Voyage of Mercy cover

Voyage of Mercy

The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission 

In his latest book, Voyage of Mercy, author and historian Stephen Puleo details the remarkable story of the mission that inspired America to donate massive relief to Ireland during the potato famine, which sparked America’s tradition of providing humanitarian aid around the world.

More than 5,000 ships left Ireland during the great potato famine in the late 1840s, transporting the starving and the destitute away from their stricken homeland. The first vessel to sail in the other direction, to help the millions unable to escape, was the USS Jamestown, a converted warship, which left Boston in March 1847 loaded with precious food for Ireland.

In an unprecedented move by Congress, the warship had been placed in civilian hands, stripped of its guns, and committed to the peaceful delivery of food, clothing, and supplies in a mission that would launch America’s first full-blown humanitarian relief effort.

Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and the crew of the USS Jamestown embarked on a voyage that began a massive eighteen-month demonstration of soaring goodwill against the backdrop of unfathomable despair—one nation’s struggle to survive, and another’s effort to provide a lifeline.

The Jamestown mission captured hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic, of the wealthy and the hardscrabble poor, of poets and politicians.

As Puleo writes, “Prior to 1847, the bulk of interaction between nation-states consisted mainly of warfare and other hostilities, mixed with occasional trade; the entire concept of international charity existed neither in the moral consciousness nor as part of the political strategy of monarchs or elected leaders. If anything, such a gesture toward a foreign nation would likely have been viewed as a sign of weakness.”

Forbes’ undertaking inspired a nationwide outpouring of relief that was unprecedented in size and scope, the first instance of an entire nation extending a hand to a foreign neighbor for purely humanitarian reasons. It showed the world that national generosity and brotherhood were not signs of weakness, but displays of quiet strength and moral certitude.

With the Jamestown’s departure from Boston on March 28, 1847, the floodgates opened wide. As spring bloomed and temperatures warmed, as frozen canals thawed and snowdrifts melted from rutted wagon trails and dirt-packed roadways and clogged railroad beds, most communities in the United States, large cities and tiny frontier towns, shifted into action.

They set aside religious, racial, social, economic, and political differences to collaborate on an unprecedented countrywide demonstration of voluntary philanthropy on behalf of Ireland. The plight of a ravaged foreign country and its desperate people pierced America’s hardest hearts and opened its most obdurate minds; the desire to relieve Ireland’s suffering touched Americans of every stripe—rich and poor, men and women, from all backgrounds and religions and ages and races, from north and south, from the coast and the interior.

Through July 4, 1848, fifteen months after the assistance began, Americans donated a massive amount of food, more than 9,900 tons, to sustain Ireland. They sent barrel upon barrel of corn, peas, wheat, meal, flour, rice, biscuits, oats, oatmeal, barley, rye, bread, breadstuffs, hominy, hops, beans, arrowroot, vinegar, pork, bacon, beef, ham, venison, dried peaches, dried fish, and—yes—potatoes. And beyond that, Americans donated nearly 650 crates of clothing that they had sewn and tailored by hand, as well as supplies such as soap, candles, hats, eating implements, pots and pans, and other sundries.

The humanitarian transatlantic convoy from the United States that began with Jamestown’s unprecedented voyage did not stop for all of 1847, during which 114 ships from U.S. ports delivered food, clothing, and provisions to starving Ireland. U.S. citizens shipped so much grain to Ireland that corn prices dropped on the British market, which further (though only marginally) assisted the poor Irish as the year went along.  American ships sailed with their precious cargo into the Irish ports of Belfast, Cork, Donegal, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Londonderry, Sligo, and Waterford, and also to Liverpool, England, from which food and supplies were distributed to Ireland and Scotland.

Voyage of Mercy tells the incredible story of the famine, the Jamestown voyage, and the commitment of thousands of ordinary Americans to offer relief to Ireland, a groundswell that provided the collaborative blueprint for future relief efforts, and established the United States as the leader in international aid.

The USS Jamestown’s heroic voyage showed how the ramifications of a single decision can be measured not in days, but in decades – a story of generosity and soaring goodwill amidst unfathomable despair.