1817-1967; bulk: 1817-1889

Guide to the Collection

Collection Summary


This collection consists of correspondence, financial records, and diaries kept by Robert Bennet Forbes, ship captain, China Trade merchant, shipbuilder, and philanthropist of Milton and Boston, Massachusetts.

Biographical Sketch

Robert Bennet Forbes was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on 18 September 1804, the son of Ralph Bennet and Margaret (Perkins) Forbes. He spent three years at Milton Academy and furthered his education in France for another year. At the age of 13, he sailed on the first of several voyages to China under the command of his uncles, James and Thomas H. Perkins, who were China Trade merchants. He was promoted to an officer at the age of sixteen. In 1824, he commanded his first ship on a three-year voyage around the world, and he was captain of his own ship by the age of 21.

Forbes was in China from 1830-1832. In 1830, his uncles' firm, J. and T. H. Perkins and Sons, merged with Russell and Company to become the largest American merchant firm in China. Upon his return to Boston on 20 January 1834, he married Rose Greene Smith and prospered as the consignee of China cargoes. Forbes returned to China in 1839 as head of Russell and Company on the ship Canton Packet, the first and last ship to travel directly from China to New Orleans. He arrived in time to play a role in the beginning of the Opium War. Forbes returned to China for the last time in 1849, where he stayed until 1851. While there, he continued to maintain an interest in Russell and Company, and he held the seat of the Consulate of the United States and the Vice-Consulate of France.

In 1847, Forbes was appointed by the New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland (NECRIS) to command a mission to Ireland to relieve the victims of famine. He was lent a ship, the U.S.S. Jamestown, for that purpose. It was the first ship-of-war ever lent to a private citizen by Congress for a foreign voyage.

When Forbes returned from China in 1840, he entered into a life-long interest in shipbuilding. He launched the Edith in 1845, the first American steamer to go to British India. After his return from China in 1851, Forbes returned to shipbuilding. He was part owner or supervisor on the construction of over 68 ships. He invented the "Forbes rig" for sailing vessels. In 1844-1845, he was the principal owner of three steamers, the Midas and the Edith, pioneers in Chinese and Indian waters, and the Massachusetts, a transatlantic packet.

Late in 1858, Forbes travelled to South America in order to bring a small steamer to a friend conducting a survey expedition there. To transport the steamer, Forbes traveled on the Roy Nankin, a larger ship, and put the steamer on its deck.

During the Civil War, he organized a Coast Guard unit for Massachusetts and entered into negotiations with the U.S. Navy to build ships for the United States in order to aid the war effort. When the negotiations broke down, he built warships for the Union cause at his own expense and sold them to Congress.

Forbes continued his philanthropic work with several projects after the Jamestown voyage. In 1855, he established the Sailors' Snug Harbor, a Boston charitable organization for retired navalmen. In 1866, he founded the National Sailor's Home in Quincy, Massachusetts, for sailors who had been injured during the Civil War. Soon after a journey to Europe from 1867-1869, he began sending aid to France after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.

His later years were spent in humanitarian work and writing. Most notable was his work building lifeboats and other lifesaving devices with the Humane Society of Massachusetts and the Naval Institute of the Boston Marine Society. In 1876, he published his memoirs entitled, Personal Reminiscences. He spent the remainder of his life at home in Milton, where he died on 23 November 1889.

Collection Description

The Robert Bennet Forbes papers consist of six boxes of loose papers and bound diaries and one oversize folder spanning the years 1817-1889, with some additional research materials from 1961-1967. The bulk of the collection falls between the mid-1840s and 1871. The bulk of the collection consists of Robert Bennet Forbes' correspondence and 15 personal diaries kept from 1840-1889. The remainder of the collection includes business records, newspaper clippings, and other miscellaneous items.

One particularly well-documented subject is Robert Bennet Forbes' involvement in the voyage of the Jamestown, the ship he commanded as part of the New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland (NECRIS) relief mission to Ireland in 1847. These papers include Forbes' correspondence written and received before and during the trip. The remainder of the Jamestown papers include the financial records of NECRIS, Forbes' own business accounts of the voyage, and background research done on the voyage by a descendant of Robert Bennet Forbes, H. A. Crosby Forbes.

Shipbuilding interests are also represented in the Forbes collection, particularly during the Civil War. These papers contain correspondence, including his negotiations with the Navy Department to build warships, and financial records.

The remainder of the collection concerns Robert Bennet Forbes' business ventures in China, including his term spent as head of Russell and Company. The papers documenting Forbes' later years focus on his writings and philanthropic work.

