The Stormy Petrel Of B.C. Politics - The Tale Of Amor De Cosmos

By Norman K Archer

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The tale of Amor de Cosmos"A long and lean wolf in that sheep's clothing, steeped in duplicity." That is how Victoria's first newspaper, the Victoria Gazette, described the flamboyant founder and first editor of its archrival, the British Colonist. He became British Columbia's second Premier and probably should have been its first, because without him, there may never have been a Canadian province on the Pacific coast.

William Alexander Smith was born in Nova Scotia on August 20, 1825, the son of Jesse and Charlotte Smith, United Empire Loyalists. He was educated at King's College, Windsor, before his parents took their six children to Halifax in 1840, where Bill joined the Dalhousie College Debating Club. Since the family finances were limited, Bill worked as a clerk for Whitham's, a wholesale grocer. Then came the California Gold Rush. In 1852, he travelled via New York, St. Louis and Salt Lake City and set up shop as a photographer in California at a place known as Mud Springs, later renamed El Dorado.

A name change struck Bill as a good idea. There were so many "Bill Smiths" around, how could one establish one's identity with a name like that? He became the first person in California to undergo a legal name change, by a special act of the State Assembly. He chose Amor de Cosmos, which, in fact, means nothing, but which he claimed meant "Lover of the Universe" for, he said, the name "tells what I love most - order, beauty, the world, the universe."

In 1858, the Fraser Canyon gold strike in New Caledonia (now mainland British Columbia) brought Amor to Victoria. Ever spoiling for a fight, he saw his opportunity to enter the political fray by starting a newspaper. The only other paper available was the Victoria Gazette, which was chiefly the mouthpiece for Governor James Douglas, the Hudson's Bay Company policies and the status quo. Quickly sensing the restlessness many people felt towards the rigid and dictatorial position taken by the government, Amor de Cosmos' British Colonist soon honoured its claim to be the voice of the people and, issue after issue, took direct aim at the Governor. Thus infuriated, Douglas imposed an obscure law and demanded that the British Colonist post an £800 sterling bond. But Douglas had underestimated the readers who, as soon as the paper reported it, rose to the occasion and came up with money. De Cosmos' paper went from strength to strength, and soon drove the Victoria Gazette out of business.

De Cosmos confessed he had started his newspaper "for amusement during the winter months," but he quickly discovered what a powerful tool he had in his hands to shape his own political ambitions. He wanted to be known as a true political visionary, a representative of the people and a social reformer. But neither his appearance, nor his personality, helped his cause. He was seen as aloof, vain, arrogant and, as Dr. Helmcken once remarked, "uncommonly egotistical." The cane he carried was not only to help him plod through the muddy streets of the city, but was often used to reinforce his sidewalk debates as a weapon both of offence as well as defence. Somehow, he managed to antagonize everyone, both his allies and his enemies. John Robson, who also later became Premier, said, "We have no reason to love him - as a politician we differ from him in many things and distrust him in everything." But still he battled on, and one cannot help but admire his steadfastness of purpose.

He argued passionately for a number of causes: public education, an end to special privileges for the upper class, the institution of responsible representative government through an elected assembly, the union of Vancouver Island with the Mainland, a Confederation of all the North American colonies into a united Canada, a coast-to-coast railway and a diversity in the economy - what he called the "Three F's" - farming, forestry and fishing.

Then he came up with the preposterous idea of a ferry service between Swartz Bay and the Mainland. What amazing foresight! To advance his causes, he left the newspaper business, entered politics and became an elected member of Vancouver Island's Assembly, pushing his point until the Island became part of the new province of British Columbia in 1866. His second goal was to spearhead the entry of British Columbia into what he conceived as an independent Canada, loosely associated with Great Britain. He achieved this goal in 1871 against violent local opposition, but earned for himself the well-deserved title as one of the "Fathers of Confederation." He was somewhat grudgingly rewarded with election as both Victoria's representative in the Provincial Legislature and its Member of Parliament in Ottawa. But his volatile temper did not endear him to the establishment and although, from many perspectives, he was the natural choice as the first Premier of the province, he was passed over in favour of a lesser man, John Foster McCreight. But a year later, McCreight resigned after a non-confidence motion, and de Cosmos stepped into his shoes on December 23, 1872.

With the bit between his teeth, de Cosmos, supported by his liberal-minded cabinet, pursued his objectives of political reform, economic expansion and the establishment of public schools. Then, he turned his attention to a new vision - the building of a dry dock in Esquimalt. He fudged the accounts, manipulated the terms of Union to extract money from the federal government and ruffled too many local feathers. An angered local populace marched down to the Legislative Buildings, chanting to the tune of "John Brown's Body," "We're gonna hang de Cosmos on a sour apple tree." Terrified for his life, the Premier escaped by a back door and submitted his resignation next morning.

He lost his seat in Ottawa at the next federal election, and in retirement in Victoria, his eccentricities escalated. He never married and had very few friends. He had grandiose manners, was prone to public outbursts of tears, a fiery temper and a readiness to engage in fist fights at the slightest provocation. He had strange phobias, such as a paranoid fear of electricity. Always a loudmouth and a heavy drinker, he became totally incoherent. He would hide around corners and jump out at passers-by with a volley of abuse and threatening gestures. He once sprang out on the Mayor and assaulted him violently with his cane. In 1895, he was declared insane and removed to the asylum. He died two years later at the age of 71, and is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery. Only a few dozen people bothered to show up for his funeral on a warm summer afternoon in July, to lay to rest the "stormy petrel of British Columbia's politics."

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