In 1849, a 23-year-old man ventured out to find his fortune. Joining 40 other men from Prince Edward Island, he put his money in on the purchase of the Fanny, a small brig that would make the journey to California.
It was the era of the California Gold Rush and for this young man, described as stoutly-built and light-haired, it was the chance to find adventure.
His shipmates were impressed with him, stating he didn’t have a lazy bone in his body and a man that would not abandon his purpose.
While the man would not find his fortune, nor would anyone else, he would shape the fortunes of the small island province of Prince Edward Island in only a few decades time.
His name was James Colledge Pope, and he would be the first premier of Prince Edward Island.
I’m Craig Baird and this…is From John to Justin.
James Pope was born on June 11, 1826 in Bedeque, Prince Edward Island, the second son to Joseph and Lucy Pope. His father was born in England, and came over the island colony in 1817. Before long, he was the most important merchant to the west of Charlottetown.
As a young man of 14, James was sent to attend school at Saltash, and upon his return entered the family business.
The young James Pope was inspired by his father, who by the time of his birth was the third-largest shipowners in the colony. His father had entered colony politics in 1830, beginning a 23-year-career in the Legislative Assembly. His father was also the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1843 to 1849. He was known to be a vindictive man, a trait he would pass on to James.
Before James ventured into politics though, he would take that trip to California.
Having returned home without his fortune. Diagnosed with what was called camp fever, he came back into the family business and established his own store in Summerside. Thanks to his father’s political connections, James soon found himself appointed to various minor positions, including the collector of customs. This allowed him to slowly build a savings thanks to the five per cent of duties he collected as a fee. He would begin to use that money to have ships built, which would help the family business and slowly grow the fortune of James. He would eventually sell his shipyards for what would today be $85,000 and $328,000. With this, he began to put money into shares on ships and between 1853 and 1877, he had shares in 117 deep sea and coastal vessels, and was the sole owner of a majority of those ships during that time. In his best year, 1864, he registered 12 ships, 10 of which he sold to buyers in England. During the 19th century, James ranked third in the number of ships and total tonnage among individuals on Prince Edward Island.
It wasn’t just ships that he was involved in. He had a hand in many ventures including retail, real estate, fishing, agriculture and even ownership of a telegraph line between Summerside and New Brunswick.
In 1856, he would purchase the Mann Estate for over $500,000 in today’s funds. On his estate, he maintained a large herd of cattle, which brought in more funds for him to grow his fortune. He would claim at one point that his transactions with one Charlottetown merchant alone was more than the revenue of the entire colony.
A newspaper, friendly to him, would write,
“He keeps hundreds of poor men constantly employed.”
In 1857, James moved into island politics as a member of the Conservative Party. He was not elected yet, but he was drawn to defending the rights of landowners against the demands of tenant farmers for land reform. On June 1, he won in a by-election in Prince County, the riding of his father.
Almost immediately, Pope developed a reputation in the Legislative Assembly for being belligerent, making accusations against the government and often getting quite personal in his attacks of the Liberals.
Two years after first entering into politics, he was named to the Executive Council under Edward Palmer, the new premier of the colony.
Through this time, James’ brother William Henry was the dominant force in the family when it came to politics and James was often in his shadow. He had served as the colonial secretary, and James was often jealous of the ability of his brother to speak forcefully with skill and eloquence. James himself would state of his own abilities,
“He was a poor talker and when he did speak he did not always do so in the most satisfactory manner.”
As talks of confederation began to arise, the two brothers would take opposite sides on the matter. James would express his doubts over joining Confederation, while William was an advocate for the union. For James, there was no advantage for the island in regards to its economy, if it were to join Confederation. James would not take part in the Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences, and during the debate over joining Confederation that raged through November and December 1864, he voiced his opposition extensively to the union.
James was also a keen observer of the political tides. This was seen when Premier John Hamilton Gray, who supported Confederation, disputed with Edward Palmer, the anti-Confederation attorney general. William sided with Gray, and James, despite not supporting Confederation, did support Gray removing Palmer from his position. When the dispute continued to get worse into late-1864, both Gray and Palmer resigned and on Jan. 7, 1865, James Pope became premier.
James may have been a keen observer of politics, but there is no indication if he wanted to be premier. He was a businessman and there is no evidence he actively pursued the post of becoming premier.
As premier, James mostly focused on being a caretaker and would continue in his opposition to the idea of Confederation. William continued to be an advocate for Confederation, but James stated he was opposed to it because of the details adopted at the Quebec Conference, which did not give fair terms to residents of Prince Edward Island.
On July 1, 1866, his government purchased the massive estate of Sir Samuel Cunard, who had died the previous year. The estate took up 15 per cent of the entire island and its purchase allowed for 1,000 tenants in 20 townships to become freeholders.