Acquisition Information

The diaries were the gift of Allan Forbes Leland in 1985. The remainder of the papers were the gift of H. A. Crosby Forbes in December 1995. The collection was transferred from the China Trade Museum in 1984.

Detailed Description of the Collection

I. Personal papers, 1817-1889

Arranged chronologically.

This series is divided into two subseries: correspondence and financial accounts. Correspondence from 1817 to 1839 covers Forbes' years in China with Russell and Company, the earliest letter from T. H. Perkins to John P. Cushing about Forbes' first trip there in 1817. Other letters include one to John P. Cushing informing him of Forbes' appointment as head of Russell and Company and one from Cushing to Houqua, the most prominent Chinese merchant. The remainder of the correspondence is from Thomas Tarlton Smith, Forbes' brother-in-law who was living in Chile. Most of the letters written by Forbes have been transcribed. Correspondence from 1873-1889 primarily concerns his work with the Humane Society of Massachusetts.

Financial accounts include receipts, checks, and a summary of Houqua's tea shipments from China to the United States and England between 1837-1849, sent by Forbes to his brother John Murray Forbes.

A. Correspondence, 1817-1889

Box 1Folder 1-5

B. Financial accounts, 1847-1869

Box 1Folder 6

II. Jamestown records, 1847, 1904-1967

Arranged chronologically.

A. Historical background of the Jamestown, 1847, 1904-1967

Research compiled by H. A. Crosby Forbes on Forbes and the voyage of the Jamestown, including correspondence, copies of Irish and Boston newspapers, and excerpts from a thesis by Thomas P. O'Neill about famine relief to Ireland. Also included are copies of speeches and other secondary materials.

Box 1Folder 7-10

B. NECRIS records, 1847-1848

The financial records have been separated into two sections: general accounts and bills. General accounts contain receipts, lists of contributions, lists of provisions, invoices, and memoranda. Bills include the bills for each individual ship, arranged by ship, that traveled to Ireland, as well as a few miscellaneous NECRIS bills. These include letters, receipts, invoices, and bills of lading.

See also Robert Bennet Forbes' personal financial records of the Jamestown voyage.

Box 1Folder 11
Item list, 1847-1848
Box 1Folder 12
General accounts, 1847

Bills, 1847-1848

Box 1Folder 13
Miscellaneous bills, 1847
Box 1Folder 14-15
Jamestown, March-May 1847
Box 1Folder 16-18
Macedonian II, April 1847-January 1848
Box 1Folder 19
Maryann, August 1847
Box 1Folder 20
Morea, April-May 1847
Box 1Folder 21
Reliance, June 1847
Box 1Folder 22-24
Tartar, March-April 1847

C. Robert Bennet Forbes' Jamestown papers, 1847-1888

This subseries consists mainly of correspondence, the bulk of which was written immediately before and during Forbes' trip to Ireland, primarily to his family and friends. Some letters have been transcribed. Correspondents include individuals offering their services and citizens of Cork regarding the provisioning of the ship. A few financial records are included, including receipts, insurance policies, and other documents relating to departure. This subseries also includes Forbes' letterbook of outgoing correspondence written from May-July 1847.


Box 2Folder 1-13
27 February-December 1847
Box 2Folder 14
Box 2Folder 15-16
Financial records, March-July 1847
Box 2Folder 17
Letterbook, May-July 1847

D. Miscellaneous, 1847

Contains newspaper clippings, dinner invitations, and a song dedicated to Forbes by the citizens of Cork. Also includes circulars from the Cork Ladies' Relief Society for the South of Ireland and one by the Society of Friends' Auxiliary Relief Committee of Limerick.

Box 2Folder 18

III. Shipbuilding/Civil War papers, 1852-1871

Arranged chronologically.

This series consists primarily of correspondence from Gideon Welles (the Secretary of the U.S. Navy Department), G. V. Fox (the Assistant Secretary), and Charles Sumner to Forbes regarding the negotiations for a contract to build warships and the building of ships to be sold to the U.S. government. Other correspondence details his efforts to start a Coast Guard unit during the Civil War and his recommendations to the Navy on shipbuilding. Other items include lists of his expenses, shares of stock, and receipts.

Box 3Folder 1
Box 3Folder 2-5
Box 3Folder 6-7

IV. Historical/biographical materials, 1849-1867

Arranged chronologically.

