Robert Forbes began life in Jamaica Plain, but apparently he didn't stay for long. As was common in his day, he entered the working world at an early age, under the auspices of his uncles, the Perkins brothers. After serving in the family company, he went on to an illustrious career in public service, being responsible for setting up coast guard lifeboats along the coast and lakes. His method for rigging sails became standard in the industry, and his role in bringing food to Ireland during the potato famine - see here - was celebrated in his day. The story of the Perkins brother's enterprise deserves its own entry, soon to come.
You can visit the Forbes House in Milton - formerly the China Trade Museum.
New York Times November 24, 1889
Robert B. Forbes Dead.
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 sea at an early age, making a voyage to Europe in a little topsail schooner when only six years old. The vessel was captured by a British frigate. At the age of thirteen Capt Forbes went to sea before the mast, having been for a time in the store of his uncles, James and Thomas H. Perkins of Foster's Wharf, and he made his first voyage to China.
At the age of twenty he was Captain of one of his Uncle's ships, and the next year, 1825, he went to San Francisco, where not a house could be seen on the beach. During the first ten years of his seagoing life he was not on shore more than six months. His connection with the China trade was a leading feature of his experience, and when about thirty years old he retired from the sea and became a merchant. After retiring from his roving sea life he settled down and married, and for the next four years he lived on Temple-place, Boston, having for his next-door neighbor his uncle, Thomas H. Perkins.
Capt Forbes met with heavy reverses in the crisis of 1837, and to retrieve his fortunes again went to China. He arrived at Hong-Kong when the affairs of foreign merchants were in a serious condition, and shortly after his arrival he and his associates were imprisoned for five weeks. He was finally released, and carried on his business at Canton when the English merchants shut up their factories, exchanging goods for tea. When it was seen that the British Government was likely to blockade Canton and bring the Chinese to terms, Capt. Forbes and his partners in the firm, Russell & Co., of which he was a member, pushed their business and secured handsome profits.
In 1840 Capt. Forbes went back to Boston with a large fortune. The next year he visited Europe, and on returning home again, for the nine years following engaged in commerce at home. In 1849 he went to China again, and on the voyage saved several lives, for which he was presented with a medal by the Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society. Lloyd's Shipwreck Society of London, and the Massachusetts Humane Society. One of his conspicuous acts was his aid to the sufferers of the Irish famine of 1846-7, when the United States Government sent him out in command of the frigate Jamestown. In 1858 he went on a Government expedition to the Pacific ocean. In the civil war he organized the coast guard. He was one of the founders of the Sailor's Snub Harbor and was the inventor of the "Forbes Rig." He wrote many articles on sea-faring matters.