After talking about the first premier of British Columbia, John McCreight, a man who never wanted the job, we move on to one of the most famous men to ever hold the post of premier in the Pacific province, Amor De Cosmos.
Amor De Cosmos was born William Alexander Smith in Nova Scotia to United Empire Loyalist parents on Aug. 20, 1825.
He was educated at King’s College in Windsor, and became to work as a mercantile clerk in Nova Scotia after graduating. During this time, he attended classes in a grammar school run by future prime minister Sir John Sparrow David Thompson.
Smith then went to Dalhousie University where he joined the debating club and became the protégé of Joseph Howe, a very prominent politician in the colony.
After returning home, he began working as a clerk for the Charles Whitman Company.
In 1845, when he was 20, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In 1852, Smith decided to leave his home and move to New York City. He ended up settling in Kanesville in what is now Iowa where he operated a gallery for two months.
Then, the California Gold Rush caught his interest. With a group, he journeyed west towards California, wintering in Utah. He eventually went on alone and reached Placerville, California in June 1853. It was there where he opened a new studio and began to make a good living taking pictures of miners.
Throughout his time in California, he had various businesses of varying success. He was also joined by brother Charles Smith.
In 1854, stating he was a lover of the entire universe, he had his name officially changed to Amor De Cosmos, which means Lover of Universe. He said that it paid tribute,
“to what I love most, love of order, beauty, the world, the universe.”
His critics later in life stated he changed his name to avoid legal proceedings due to shady business dealings. Likely it was because the mining camps were swimming with people who had the last name Smith, and he wanted to set himself apart so he could get his mail.
Charles moved to Fort Victoria in 1858, where he began to work as a contractor and builder. De Cosmos went north to see what the area was like and after finding he liked it, he wrapped up his affairs in California and moved to Vancouver Island.
There was also a lot of opportunity in Victoria, the booming capital of the colony that was once a small village but was now a city thanks to the Fraser Gold Rush.
It was there that De Cosmos founded The Daily British Colonist, which continues to operate to this day as the Victoria Times-Colonist. It published its first issue on Dec. 11, 1858. In that first issue, he promoted a federation of the North American colonies. The mentorship he received from Joseph Howe led him to push for responsible government in his newspaper in Victoria. He stated that government should,
“run according to the well understood wishes of the people.”
He believed in free speech, free assembly, representative institutions and that to vote, a person needed to have ownership of property. For him, voters should pay taxes and be a resident of the community.
He remained as the editor of the newspaper until 1863, and quickly emerged as a prominent opponent of the Governor of British Columbia, Sir James Douglas.
For De Cosmos, he did not like the conflict of interest within the governorship of Douglas, shown in the fact the elected assembly was made up of present and former members of the Hudson’s Bay Company and were even related to Douglas.
De Cosmos said,
“The magnitude of the questions at stake demand the election of men who are independent of the company in every way.”
De Cosmos criticized the power that the Hudson’s Bay Company had in the colony, and felt that Douglas and his associates controlled all aspects of what went on even after Douglas retired in 1864.
De Cosmos attacked Douglas so harshly, including calling him a traitor, that eventually Douglas tried to suppress the newspaper by posting a $2,500 bond on it. De Cosmos raised the money needed within two days from his subscribers.
Within six months of starting the newspaper, it is publishing three times a week, and within a year, five days a week.
In his newspaper, De Cosmos argued for unrestricted free enterprise, public education, an end to economic and political privileges, and the implementation of responsible government.
He says in 1860,
“What we want, are men who will take the helm and steer the ship of state boldly into the ocean of progress out of sight of the headlands of old-fogyism.”
Of course, his newspaper often got him in trouble. At one point, he was arrested for libeling the Speaker of the House, and was escorted to the Assembly Hall to apologize in person. He wrote the next day criticizing the government once more.
On another occasion, he was beaten up in the street, arriving at work with a bloody face and torn clothes. By 1864, he has sold the newspaper and is now focusing in on politics.
De Cosmos was also one of the first British Columbians to advocate for the economic development of the three Fs, farming, forestry and fisheries.
Almost as soon as he arrived in Victoria, De Cosmos started to invest in real estate. Eventually, his total holdings were over $118,000, although he owed at least three-quarters of that in mortgages.
He also invested in a sawmill, cattle farm and quartz mine.
De Cosmos ran in the Jan. 7, 1860 House of Assembly election.
Throughout the election campaign, he attacks his opponents heavily. He receives his own attacks as well, with George Cary saying De Cosmos was nothing more than a Nova Scotian with a strange name who fled the United States to escape the law.
