Forbes House Museum
Backstory and Context
A thriving trade with China formed one of the mainstays of the American shipping industry in the 19th century. Robert Bennet Forbes established himself as one of Boston's leading China merchants and his house, now a museum of the American China trade, vividly recalls Forbes career.
Forbes was born into a mercantile family and became a merchant-sailor early in life. He joined the family trade firm when he was only 13 years old, and in 1820’s, at 16 years of age assumed responsibilities for his uncles’ firm in China. By the age of 21 he became captain of vessel. In 1839 he became head of Russell and Company, the largest American trading house in China. The biggest part of his wealth was derived from the opium and China Trade. He played a prominent role in the outbreak of the Opium War.
Except of being merchant, he also had other interests. He was active in ship construction, maritime safety, the opium trade, and charitable activities. 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. Forbes also wrote a great deal, authoring several interesting volumes.
The Forbes House was built in 1833 on land purchased in 1816 by John M. Forbes. Forbes was a friend and classmate of John Quincy Adams, and after serving as Consul in northern Europe, became Charge d’ Affaires in Buenos Aires when Adams was Secretary of State. The present house, which replaced an earlier building, was built by Captain Forbes, his younger brother, John M., and sisters, for their mother, Margaret Perkins Forbes, whose brothers, James and Thomas Perkins had founded the Boston-China Trade. This was the first of many China Trade associations with the house.
After four generations of the family lived here up until 1962, the museum was opened in 1964 by a descendant, H.A. Crosby Forbes, to celebrate the history of the Forbes family and the legacy of the China Trade.