”

The Jamestown set sail on March 28, 1847, carrying 800 tons of supplies.  Fifteen days later it arrived in Queenstown Harbor, County Cork.  The captain and crew were received heartily by the Irish, who lined the hills overlooking the harbor.  On shore, Captain Forbes saw the suffering first hand, and later wrote, “It was a valley of death and pestilence itself.  I would gladly forget, if I could, the scenes I witnessed.”

When the Jamestown returned to the Navy Yard on May 16, Forbes at once began preparations to take another ship load of supplies back to Ireland in the summer.  And Bostonians continued to send contributions until the crisis had abated.

Forbes remained a hero in Boston and in Ireland for the rest of his life, and the USS Jamestown became a symbol of humanitarianism around the world. 

Irish poet Samuel Lover penned a song he entitled, “The War Ship of Peace,” in which he wrote:

Look out across the sea that guards thy emerald shore
A ship of war is bound for thee, but with no warlike stores
She goes not forth to deal out death but bears new life to thee.

It was one of Boston’s finest moments. 

The Forbes House in Milton contains the artifacts associated with the voyage of the USS Jamestown to Ireland and with the Forbes family’s friendship with the Irish through the 19th century.  Visit for more details.

Photo Caption: Edward D. Walker, one of England’s foremost marine artists, painted this portrait of the USS Jamestown to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the voyage.  For more details visit


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