Stephen Puleo’s newest narrative history, Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission, brings to stage a cast of characters one would not want to miss.
Father Theobald Mathew. Orator Daniel Webster. Captain Robert Bennet Forbes. Secretary Charles Trev. A million starving Irish—and the potato.
Father Theobald Mathew grew up in “wealth and station,” says Puleo, in the Thomastown House. But at age 10, he knew. He wanted to be a priest. A humble man, Mathew often served in the least-preferred time slots and tasks. The Irish trusted him. So much so that Father Mathew’s fame, after fighting against alcoholism, was international even before the potato crop failed.
On the American front, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and other great orators put to words the Irish’s gut-punch suffering and called citizens to action. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier responded by calling for a public meeting. Other members of the writing elite joined his efforts: Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott. The book reads like a 19th-century who’s who.
And then there’s Captain Forbes, a Bostonian, who clocked more nautical miles than most and loved his wife, Rose, whom he wrote a thousand letters detailing his life at sea.
What strikes me in this beautiful, piercing account is this: the giving. Americans gave despite their own need. Many were farmers who had grown the crop that they sent across the Atlantic. It wasn’t millionaires or today’s billionaires. The Choctaw Indians gave $170—who 16 years before had walked the Trail of Tears.
How might this story speak to us now?
The book moved me as I read beneath the COVID shadow. To learn the terrible handling of the starving people and that Moralism—a sect of evangelicalism, says Puleo—treated the Irish with cruel contempt. Decision makers like Secretary Charles Trevelyan, who could have helped, did not. After all, he believed the Irish deserved their suffering and that their death was a “cure.”
In heroic contrast, good responded. Generous goodness filled the U.S.S. Jamestown and sent it to strangers across the Atlantic. Why? Because there was a need. These Americans believed their abundance wasn’t only theirs. (St. Martin’s Publishing)
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