Book Review: Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo


Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: Voyage of mercy : the USS Jamestown, the Irish famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission 
Narrator: Sean Patrick Hopkins
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Voyage of Mercy is a history of a United States mission to deliver food to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Hunger.  Approved by Congress, the military ship U.S.S. Jamestown sailed from Boston to Queenstown (Cobh) to deliver the good in the spring of 1847.  A naval ship was chosen to the unavailability of merchant vessels and the U.S.S. Constitution was even considered for the journey.

According to Puleo, the Jamestown mission was the first example of foreign aid and serves as a model of international disaster relief efforts.  The book focuses on two key characters.  Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced merchant ship captain from the Boston area (born in Jamaica Plain and buried in Forest Hills cemetery, and I coincidentally passed his former home-become-museum in Milton on the day I finished this book), captained the Jamestown and was recognized for his good character and generosity.  Father Theobald Matthew of County Cork, a noted temperance leader, organized the relief operations on the Irish side.

The book is good but if it has flaws it is Puleo’s tendency to be  about the goodness of the people behind the relief effort.  Nevertheless, despite the success of the mission it did face challenges that later international relief efforts also suffered from. Distribution of the food stuffs was controversial as to whether it should be retained in County Cork or throughout Ireland. There was also the issue of the limits of charitable contributions to address deep, structural problems, in this case the colonial exploitation of Ireland by the United Kingdom.  I couldn’t help seeing parallels in the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s response to the potato famine to the current day response of the Republican Party to the Covid Pandemic in the United States.

This is a good and well-researched history, although I feel that Puleo stretched it out where a shorter book may have been sufficient.  Also, while I don’t know where my Sullivan family ancestors originated, it is a common name in County Cork, so I could very well owe my existence to mission of the U.S.S. Jamestown.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

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