In the final vote, De Cosmos finished third with 91 votes. He was furious, and blamed Black voters for not voting for him. He wrote in his newspaper,
“The colored people who have controlled the election are not the only parties to blame.”
This began a long campaign of racism in his newspaper against Black settlers, which I will touch on more later.
Eventually the Black votes were disqualified, and winner G.T. Gordon was disqualified as he wasn’t a landowner and was guilty of embezzlement. He wound up in jail but he was able to flee to the United States where he eventually died in the Civil War.
Even with this, De Cosmos still didn’t have a seat in the legislature.
In 1863, De Cosmos became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, remaining in that role until the union with the Colony of British Columbia in 1866. Running for the Legislature at that point was complicated by his name change, and he was forced to run as William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos.
As a member of the Legislature, De Cosmos was fiery and once hit another MLA over the head with his cane in anger.
In 1866, he formed the Confederation League to raise public support for union with Canada.
This league was formed due to the fear of annexation to the United States, the growing debt due to the huge population growth and the need for government-funded services to support the population in the colony. Before long, it became popular enough to establish branches in New Westminster, Hope, Yale and Lytton. On Sept. 14, 1868, the league held its Yale Conference with 26 Confederation League delegates passing 37 resolutions, all of which outlined terms for joining the Dominion of Canada.
He remained a member of the new assembly and was a leading force in advocating for British Columbia to join Confederation.
At the time, BC’s Governor was Frederick Seymour, who opposed uniting with Canada. It was felt by Seymour and his supporters that a union with Canada would threaten the privileged colonial status of British Columbia. There was also a growing desire by some, mostly American settlers who came during the gold rush, to join the United States.
When the Americans bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, the possibility of British Columbia joining America was becoming more likely.
But, then Seymour died in 1869 and the anti-Confederation winds died down.
Despite wanting Canada to admit British Columbia into Confederation, De Cosmos was not an ardent supporter of the British Empire. For him, he felt that a federal union involving the separation of Canada from England was the right path for the country.
“I was born a British colonist, but do not wish to die a tadpole British colonist. I do not wish to die without having the rights, privileges and immunities of the citizen of a nation.”
Even though he wanted British Columbia in Confederation, he wanted it on terms that were favourable to the province. He said in 1870,
“I would not object to a little revolution in British Columbia after Confederation if we were treated unfairly, for I am one of those who believe that political hatred is a test to the vitality of a state.”
By the time that British Columbia joined Confederation on July 20, 1871, De Cosmos was the leading pro-Confederation figure in the entire province. The Vancouver World wrote that he was,
“The rallying cry of the predominant political party in British Columbia.”
It was also in 1871 he was elected to both the provincial legislature and House of Commons, something that was allowed at the time.
As a politician, he was passed over to be the first premier of the province due to his volatile nature that had many in the province seeing him as someone who would not make a good premier.
Despite that, in 1872 when McCreight resigned, De Cosmos was asked to form the new government as premier.
De Cosmos took on the job on Dec. 23, 1872, and immediately filled his cabinet with Reformers. While his time as premier was short, the men he had in his cabinet would dominate British Columbia politics for the next decade.
With his commitment to responsible government, De Cosmos banned the Lt. Governor from sitting in on cabinet meetings to advise ministers.
His government then pushed an agenda of political reform, public schools and economic expansion. He also reduced the number of public officials, implemented a secret ballot and, in a progressive move for the time, extended property rights to married women.
Throughout his time as premier, De Cosmos was often away from the Legislature in London and Ottawa.
He wanted to stimulate the economic growth of Victoria, and was able to obtain federal funds for a dry dock on Vancouver Island. This dry dock would lead to the end of his premiership due to issues related to the steel industry of the province.
As premier, he saw a benefit to the province building up its steel industry thanks to the new iron deposits found on Texada Island, using coal from Vancouver Island. He involved himself in the venture, which resulted in a conflict of interest as he was also premier of the time and could influence the profits and success of the company using his position. This resulted in the Texada Scandal and an inquiry was held.
As part of the drydock discussion, De Cosmos stated that the money the government was going to spend to build the railroad through the mountains should be spent on the dock instead.
This angeredthe public immensely and on Feb. 7, 1874, a crowd of 800 stormed the Legislative buildings, leaving De Cosmos hiding in a back room.
This partly led to his resignation as premier on Feb. 9, 1874. He resigned as an MLA that same day. The scandal was one reason for this resignation, but Canada had also abolished the ability to serve as both an MLA and an MP, and De Cosmos wanted to remain as an MP.
