The Jamestown departs Boston for Ireland

March 28, 1847 – The Jamestown departs Boston for Ireland

(modified excerpt from Voyage of Mercy)

On March 28, a Sunday, from the top floor of his house in Boston’s Pemberton Square, Robert Bennet Forbes gazed upon a morning that had broken bright and clear. A cold steady wind from the northwest had blown a stubborn three-day storm out to sea; the late March day was ideal for the Jamestown to embark.

Since St. Patrick’s Day, when workers began loading provisions onto the ship, Forbes had engaged in a flurry of last-minute preparations – penning letters to England, assembling a crew, seeking assistance from groups to help assist and provision his men.

And of course, he marveled at the food!  Contributions had arrived from all over New England, most of them from within Boston city limits, but many from elsewhere—towns, societies, individuals—transported free of charge on several railroads that also joined the wave of generosity that the mission engendered. Local Irish immigrants even hand-carried sacks of potatoes and flour to the dock for workers to load.

From gardens and farms in and around Boston, from the hills and hollows of northern Vermont, from the Rhode Island coast and the wheat fields of Connecticut, from the mountains of New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts, generous deliveries arrived in Charlestown with remarkable speed for loading aboard the Jamestown: meal, corn, bread, beans, beef, pork, peas, hams, oatmeal, dried apples, flour, potatoes, rice, rye, wheat, fish, clothing, and other supplies. Committees around New England wrote letters of support to Forbes even as they announced their contributions. “Our committee is free to forward about twenty-five hundred bushels of corn and other grain,” reported the Portland, Maine, relief committee, and was pleased to do so “with sentiments of high respect for the truly philanthropic and generous course taken by yourself on this mission.”

Forbes was astounded at the level of generosity. “Every sort of facility, wharfage, dockage, labor, pilotage, storage, chronometers, stores, and last, not least, sympathy and approbation have been offered most abundantly,” he wrote. Further, any expenses incurred “will be of no consequence compared to the good feeling which will fill the hearts of our brothers in other lands.”

He had no doubt that in years to come, he would look back on the mission as “the most prominent event of my life.”

At 7:30 a.m., Forbes hugged his wife, Rose, and said good-bye to their three “chicks”—ten-year-old Bob, four-year-old Edith, and two-year-old James Murray.

An hour later, standing at the helm of the Jamestown, cap pulled low, his face already reddened by the bright morning sun and raw northwest wind, Robert Bennet Forbes surveyed the vessel that would transport him, his crew, and 8,000 barrels of food to Ireland.

At exactly 8:30 a.m., the ship pulled away from the pier. Forbes dutifully recorded her dramatic departure: “All things being ready, sails set, the fasts single, the breeze fresh, the ship struggling to be free . . . I cried ‘let go!’ and off she went.”

Amid the hearty cheers of hundreds of people lining the wharves, Forbes guided the Jamestown out of Navy Yard waters, her stores laden with cargo and her three topsails unfurled. From her mizzen peak flew the Stars and Stripes, and from her magnificent royal mast snapped a white flag emblazoned with a wreath of shamrocks encircling a thistle. The revenue cutter Hamilton lowered its flag in salute as the Jamestown passed, and as the ship cleared Long Wharf, the towboat R. B. Forbes joined the ship, carrying cheering members of the New England relief committee.

Now the Jamestown sped down the harbor “like a racehorse,” clearing wharves and moored ships and small boats at nine knots, the tug hugging her starboard side astern. About an hour later, the R. B. Forbes fell away from the Jamestown amid roars of approval from committee members on board. After measuring wind and swells, and conducting one final inspection of the ship, Forbes finally signaled to his crew that the Jamestown would take its leave from Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod.

Without escort and under way, Forbes “launched our gallant bark on the broad Atlantic” toward Cork, Ireland, a “voyage full of hope and pleasure, and blessed with the appropriation of many kind hearts at home.”