Robert Bennet Forbes

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Captain Robert Bennet Forbes
Robert Bennet Forbes.png
DiedNovember 23, 1889(1889-11-23) (aged 85)
Parent(s)Ralph Bennet Forbes
Margaret Perkins

Captain Robert Bennet Forbes (September 18, 1804 – November 23, 1889), was a sea captain, China merchant, ship owner, and writer.[1] He was active in ship construction, maritime safety, the opium trade, and charitable activities, including food aid to Ireland, which became known as America's first major disaster relief effort. "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."[2]

Opium ships at Lintin, 1824


The Canton Packet bark built for J. & T. H. Perkins of Boston

He was born in 1804 in Jamaica Plain, Boston, Massachusetts, son of Ralph Bennet Forbes and Margaret Perkins, sister of the slave and China opium trader Thomas Perkins. His brothers were Thomas Tunno and John Murray.[3]:145[1]

On October 19, 1817, at age 13, he joined the crew on his uncle Thomas' Canton Packet and made his first voyage to China, the first of the three brothers to do so.[3]:145 He arrived in Canton, China in March 1818 via the eastern route. He returned to Boston three months later.[4]

In 1819, he made a second voyage aboard the Canton Packet. On this voyage, he was promoted to third mate. He became second mate in 1821.[4]

Aboard the Nile he sailed for Manila. Previous to this time he had been ship's master of the Levant. He became a full captain in 1825.[4] From Manila the Nile went to China, then to California, and from there to Buenos Aires.

In 1828 he sailed the Danube for Sturgis & Perkins on a trading voyage to Smyrna, Turkey, and other European ports. He later was captain of the Niantic.[4]

When Russell & Company were merged with his uncle's Turkish opium trading firm in 1830, Forbes was placed in command of their opium storehouse vessel Lintin which was moored permanently at the Pearl River estuary island after which it was named. His work in supervising the repacking of the opium and negotiating trades with drug smugglers made him his first fortune.[3]:145-6 Of his large means he made generous provision for his mother and younger brother. He visited China several times and became the American vice consul at Canton.[4]

In 1834 he married Rose Greene Smith and they had three children: Robert Bennet Forbes (1837-1891), Edith Forbes who married Charles Eliot Perkins, and James Murray Forbes (1845-1885).[4]

In 1841 he witnessed the Battle of Kowloon between the Qing Dynasty and the British Empire from aboard his rowboat.[5]

He died on November 23, 1889 in Milton, Massachusetts.[1]


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.[4][6] 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."[4]

Forbes rig[edit]

The clipper ship Great Republic was originally rigged with Forbes' double topsail yards.[7]

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.[8]

The Forbes rig was publicly rejected, however, by the captain of the N.B. Palmer in 1855, in favor of the Howe rig.[9][10][11]


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.

"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."[4]

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.[4]

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".[12]


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)
  • The Forbes Rig (1862)
  • Means for Making the Highways of the Ocean more Safe (1867)
  • Remarks on Magnetism and Local Attraction (1875)
  • Forbes, Robert Bennet (1876). Personal Reminiscences (1882 2nd; 1892 3rd ed.). 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. ^ a b c "Robert B. Forbes Dead". New York Times. November 24, 1889. Retrieved 2014-08-29. Capt. Robert B. Forbes, who died yesterday at his residence in Milton, Mass., was one of the old merchants of Boston, and was closely identified with the shipping interests of days gone by. He was born at Jamaica Plain in 1804, and began his career on the ...
  2. ^ Sammarco, Anthony. "Historic Forest Hills Cemetery". January 7, 2010 blog entry. The Forest Hills Educational Trust. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  3. ^ a b c Hamilton, Peer E (2012). May Holdsworth & Christopher Munn (eds.). Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography. Hong Kong University Press. ISBN 9789888083664.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j 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.
  5. ^ 1940-, Janin, Hunt, (1999). The India-China opium trade in the nineteenth century. McFarland. ISBN 0786407158. OCLC 41977280. pg. 116
  6. ^ Gleason, Hall (1937). Old Ships and Ship-Building Days of Medford. Medford, MA: J.C. Miller. p. 59.
  7. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (2002-03-13). "Sailing Ships: Great Republic (1853)". Great Republic. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
  8. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1997). "The Clipper Barque Mermaid". The Clipper Barque Mermaid. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
  9. ^ Bruzelius, Lars (1996). "The Forbes and the Howe Rig". The Forbes and the Howe Rig. The Maritime History Virtual Archives. Retrieved May 4, 2010.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Sailors' Snug Harbor of Boston Records, 1852-1975 at the Massachusetts Historical Society

External links[edit]