Archive for April, 2022

America’s Remarkable First Humanitarian Mission: Widespread Aid to Ireland During the Great Famine

I originally wrote this summary of Voyage of Mercy for “The History Reader,” the history website hosted by St. Martin’s Press, publisher of Voyage. Enjoy!

By Stephen Puleo

I describe my book, Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission as a story about hope, generosity, and soaring goodwill against a backdrop of nearly unfathomable despair. And like any story with such powerful themes, its lessons run deep and its ramifications are measured in decades rather than days.

Voyage of Mercy recounts for the first time the remarkable and unprecedented relief effort by the government and citizens of the United States to assist Ireland during the terrible famine year of 1847; remarkable because the mission undertaken by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and the crew of the USS Jamestown to deliver tons of donated food to Ireland was the first step in a monumental effort that involved contributions from citizens of virtually every community in the United States, and the official imprimatur of the U.S. government; unprecedented not only for the size and scope of American participation, but [create a callout of this phrase: because it was the first time the United States—or any nation, for that matter—extended its hand to a foreign neighbor] in such a broad and all-encompassing way for purely humanitarian reasons.

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.

The Jamestown mission was, in modern parlance, the “tip of the spear,” the most visible and most celebrated component of America’s first full-blown charitable mission. The U.S. relief effort encompassed far more than Jamestown, but it was the historic voyage of a retrofitted warship embarking on a mission of peace that most visibly symbolized the widespread willingness of the American people to offer up enormous stores of food and provisions to assist victims of the Irish famine. 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.

The voyage itself and the subsequent outpouring of charitable relief captured hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, the events of 1847 have served as the blueprint and inspiration for hundreds of American charitable relief efforts since, philanthropic endeavors that have established the United States as the leader in international aid in total dollars and enabled it to assist millions of people around the world victimized by famine, war, and catastrophic natural disasters.


Two compelling individuals occupy the center of this story.
Sea captain Robert Bennet Forbes of Boston was one of the most dynamic, determined, resilient, adventurous, well-traveled, generous, and interesting men of his age—or any age, for that matter—and until now, his story has never been fully told. I am grateful that he was also an excellent, frequent, and descriptive writer, able to relate both meaningful context and colorful details, understand the nuances of human nature as well as his own virtues and shortcomings, and express himself with passion, pathos, drama, and humor. In addition, he was the consummate collector and keeper of documents—a bit of a hoarder, actually—which has provided us with a rich trove of what others thought about him, his mission, and his world.

The Reverend Theobald Mathew, known best as Ireland’s “Temperance Priest,” was the heroic and indomitable figure on the Irish side of the Atlantic, fighting—though mostly in vain—to save the lives of his starving countrymen and convince British authorities of the speed of the famine’s onslaught, the extent of its horrors, and the desperate need for additional relief. In the decade before the famine, Father Mathew had achieved fame on both sides of the Atlantic for his efforts to convince hundreds of thousands of Irish to sign his temperance pledge; in fact, history records his crusade against drinking and alcoholism as his signature achievement. But his work in the trenches during the worst of the famine—offering food, shelter, medical care, and comfort to those suffering from near-starvation and debilitating disease—would forever endear him to the Irish people, especially those from his home parish in Cork city. Still revered in his native country today, Father Mathew, like Forbes, is little known in the United States, despite a lengthy and controversial visit to America shortly after the famine.

What truly inspired me about this story were the actions of what I’ll call thousands of other real-life characters, who together make up a single collective character of sorts: the American people. I had known something about the Jamestown voyage before researching this book, but I was completely unaware of the enormous scope of U.S. relief effort to Ireland in 1847–48, the widespread generosity of Americans from all walks of life during a time when the very act of survival and supporting one’s own family presented a grueling daily challenge and was far from guaranteed.

That Americans from across the United States contributed to Irish relief was extraordinary enough, but it was the nature of most of their donations that was most impressive. This was not a matter of entering credit card information or dropping off a bag of canned goods, though these are certainly generous acts in their own right. While many people sent small amounts of money, most donated food that otherwise would have been used to sustain their loved ones. Farmers furrowed the ground, laid the seed, nurtured the plants, and harvested the crops—beans, corn, barley, wheat and much more. Then they took a portion of those goods, packaged them in burlap sacks or wooden kegs, and delivered them by horse-drawn wagon to river ports, where rafts and small boats carried them to larger ships that navigated broader rivers and the Erie Canal. From there, the food made its way to major Atlantic ports like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where dockworkers loaded it upon ocean-sailing vessels bound for England and Ireland.

Farmers and planters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, western New York, and western Massachusetts, in the mid-Atlantic states, across the South and along the Mississippi—all of them literally took food out of the mouths of their own family members, or food they would normally sell at market to buy goods for their cabins and farms, and shipped it to strangers thousands of miles away.

It was as though Americans looked at their own children and felt the pain of Irish parents who were watching their own youngsters starve. Or perhaps Americans appreciated the poetic, if mournful, symmetry of sharing the abundant bounty produced by their fertile fields with people whose land was blackened by blight and whose major crop rotted with disease. Whatever the exact reason, such sacrifice and generosity were breathtaking to me, and I’ve thought about this often, especially when I walk into a supermarket and, almost without giving it a second thought, reach for virtually any food item I choose to buy. How much food would we give to strangers today if our survival, our families’ survival, depended on planting, growing, cultivating, and harvesting everything we needed?

And maybe because Americans knew they were part of something much larger than themselves in 1847, the widespread desire to provide relief to Ireland also unified the United States—for a short time at least—in a way it hadn’t been since the adoption of the Constitution sixty years earlier, and probably not again until the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly a century later drew the United States into World War II.

Charitable contributions of any kind at any time are worthy and noble; the American humanitarian mission to Ireland during the 1847 potato famine was something special altogether. The Jamestown voyage not only represented a spark of color across the bleak grayness of Ireland’s landscape, but was part of a larger national charitable tapestry that would signal a seismic shift in international relations. Beyond Ireland and outside of the United States, the American “warship of peace” had delivered—along with precious food and supplies—a message of fellowship to the rest of the world. Wars and hostilities continued between countries, and will continue always, but the Jamestown and the United States’ response demonstrated that it was acceptable, appropriate, and—as unlikely as it seemed before the voyage—perhaps even obligatory for countries to assist each other for purely humanitarian reasons.

Not only did the Jamestown mission and the widespread U.S. relief effort define the country’s generosity and establish its emergence on the world stage, not only did it cement bonds between Ireland and the United States that remain strong to this day, it also signaled a sea change in the affairs of nations, advancing the notion that gestures of philanthropy and brotherhood, rather than signs of a nation’s weakness, were displays of quiet strength and moral certitude.