Robert Bennet Forbes (1804–89) of Boston was a key figure in his family's business in the China trade. While his brothers and cousins took positions as land-based merchants stationed either in Boston or Canton, Robert Bennet Forbes chose life at sea. He went on many trips to China, starting in 1817 as a cabin boy—thirteen years old—and eventually as a ship captain.
Forbes became a partner in the firm in 1832, known by then as Russell & Co., Canton, and went for a two-year trip to China in 1838–40 as a merchant. He was a proponent of steam power, which helped ships on the long voyage to China and Japan, and gave them the speed to evade the pirates who were ever present in the opium trade. His firm built about 70 ships, of which he was owner or part owner of several.
Robert Bennet Forbes also helped to introduce yachting as a sport, and participated in some of the first yacht races. His book Personal Reminiscences, published in 1892, lists many of these exploits, as well as all of the vessels he owned and built.
Forbes was known for his adventurous spirit. In 1846, when news of the Irish famine reached Boston, he convinced the U.S.Navy to lend him the "USS Jamestown" to take food to famine sufferers in 1847. He was the first civilian given the honor of commanding a naval vessel, and he crossed the Atlantic in a record seventeen days. Forbes wrote a book about his trans-Atlantic voyage for which he commissioned Lane to make the frontispiece illustration.
The "Jamestown" commission was one of several works Lane made for Forbes. Forbes was not only adventurous but innovative, and he commissioned Lane to make works after two of his newly designed steam vessels: the "Massachusetts," a packet ship that used steam power to supplement wind power, and the "Antelope," that relied primarily on steam power.
The Forbes family lived in Milton, Massachusetts, and also had a home in Beverly, Massachusetts. In 1856 Forbes bought land in West Manchester and built a summer home there which he christened "Masconomo" after the sagamore, chief of the Agawam.
In 1834 Captain Forbes married Rose Greene Smith. She died September 18, 1885, having borne her husband three children: Robert Bennet Forbes (1837–June 30, 1891); Edith Forbes, who married Charles Eliot Perkins; and James Murray Forbes (b. July 17, 1845). He died on November 23, 1889 in Milton.