In 1866, James brought forward his No Terms Resolution, which stated that no union with Canada could ever be accomplished. This resolution led his brother to resign from government.
At the time, the vast majority of Prince Edward Island residents were against union with Canada, and even if James was not opposed to Confederation privately, publicly he would make it a cornerstone of his premiership. Many on the island feared that joining Canada would be forced upon them without their consent. In order to prevent that, he adopted the No Terms Resolution so there was no room for misunderstanding.
The reason I bring up the fact that James may not have been adamantly opposed to Confederation privately is because he refused to send an anti-Confederation delegate to London in 1866 to support Nova Scotia’s anti-Confederation delegate Joseph Howe. When in London himself on private business, he also made no effort to meet Howe. He would also convince the delegates at the final conference from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to support an $800,000 grant from the federal government to buy lands on the island. In September 1866, he sent out a letter to Samuel Leonard Tilley stating that a railway or canal to the island would be something that could persuade the population to join Confederation.
Unfortunately for James, the $800,000 proposal was seen by residents of the island as bribery and it would cause the support for the Conservatives to tank.
In 1867, the island held its next election and the Conservatives lost the election. Not only did the anger over the $800,000 proposal hurt the Conservatives in the election, but the fact they were seen as pro-landlord also caused residents to not support the party.
At the time, Prince Edward Island was divided over the issue of school funding and separate schools. The Liberal government refused to provide public grants to Roman Catholic education institutions, which greatly angered the Catholics on the island. Meanwhile, James promised to provide aid to all efficient schools open to government inspection, regardless of who controlled them.
The entire issue would cause the Liberal government to fall, and James would form a coalition between his party and the Liberals who did not support the party line with schools. He was able to get Liberals to his side by promising not to act on the question of schools, nor the issue of joining Confederation, until an election was held.
As a result, in 1870, James was once again the premier of island and he would focus on the economy with the construction of a railway on the island in 1871. James was an advocate for quite some time of a railroad on the island, despite its small size. He would speak passionately in speeches about the economic advantages of having a railroad, and said it would bring in a huge influx of American tourists.
Frank MacKinnon would describe this second government for James Pope, saying
“Religion and union being barred, they made the railway their politics.”
Unfortunately, the railroad construction bankrupted the island as it cost more than the island’s treasury could handle.
James’ government would fall in 1872 and James would be forced to resign.
With the economy of the island bankrupted, the Canadian government provided a bail out and this would shift the public opinion of the island towards joining Canada.
The Liberal government would go to Ottawa as a delegation to seek terms for the admission of Prince Edward Island into Canada. Ottawa would agree to take over the railroad, provide funds to settle the land question and assume the debts of the colony.
The Liberals then called an election on the proposal but James and his Conservatives argued that the terms were not good for the island, and told residents that if his party was elected, he would get more favourable conditions. He stated he was a personal friend of Sir John A. Macdonald, the prime minister of Canada, and that their friendship would help the island in its move towards joining Confederation.
In the April 1873 election, James and the Conservatives won 20 of 30 seats.
Once again premier, for the third time, he approached Ottawa about joining Confederation and he was able to increase the promised subsidy to the island by an extra $25,000.
On July 1, 1873, Prince Edward Island entered Confederation. Two months later, James resigned as the premier of the province and took a seat in the House of Commons.
He would return to the Legislative Assembly in 1875 but lost his seat in the 1876 election.
The following year, he once again returned to the House of Commons and from 1878 to 1882, he was the Minister of Marine and Fisheries. Overall, he would accomplish little in this post. His nephew would say of him,
“He was not an office man, nor given to the regular and methodical treatment of correspondence.”
Most of the time, he focused on matters of patronage, including pushing for his father to be named the Lt. Governor of Prince Edward Island.
For the last years of his life, he dealt with poor health and growing anxiety over his business losses. His brother had died in 1879, and over the years his business losses had mounted to the point that his mental and physical health was severely compromised. He would rest in Prince Edward Island in after 1881 when he took a leave of absence, where his doctor was future prime minister Sir Charles Tupper. By the time he returned, it was felt he should no longer be in cabinet as the work was too hard on his health.
By 1883, he was legally declared to be of unsound mind and incapable of managing his own affairs.
James would pass away in Summerside, Prince Edward Island on May 18, 1885 at the age of 58.
The Montreal Gazette would write of his passing, stating
“The honourable gentleman had been ailing for some time from softening of the brain, and death was not unexpected.”
Overall, very little would be reported of his death.
Chief Justice Sir Robert Hodgson, would describe James in a letter to Sir John A. Macdonald, stating
“A man of good sound common sense, not highly educated, of indomitable courage, perseverance and energy. Proud and ambitious.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Biographi, Library and Archives Canada, Wikipedia, Montreal Gazette