An online project under the direction of the CAPE ANN MUSEUM
Forbes, Robert Bennet
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.
Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum
vol. 1, no. 1
Table within book
From R. B. Forbes, Personal Reminiscences (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., first published 1876).
Manchester Historical Museum
In 1856 Robert Bennet Forbes bought nineteen acres of land for $2,800 from Israel F. Tappan in the section of the West Manchester shore known in those days as Newport. There he built Masconomo, named for the sagamore of the Agawam. In her unpublished letters to her son Robert, his wife Rose Greene Forbes wrote:
"...I think Father will put up a good sized cheap summer house, rough pillars, pine furniture etc., and very likely we shall all be there for two months next summer. He means to show people how rational people ought to live at the seaside. What nice times we shall have..."
The house was sold to Benjamin G. Boardman in 1865.
University Press, John Wilson and Sons, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Second edition, 1882, contains "Rambling Recollections Connected with China." Google book version.
Reprinted in American Neptune, Vol. 10, 1950, pp. 213-234
First-hand account by Robert Bennet Forbes of the 1856 New-York Yacht Club regatta.
Robert Bennet Forbes scrapbook
vol. 1, p. 4
Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum (SCR 4)
"SPLENDID NAVAL VICTORY. We have received intelligence by the arrival of the Caledonia of one of the most splendid naval victories ever achieved under the American flag..." This article is a humorous metaphor, comparing Forbes' mission to bring food to the starving Irish to a naval assault on the city of Cork.
Perhaps painted in Canton
Collection of the Forbes House Museum
Given to the Forbes House Museum by H.A. Crosby Forbes, Ph.D., Robert P. Forbes, Ph.D., and Douglas B. Forbes in 2012
The painting was commissioned by Robert Bennet Forbes to commemorate the death of his brother, Thomas Tunno Forbes, in 1829 on "The Haide" during a storm off the coast of Macao.
Collection of the Forbes House Museum, Milton, Mass.
Scene depicts the "Jamestown" being towed out of Charlestown Navy Yard. Plaque reads: "To Captain R. Bennett [sic] Forbes / From his English friends. / The "Jamestown" American Sloop of War as she left Boston under his command / bound to CORK with DONATIONS of FOOD / freight free for the Irish. / 1847."
Link to Google Books.
16 1/2 x 20 1/2 in., on sheet 18 1/8 x 22 1/2 in.
Courtesy American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Mass.
One of these lithographs was given to R. B. Forbes at an event held on the 19th of April at the Cork Temperance Institute.
"U.S. Sloop of war, Jamestown: Capt. R. B. Forbes. This print, commemorative of the splendid generosity of the American government in dismantling a ship of war for a mission of peace and charity, & of the noble-hearted citizens who humanely & benevolently responded to the call of Irish distress, is respectfully dedicated to the President, House of Representatives, Congress and people of the United States of America, by their obedt. servants, George M. W. Atkinson, William Scraggs, Cove of Cork 13th April, 1847"