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FORBES, CHARLES JOHN, military official and politician; b. 10 Feb. 1786 in Gosport, Hampshire, England, ninth child of Robert Forbes and Elizabeth Cobb; m. Sophia Browne on 20 June 1815, and they had seven children; d. at Carillon, Canada East, 22 Sept. 1862.

Educated at the College of Altona in Denmark, (today in the Federal Republic of Germany), Charles John Forbes joined the Commissariat Department of the British army at age 19 in 1805. Daring, personable, and capable, he rose from a lowly clerkship to the rank of deputy commissary general in a few years. He spent most of his early military career in the Mediterranean area, serving in the Ionian Islands, in Egypt in 1807 (where he was imprisoned for some months), and in Sicily. He was also employed in 1813–14 in the Peninsular campaign and was present at the battle of New Orleans in January 1815. On 9 July 1817 he retired from the army on half pay.

After seven years of retirement spent with his wife and children at Corfu, in Italy, and in France, Forbes returned to the commissariat in 1824 and was ordered to Nova Scotia. One year later he was transferred to Montreal where, as deputy commissary general in charge of acquiring and transporting all supplies required by the army in his district, he remained for eight busy years. In 1833 he was sent to Jamaica and served there until sickness forced him to go to England two years later. On 13 Jan. 1836 he retired from the commissariat for the second time and was placed again on half pay.

While stationed in Montreal, Forbes had been responsible for providing the supplies needed to build the canals on the Ottawa River. He had purchased a large estate in 1827 near the eastern end of these works, at the village of Carillon. According to a relative, Forbes was a terrible speculator. He strenuously recommended that the entrance of the Carillon Canal be located on his property when plans for its construction were being made, but was unsuccessful. Forbes left his family at Carillon when he was transferred to the Caribbean in 1833, and to that quiet spot this worldly and well-travelled Englishman – who had spent more than 30 of his 50 years away from England – returned to settle permanently after his retirement in 1836.

The calm of Carillon was shattered in the fall of 1837 by the increasing political agitation in nearby Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes. Forbes’ role in the events of that year illustrates how useful the British authorities found military officers who had retired to the countryside. From early October onward, Sir John Colborne relied on Forbes for confidential information about the activities of the Patriotes at Saint-Benoît. On 22 October, after Colborne had decided to check the increasing unrest north of Montreal by moving a detachment of regulars from Bytown (Ottawa) to Carillon, Forbes leased a large stone building to the army to serve as a barracks for the troops. In mid November Forbes reported “Sedition . . . now reigns paramount.” On 28 November, after the battles at Saint-Denis and Saint-Charles in the Richelieu Valley [see Charles Stephen Gore; George Augustus Wetherall], Colborne urgently requested Forbes to raise “a thousand men” to counter the increasing strength of the Patriotes in the county of Deux-Montagnes. Forbes recruited over 800 in less than two weeks. Although command of these volunteers was given to Major Henry Dives Townshend, the officer commanding the garrison at Carillon, “General” Forbes – as he was styled locally – accompanied the men to Saint-Benoît where on 15 Dec. 1837 they met Colborne’s army advancing from Saint-Eustache [see Maximilien Globensky]. The following day, according to one of the volunteers, Alfred W. Stikeman, Forbes was with Colborne and his staff when the village was put to the torch. Together they watched “the whole of the troops galloping through the flames . . . everybody plundering, bringing hoard, stealing horses, furniture, sleighs, etc.” Later, Forbes’ volunteers were accused of outrageous acts of pillage as they returned home. The volunteers did not deny the charge; however, they did maintain that they were following the example set by the regulars. Sir John Colborne, of course, denied that the regulars had engaged in pillaging.

Following the troubles of 1837, Forbes enjoyed life at Carillon to the full. Like a true Tory squire, he entered into public affairs with zest. From 1837 until his death he served as a magistrate, and, following a by-election in 1842, represented the county of Deux-Montagnes in the Legislative Assembly for two years. On his estate Forbes was energy incarnate, pursuing experiments in agriculture, plunging into speculative (and unprofitable) enterprises from brewing to running a ferry, and revelling in the role of congenial host to countless visitors – governors, bishops, old soldiers, and seemingly dozens of relatives. Energetic and hospitable to the end, Charles John Forbes died at Carillon on 22 Sept. 1862 at age 76.

John Beswarick Thompson

BNQ, Soc. historique de Montréal, Coll. La Fontaine, lettres, 300 (mfm. at PAC). Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (Ottawa), Parks Canada, National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Hyacinth Lambart, “The Carillon barracks” (typescript, [1964]). MTCL, Forbes family papers. PAC, MG 24, A40, 10, pp.2703–4; 11, p.2946; 12, pp.3417–21; F87, 1, pp.52–53, 90; 169; RG 8, I (C series), 51, p.94; 55, pp.21–23; 75, pp.74–140; 136, pp.93–121; 170, pp.143–49; 368, pp.145–51. PRO, WO 42/17/160; 44/21, p.231; 55/1917; 61/2. Canada, Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1842, 1843. G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1837–38, XXXIX, 357, pp.517–18, Lower Canada and Upper Canada: further copies or extracts of correspondence relative to the affairs of Lower Canada and Upper Canada. . . . Montreal Gazette, 18 Jan. 1830, 7 Nov. 1837, 21 April 1842. Montreal Transcript, 11 Nov. 1837. Novascotian, 20 Jan. 1830. The British North American almanac . . . 1864 . . . , ed. James Kirby (Montreal, 1864). Cyrus Thomas, History of the counties of Argenteuil, Que., and Prescott, Ont., from the earliest settlement to the present (Montreal, 1896).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

John Beswarick Thompson, “FORBES, CHARLES JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed August 20, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forbes_charles_john_9E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forbes_charles_john_9E.html
Author of Article: John Beswarick Thompson
Title of Article: FORBES, CHARLES JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1976
Year of revision: 1976
Access Date: August 20, 2014