Robert Bennet Forbes

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Captain Robert Bennet Forbes (1804–1889), was a sea captain, China merchant, ship owner, and writer. He was active in ship construction, maritime safety, the opium trade, and charitable activities.

Captain, opium trader and humanitarian[edit]

He was born in Jamaica Plain, near Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Ralph Bennet Forbes and wife Margaret Perkins, of the Perkins family, and brother of John Murray Forbes. "As a member of the Forbes family of Boston, much of his wealth was derived from the opium and China Trade and he played a prominent role in the outbreak of the Opium War. Despite the ethical problems of dealing in opium, he was known to engage in humanitarian activities, such as commandeering the USS Jamestown to send food to Irish famine sufferers in 1847."[1]

Opium ships in Lintin, 1824

Voyages and seafaring career[edit]

On October 19, 1817, then aged thirteen years, he shipped before the mast in the Canton Packet and made his first voyage to China, arriving at Canton in March of the following year, the vessel having sailed by the eastern passage. "Here," says the captain in his narrative, began an epoch in my life which was of great importance: a connection which led directly to fortune and which never ended but with the life of my cousin (John P. Cushing, then head of the house of Perkins & Co., Canton), in April 1861." In June, 1818, he returned to Boston, and thus ended his first voyage to China and return. In 1819 he made a second voyage to the Orient in the Canton Packet and on the passage made a thorough study of navigation; and on his next voyage to the far east it was as third mate of the ship. From this rank he became second mate in 1821, and in 1825 as master of the Nile he sailed for Manila, Philippine Islands. Previous to this time he had been for a short time master of the Levant, and thus was captain of a deep sea vessel before he had attained the age of twenty years. From Manila the Nile went to China, thence to California, and from there to Buenos Aires, South America; and thence to Boston at the end of a long and successful trading voyage. In 1828 he sailed the Danube for Sturgis & Perkins on a trading voyage to Smyrna, Turkey, and other European ports, and afterward he commanded the Niantic. About 1832 he made his last voyage to China and in 1840 became head of Russell & Company, the largest American commercial house in China. Of his large means he made generous provision for his mother and younger brother. He visited China several times and at one time was American vice consul at Canton. He traded between the United States, China, Europe. California and South America and was almost invariably successful in his voyages.[2]


Captain Forbes owned or was involved in the construction of approximately seventy vessels.

His first ship was the Lintin, a 390-ton bark built by Sprague and James in Medford, Mass., in 1830. Forbes owned the Lintin from 1830–1832, after which time she sailed in Chinese waters.[2][3] Forbes also owned the Paul Jones, which took the first cargo of ice to China. "During the Civil War he was employed as a volunteer by the government to inspect the building of nine gunboats and at the same time built for himself and others the Meteor, of 1500 tons."[2]

Forbes rig[edit]

The famous clipper ship Great Republic was originally rigged with Forbes' double topsail yards.[4]

The Forbes rig was also well received on the Mermaid, as this 1852 excerpt from the "Boston Atlas" transcribed by Bruzelius shows:

THE CLIPPER BARQUE MERMAID, Captain Smith, recently arrived, made the passage from Canton to New York in 87 days. The telegraph, when she arrived, reported Capt. Forbes as her commander, instead, no doubt of stating that she had Forbes's rig. This rig is working its way slowly into favor with ship-owners, and when its advantages are known, it will soon be universally adopted. It is the proper rig for large clippers ... The Mermaid ... has tested it in a voyage around the world, and like other vessels with it, has sailed with less men, than if she had been rigged in the usual style.[5]

However, the Forbes rig was publicly rejected by the captain of the N.B. Palmer in 1855, in favor of the Howe rig.[6][7][8]


In 1834 Captain Forbes married Rose Greene Smith. She died September 18, 1885, having borne her husband three children: Robert Bennet Forbes, born 1837, died June 30, 1891; Edith Forbes, married Charles Eliot Perkins; James Murray Forbes, born July 17, 1845.[2]

Captain Robert Bennet Forbes House Museum[edit]

He built a Greek Revival mansion for his mother in Milton, Massachusetts, designed by Isaiah Rogers (1833), that is now the Captain Robert Bennet Forbes House Museum.

Charitable activities, awards and distinctions[edit]

Captain Forbes was a member and an officer of the Massachusetts Humane Society, one of the Boston pilot commissioners, member of the government of the Board of Trade, one of the vestry of King's Chapel, member of the Boston Port Society, and at one time and another a director of various railroad and insurance companies.[2]

Captain Forbes was awarded the medal of the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society in 1849 for gallant conduct. The Cunard steamship Europa, on which Forbes was a passenger, ran down and sank an emigrant ship, Charles Bartlett. Forbes jumped from the bulwarks of the Europa into the water and rescued first a woman and child, and then a man.[2]

In 1852 he was one of the founders and first president of the Sailors' Snug Harbor of Boston, a retirement home for "decrepit, infirm or aged sailors".[9]

Pamphlets and other writings[edit]

Forbes' writings, most of them pamphlets, include:

  • Forbes, Robert Bennet (1844). Remarks on China and the China Trade. Boston: Samuel N. Dickinson, printer. 
  • Forbes, Robert Bennet (1847). The Voyage of the Jamestown on Her Errand of Mercy. Boston: Eastburn Press. 
  • An Appeal to Merchants and Ship Owners, on the Subject of Seamen (1854)
  • On the Establishment of a Line of Mail Steamers . . . to China (1855)
  • Remarks on Ocean Steam Navigation (1855)
  • Remarks on Magnetism and Local Attraction (1875)
  • The Forbes Rig (1862)
  • Means for Making the Highways of the Ocean more Safe (1867)
  • Forbes, Robert Bennet (1882 2nd ed.; 1876 1st ed., 1892 3rd ed.). Personal Reminiscences. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 
  • The Lifeboat and other Life-saving Inventions (1880)
  • New Rig for Steamers (1883)
  • Notes on Navigation (1884)
  • Loss of Life and Property in the Fisheries (1884)
  • Forbes, Robert Bennet (1888). Notes on Ships of the Past. Boston: [s.n.] 


  1. ^ Sammarco, Anthony. "Historic Forest Hills Cemetery". January 7, 2010 blog entry. The Forest Hills Educational Trust,. Retrieved May 22, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Cutter, William Richard; Adams, William Frederick (1910). Genealogical and personal memoirs relating to the families of the state of Massachusetts. V. 3. New York. pp. 1478–1480. 
  3. ^ Gleason, Hall (1937). Old Ships and Ship-Building Days of Medford. Medford, MA: J.C. Miller. p. 59. 
  4. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (2002-03-13). "Sailing Ships: Great Republic (1853)". Great Republic. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  5. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1997). "The Clipper Barque Mermaid". The Clipper Barque Mermaid. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  6. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1996). "The Forbes and the Howe Rig". The Forbes and the Howe Rig. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  7. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1996). "Letter from R.B. Forbes to Captain Bradbury, 1855". Letter from R.B. Forbes to Captain Bradbury, 1855. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  8. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1996). "A Letter from Geo. H. Bradbury to R.B. Forbes, 1855". A Letter from Geo. H. Bradbury to R.B. Forbes, 1855. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010. 
  9. ^ Sailors' Snug Harbor of Boston Records, 1852-1975 at the Massachusetts Historical Society

External links[edit]