On Feb. 9, the opponents of De Cosmos presented him with charges that he extorted $150,000 from Sir John A. Macdonald and that he misused his office for personal financial gain.
The Commission found him not guilty for conflict of interest after his resignation. Despite the fact he had the accusations against him dropped, the aura of corruption would follow him. His critics continued to call him a traitor to local interests.
De Cosmos continued to serve in the House of Commons as an MP, pushing for a railroad on Vancouver Island as part of the agreement to build a transcontinental railway to British Columbia.
During the Pacific Scandal, De Cosmos was highly pursued by both sides to help hold up the government. It was said that when he arrived in Ontario for Parliamentary Sessions, he was hugged by Liberal leader Edward Blake and J.D. Edgar, the Liberal Party whip, as soon as he stepped off the train.
When he left Toronto for Ottawa, Senator Alexander Campbell was in the same train car as him, trying to convince him to back the Conservatives.
The delay over the building of the railroad angered him so much that in 1879, he introduced an unsuccessful secession motion to have British Columbia separate from Canada.
In 1880, the provincial government appointed De Cosmos as the special agent to Ottawa with the goal of persuading the government to build an Island section of the CPR. When this failed, De Cosmos went to London to petition Queen Victoria. He came back to Canada in November 1881 without success.
He also emerged as the leading opponent against land concessions to the First Nations of the province as he felt it hindered the economic growth of the province. He also actively contributed to anti-Chinese sentiment in the province.
He called both the Indigenous and Chinese inferior races. He considered the Indigenous to be receiving preferential treatment from the government over the needs of the white settlers. He said that the Indigenous should,
“earn his living the same as a white man.”
In his newspaper, he once wrote,
“all the Indian men today are a horde of thieves and cutthroats and the women a community of prostitutes.”
He added that the land the Indigenous were on would be better for,
“a race more enlightened and by nature and habits better fitted to perform the task of converting what is now wilderness into productive fields and happy homes.”
He added at another point, fearing an Indigenous uprising, he said,
“Nothing short of lead or hemp will bring the lawless tribes to their senses.”
When Mifflin Gibbs, a Black Canadian, was elected to Victoria City Council in 1867, De Cosmos attempted to petition the governor to investigate the election and make poll books public, believing that Gibbs had been elected through corrupt means. The governor refused to do this.
Unsuccessful in his attempts to have the election investigated, he turned to his newspaper where he called Black settlers,
“lowborn, secretly branded prejudice race of aliens. The fraud was committed by a degraded race, who are banded together, who can never amalgamate with us, ignorant of self-government, of British institutions, some of whose backs show the marks of the lash of slavery.”
After losing the 1882 election, De Cosmos retired to Victoria where he would often give speeches thanks to his excellent speaking ability.
Overall, his time in Parliament is now seen as undistinguished. His last speech in Parliament was a challenge to England, when he stated that Canada should have the right to negotiate its own trade treaties.
It was around this time that his well-known eccentric tendencies began to get worse. He never married, had few friends and became prone to public outbursts of crying, along with a temper that led to many first fights. His habit of drinking also began to increase in his later years. At the same time, he was still respected for his boundless energy and keen intellect. It was said he had the largest library in British Columbia.
The Victoria Daily Times wrote,
“Not being a magnetic man, he had not many warm personal friends, but the few he did have he retained to the last.”
He was said to walk with a frock coat, top hat, and a big-handled stick hung on the forearm and not used for any sort of locomotion.
He also started to develop various phobias including a fear of electricity.
One person said of De Cosmos at this time,
“he remained in Victoria, wandering along city streets in his familiar garb, occasionally brawling with old opponents, sometimes incoherent in his public utterances.”
At one point, he made headlines when he fell on Oct. 17, 1893 and broke his leg above the knee.
By 1895, he was declared to be of unsound mind. Today, it is believed that he had dementia.
One very odd thing he tried to do was found a hot food delivery company to prospectors in the Klondike Gold Rush. The logistics and lack of available technology for this scared away investors and it never got off the ground.
In late-June 1897, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, and on July 4, 1897, he died in Victoria.
There is no major funeral for De Cosmos, like others such as James Douglas received. Only a modest funeral, and few stand at his grave bidding him farewell.
Mount De Cosmos on Vancouver Island is named for him, as is Amor De Cosmos Creek near Campbell River.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Wikipedia, Williams Lake Tribune, British Columbia An Untold History, On The Cusp Of Contact, The National Dream, Go Do Some Great Thing, Langley Advance, Vancouver Sun, Victoria Daily Times, Victoria Times Colonist,
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