This series includes notes on Rose Smith Forbes' (Robert Bennet Forbes' wife) family history, newspaper clippings, a copy of a poem written by Forbes, and a poem dedicated to Forbes for the establishment of the Sailors' Snug Harbor.

Box 3Folder 9

V. Diaries, 1840-1889

Arranged chronologically.

This series contains 15 volumes of diaries kept by Forbes from 1840-1889, detailing the daily events of his life. The diaries were kept in Milton and Boston. In addition to the diaries, there is a volume used by Forbes to record the birthdays of his family and friends.

Box 4Vol. 1
10 December 1840-28 March 1847

Describes the daily activities of Robert Bennet Forbes: who he dined with, what he did at work every day, family events. The diary begins after his return from China in 1840 and ends just prior to the voyage of the Jamestown. The diary also describes a trip that Forbes made to Europe.

Box 4Vol. 2
3 October 1847-22 July 1854

This diary begins with Forbes' return from the Jamestown voyage. The first few pages provide a summary of the trip. Details are given about his continuing interests in Russell and Company, which lasted until 1854. The diary has a gap from 20 June 1849-9 July 1851 while Forbes was in China.

Box 4Vol. 3
23 July 1854-15 November 1858

In his memoirs, Forbes called these years a "turning point in his life." He had reached the midpoint of his life, and he was starting to turn his thoughts towards personal reflection. The diary also describes his activities as a shipbuilder and his work with the Sailors' Snug Harbor.

Box 4Vol. 4
18 November 1858-2 March 1867

This diary describes the voyage of the Roy Nankin in which Forbes traveled to South America. The diary also contains Forbes' thoughts and opinions on the Civil War as the events unfold. He describes his negotiations with Congress to give him a contract to build ships, as well as his attempts to build a Coast Guard unit. The volume also contains a summary of the events of his life from 1817-1861.

Box 4Vol. 5
3 March 1867-27 February 1869

This diary describes his daily activities and family events. Forbes went on a two-year trip to Europe where he developed an interest in fox-hunting. He also describes his work building lifeboats.

Box 5Vol. 1
1 March 1869-28 February 1870

Forbes returned from Europe and started work on the National Sailor's Home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Describes his daily activities.

Box 5Vol. 2
1 January 1871-15 June 1875

Details his continuing activity with lifeboats and the Humane Society of Massachusetts. During this period, Forbes also became involved in sending aid to France after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

Box 5Vol. 3
15 June 1875-31 December 1876

Gives accounts of his writing efforts and his attempts to write his autobiography. Describes his daily activities.

Box 5Vol. 4
1 January 1877-31 December 1878

Describes daily events. Contains accounts of several trips he made out West and his interest in horse breeding.

Box 5Vol. 5
1 January 1879-31 December 1881

The remaining diaries detail the final years of Forbes' life. During this time he rarely strayed outside of Boston and concerned himself with his increasing health and family problems.

Box 5Vol. 6
1 January 1882-4 June 1884
Box 5Vol. 7
5 June 1884-9 September 1886
Box 6Vol. 1
9 September-31 December 1887
Box 6Vol. 2
1 January-13 October 1888
Box 6Vol. 3
15 October 1888-22 November 1889
Box 6Vol. 4
Birthday book, 1873

VI. Oversize material

This series consists of oversize items removed from other series in the collection.

Folder OS

Preferred Citation

Robert Bennet Forbes papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

Access Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in ABIGAIL, the online catalog of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Researchers desiring materials about related persons, organizations, or subjects should search the catalog using these headings.


Forbes family.
Welles, Gideon, 1802-1878.


Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Jamestown (Ship).
J. and T. H. Perkins and Company.
National Sailor's Home (Quincy, Mass.).
New England Committee for the Relief of Ireland and Scotland.
Roy Nankin (Ship).
Russell & Co.
Sailors' Snug Harbor (Boston, Mass.).


China--Commerce--United States
China trade.
Europe--Description and travel--1800-1918.
Food relief--Ireland.
International relief.
Sailors--Societies, etc.
Ship captains.
South America--Description and travel.
United States--Commerce--China.
United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Naval operations.
Voyages and travels.

Materials Removed from the Collection

Printed Materials Removed

For a list of printed materials removed from this collection, see Curator of Manuscripts.

Visual Materials Removed

The following photographs have been removed to the MHS Photo. Archives:

1 photograph of a tray received by Robert Bennet Forbes from the Citizens of Cork for the Jamestown voyage, n.d.

1 photograph of a painting of the John Gilpin, the first ship owned and sailed by Captain Frederic William Macondray, n.d.