On the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, revisit America’s first major foreign disaster relief effort when the federal government loaned a warship to a private group of Boston businessmen who delivered food and supplies to Ireland during the depths of the potato famine in 1847.

As the stalks of Ireland’s potato plants began to wilt in the autumn of 1845, so did her people. Already mired in extreme poverty under the thumb of the British, Ireland plunged into famine. So desperate was the plight of the Irish that former slave Frederick Douglass wrote of his 1845 visit to the Emerald Isle, “I see much here to remind me of my former condition.”

Even as a lethal pestilence continued to eviscerate the island’s staple crop, the British government refused to cease the export of Irish wheat, oats and barley to England. The Celtic tide of refugees that departed Ireland as a result washed ashore in American cities such as Boston, where the arrival of a steamship in January 1847 brought terrible news that the potato blight had ravaged another year’s crop just weeks before the worst winter in memory grasped Ireland in its frosty clutch.

Although the arrival of tens of thousands of Irish had already begun to disrupt Boston’s staid Yankee order, both the city’s old-line Protestant Brahmins and newly arrived Irish Catholics came together in a remarkable response to the humanitarian crisis. In February 1847, a band of Boston businessmen petitioned Congress to lend them a warship to deliver relief provisions to Ireland. Although the United States was embroiled in a war with Mexico, President James K. Polk approved a joint resolution passed by Congress on March 3, 1847, that for the first time placed one of the country’s naval vessels under the command of a civilian on a private mission. The U.S. Navy placed the sloop-of-war USS Jamestown at the disposal of 43-year-old Captain Robert Bennet Forbes, a seasoned Boston merchant who had first crossed the Atlantic at the age of 6 and accumulated great wealth in the China trade, thanks in large part to opium.

Depiction of the Irish famine
Depiction of the Irish famine

Over the course of only three weeks, a relief committee chaired by Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy Jr. raised more than $150,000 from donors stretching from Arkansas to Maine. Railroads agreed to ship produce to Boston for free, wharf proprietors donated the use of their docks and newspapers at no charge ran notices from Forbes seeking volunteer crewmembers. The children of Massachusetts donated pennies, churches took up special collections and newly arrived Irish immigrants bore sacks of flour and potatoes to the docks to feed relatives back in their homeland.

“This was America’s first major disaster relief effort, and it captured the imagination of everyone from statesmen and businessmen to regular folks in towns and villages across New England,” says Michael Quinlin, author of “Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past” and editor of the recently released “Tales from The Emerald Isle and Other Green Shores: Classic Irish Stories.” “It was benevolence emanating from genuine concern for the plight of a starving nation. Also, the notion of an American ship of war going on an errand of mercy, at the height of the unpopular Mexican War, seems to have resonated with the American public.”

USS Jamestown
USS Jamestown

Volunteers from the Laborers’ Aid Society who donated their time and brawn began the work of loading USS Jamestown, fittingly, on St Patrick’s Day. Eleven days later, the warship, stripped of her guns, departed Boston on its mission of mercy with more than 8,000 barrels of bread, beans, pork, peas, corn, flour, rice, beef, potatoes and other supplies. Borne by a strong breeze from the northwest and the well wishes of thousands lining Boston Harbor’s shorelines, the 49-man volunteer crew sailed away with both the Stars and Stripes and a white flag sporting a green shamrock proudly unfurled.

Nearly two centuries earlier in 1676, a Dublin-based ship named Katherine arrived in Boston with relief donations sent by the people of Ireland to famished residents of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies during King Philip’s War. Now, it was time for Bostonians to repay the favor. “We have ‘cast our bread upon the waters’ partly for the payment of an old debt,” Forbes wrote, “and partly to plant in Irish hearts a debt which will, in future days, come back to us bearing fruit crowned with peace and good will.”

Robert Bennett Forbes
Robert Bennett Forbes

It took 15 days for the warship of peace to cross the cobalt Atlantic and arrive in Cork Harbour where it was greeted by cheering crowds and a band playing “Yankee Doodle.” Work soon began to distribute the goods on board to 150 locations throughout County Cork that aided hundreds of thousands of the starving poor. “The relief thus nobly sent may be regarded as one of the proudest events in American history,” reported the Liverpool Times. “It speaks, trumpet-tongued, for the national benevolence, and is probably the noblest charity on record.”

As Quinlin points out, even during the famine Ireland’s landed gentry had plenty of food and libations, and Cork’s tone-deaf civic leaders threw Forbes and his officers a sumptuous banquet with all the trimmings, complete with toasts to Queen Victoria and the royal family. The captain was even taken to Blarney Castle to kiss the famous stone and presented a pregnant cow as a gift. When Forbes wandered Cork’s alleyways, however, he saw “the valley of death and pestilence itself” teeming with “pale care worn creatures” with hollow eyes and sunken cheeks. “I saw enough in five minutes to horrify me,” Forbes wrote, “hovels crowded with the sick and dying, without floors, without furniture, and with patches of dirty straw covered with still dirtier shreds and patches of humanity.”

Plague commemorating the arrival of the USS Jamestown in Cobh, Ireland (Credit: Christopher Klein)
Plague commemorating the arrival of the USS Jamestown in Cobh, Ireland (Credit: Christopher Klein)

When Forbes departed after his 10-day stay, he left without any Irish on board—except for a young boy who cared for the gifted bovine. Knowing that neither he nor his crew could properly care for the sick and starving—let alone decide on whom to take—Forbes had made it clear in a letter to a newspaper that “the ship will not take back any emigrants.” After just a 49-day voyage, the captain returned USS Jamestown to the possession of the federal government in Boston. “This expedition will always be remembered in the history of philanthropy,” Forbes wrote.

Indeed, it left a lasting legacy. Many children born in County Cork around the time of Jamestown’s arrival were named “Forbes” and “Boston.” The cow given to Forbes was sold at auction, with the proceeds sent back to the relief efforts in Ireland. “Perhaps the lasting legacy,” Quinlin says, “is that human suffering always prompts a human response, and sometimes in history, the response is perfectly attuned to the scale of suffering, especially when there are capable and compassionate people involved.”