BOOK REVIEW Merciful reading in troubling times

Stephen Puleo

Voyage of Mercy

St. Martin’s Press

303 pages 


By John Duff

A disease appears and quickly wreaks havoc on all it reaches.  Governments situated to respond to the plight of their citizens do so slowly and ineffectively. News of the plight spreads around the world. And while distant people lament the catastrophe’s toll, their governments seem ill-equipped to provide assistance.  While this may sound like one of the frequent scourges that shows up in headlines, quickly fading from our 2020 attention span, it is the context of a story that unfolded in the mid-nineteenth century and that would have inflicted even more death and devastation but for the efforts of a handful of people who garnered the necessary resources, inspired an outpouring of compassion and generosity, and put the world on notice that a deadly disaster could be mitigated with a combination of imagination, bravery, and an outpouring of philanthropy born of mercy.

The malady, a furiously spreading fungus that blighted Ireland’s potato crops, swept across the island in the late 1840s, starving approximately a million people and setting in motion a diaspora of a million desperate emigrants.  Those who survived carried the tragedy with them seared in their memories.  Succeeding generations in Ireland have been schooled in the devastation that carries various names – the Great Hunger or the Great Starvation.   And the generations succeeding those who emigrated can likely recount stories handed down explaining how their families fled the tragedy.  

Far fewer know the story of the people who fashioned a trans-oceanic mission to save so many who could not escape.  In “Voyage of Mercy,” Boston-area author Stephen Puleo shines a light on the efforts of Robert Bennet Forbes to forge a philanthropic effort that would touch the hearts of millions, gather food from across one continent, and deliver it to a starving population an ocean way.  Forbes, a seasoned mariner and then merchant, had made and lost a fortune by the time he was in his early thirties. After spending the better part of two decades engaged in perilous shipping enterprises and starting a family but losing his wealth, Forbes decided to risk everything he had left, familial and financial. He made one last trip to China to restore his family’s wealth and succeeded by engaging in the shadowy opium trade. 

Still in his thirties, Captain Forbes could now afford to attend to a family stricken with its own painful losses and provide them with a husband, father, and newly gained wherewithal to pursue a peaceful life together. But just as Forbes’s life was finding comfort and freedom of want, the people of Ireland were plunging into a national plight bringing starvation and death. 

Potato blights had stricken Ireland before, but the one that wiped out the harvest of 1846 was unparalleled. The government responses by the ruling class in England failed to stem, and in some ways exacerbated, the Great Hunger.  Puleo relates the efforts of a second critical character, Father Theobald Mathew, a Catholic priest who had been devoting his time and energy to the temperance movement. Situated in one of the hardest hit regions of hunger, Mathew’s worked shifted from an endeavor to save the world from the scourge of drink to a monumental effort to secure food for an increasing number of starving souls. He also led an effort to inform and implore English officials to provide basic resources to stem the starvation. 

Puleo’s first two chapters focus on Mathew’s important, albeit limited, success in securing food at the local level and the more dismal results from governing officials in Ireland and England.

Transatlantic communication, limited to the speed of sailing ships, slowed even further in winter months, and little information about the plight reached the United States as it played out in 1846.  

But in late January 1847, a ship arrived in Bennet’s home port of Boston that would ignite his passion and imagination, not for wealth, but for an opportunity to plan and execute the eponymous title of Puleo’s book.  The Hibernia arrived from England bringing with it news of the horrific hunger ravaging Ireland. At that pivotal moment, notes Puleo, “for the Forbes family, as well as the rest of America, everything changed.” The change, he writes, was born of “the stories … of unparalleled suffering, of disease and death, of hopelessness and utter despair among men, women, and, most gruesome of all, children.” 

And with that turning moment, Puleo takes the reader on a voyage through a compelling story filled with misfortune and misery, unnecessary death and devastation, and incompetent or uncaring public officials.  The story shifts, however, as the author shines a light on the work of Mathew and Forbes who employ their respective indomitable wills to bring together the people and resources to stop the catastrophe before it might run even more rampant.  

Father Mathew’s daily efforts in and around Cork may inspire some readers and exhaust others (this reader experienced both feelings). Forbes’s myriad skills in shipping, logistics, and business acumen that he transforms into domestic political diplomacy will fascinate.  And Puleo’s weaving together of these two men’s tales evokes hope that might transcend time if today’s readers realize that “Voyage of Mercy” can serve as a reminder that even philanthropy and sympathy need champions who can navigate shoals of cynicism and bureaucracy to allow the best of collective humanity to respond graciously to help those in need.  One of Forbess’ many challenges in launching a mission of mercy was to persuade the US Congress to refit loan him a US Navy ship, the Jamestown, to deliver food to Ireland.  

Puleo also touches briefly on quandaries that each of the two main figures face.  His brief reference to Forbes’s ultimate fortune from the opium trade might pose a dilemma for a reader wondering if they can ascribe the captain with the purity of heart suggested by the bulk of the book. He also provides a few pages to the problem faced by Mathew when he visits the United States to relate his thanks for the extraordinary efforts that saved so many of his people and to continue his temperance ministry. 

Upon arriving in America, Mathew is quickly pushed to use his profile to advocate for the abolition of slavery, something he believed in and had publicly expressed earlier but that he refrained from repeating as he focused on temperance issues throughout the United States where a statement on abolition would lose a large portion of his prospective temperance audience.  It may be that Puleo faced his own quandary in the amount he would relate about each of his main characters’ character.   The author decides to focus on the hunger and the heroic mission to mitigate it.

Puleo’s impeccable research and deft writing (disclosure – Puleo has taught at UMass Boston though we’ve never met) turns our attention to the bright rays of sunlight, in the form of human generosity, that can ultimately penetrate even the most turbulent of times.  These days a tale of mercy, as the one that plays out in this book, serves as both a worthwhile read and an important reminder that charity serves us all.     

John Duff is a professor of Environmental Law and Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.