Amor de Cosmos

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: The interesting life of Amor de Cosmos

Barry SALE

Special to the Tribune

It is often said that British Columbia politics are strange.

That has been true for at least 150 years.

This is the story of Amor de Cosmos, B.C.’s second premier, and it is as unusual as it is true.

He was born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1825, where he had a normal Victorian childhood.

In 1840, at the age of 15, he moved to Halifax to take on a job as a mercantile clerk.

While he was there, he became interested in politics, and he joined the Dalhousie debating club. Life was reasonably good, but de Cosmos felt that he was missing something, and in 1845, he joined the fledgling Mormon Church.

He also began to dabble in photography.

By 1852, at the age of 27, he was stricken with a bad case of wanderlust, and he pulled up stakes and emigrated to Kanesville, Iowa, where he established a daguerreotype gallery.

The following year, he moved again, this time to California, where the gold rush was in full swing.

He set up a new photographic studio and prospered.

The following year, his brother joined him and they opened a branch office in Oroville, California, where they engaged in several risky business ventures, including taking pictures of naked people and producing naughty postcards.

It has been pointed out that if one goes back far enough, de Cosmos could be said to have been the father of the California porn industry.

That same year, 1854, he legally changed his name to Amor de Cosmos, which literally means “Lover of the Universe.”

Many believe that the name change was an attempt to avoid legal proceedings because of his shady business activities.

By 1858, de Cosmos found himself in Victoria, B.C. He had followed the gold rush north, and he found the capital city of the British colony of Vancouver Island much to his liking.

He established a newspaper, the Daily British Colonist (it is still operating today as the Victoria Times-Colonist) and he was its editor until 1863.

In his editorials, de Cosmos established himself as a liberal in the true sense of the word.

He argued for free enterprise, public education, an end to economic and political privileges, and government by representative assembly.

He wanted to see policy developed to encourage the development of farming, forestry and fisheries in the colony, and he was a vocal opponent to the administration of Gov. James Douglas, which he decried as a conservative, British, old boy network.

Thus it was that in the fall of 1863, de Cosmos resigned his position at the newspaper and entered into provincial politics.

He had three main goals: the union of Vancouver Island with the rest of B.C., the entry of B.C. into confederation with Canada, and to link B.C. with the rest of Canada by rail.

For the next 19 years he served as Victoria’s representative on the Vancouver Island House Assembly, then in the BC Legislative Assembly, and finally as Member of Parliament in the Federal House of Commons.

De Cosmos was instrumental in the merging of the Vancouver Island and New Caledonia colonies to form the province of British Columbia in 1867. He also worked diligently to bring B.C. into confederation, which occurred on July 20, 1871.

Some historians have called him “B.C.’s Father of Confederation.”

In 1872, the Lt. Governor, Joseph Trutch, asked De Cosmos to form a new B.C. government and to take over the job as premier.

De Cosmos was more than willing to do so, and he appointed a cabinet made up of reformers. His announced agenda included political reform, economic expansion, development of public institutions (especially schools) and a reduction of bureaucracy. (Does that sound familiar?)

Unfortunately, de Cosmos proved to be as mediocre in power as he was brilliant in opposition. He was a shameless entrepreneur, and his attempts to obtain monetary guarantees from Ottawa to complete the Esquimalt dry dock and to move the CPR terminus to Victoria under threat of pulling out of the union with the rest of Canada gained him some major political enemies.

In addition, some under the table land speculation, support of a very questionable Texada Island iron mine project, and more than one conflict of interest scandal led to his removal as Premier in February of 1874.

As the story goes, an angry mob of Victoria citizens marched down to the Legislature chanting to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” the words “We’re going to hang de Cosmos on a sour apple tree!”

Fearing for his life, de Cosmos escaped through a back door and submitted his resignation the next morning.

However, de Cosmos continued to be re-elected and to serve as the MP for the City of Victoria.

He continued to push for the completion of the transcontinental railway with a Victoria terminus.

He also became a vocal opponent to land concessions to First Nations peoples, arguing that establishing treaties and providing land titles were a hindrance to settlers of European descent — a stance for which we are still paying today.

In 1882, the voters of Victoria had had enough, and de Cosmos was voted out of office.

He chose to take his retirement in Victoria, but it was not a quiet one.

De Cosmos had always had an argumentative personality — he never married and had very few close friends.

He had grandiose manners and was known for public outbursts with tears, anger, swearing, and even fisticuffs.

He was very eccentric and had some phobias, including an extreme and irrational fear of electricity.

After his retirement, he became a heavy drinker and was involved in several street brawls.

On one occasion he attacked and beat Victoria’s mayor with his cane because of some local by-law which had been passed.

His eccentricities intensified, and he was often seen wandering the streets of Victoria, unkempt and wild eyed, accosting strangers and threatening them with verbal and physical abuse.

In his more lucid moments, he threw his support behind a series of strange and even nonsensical projects. One notable scheme was the founding of a food delivery company to supply hot meals to prospectors in the Klondike gold fields.

As more and more of his plans fell apart, de Cosmos became even more disconnected and reclusive.

His personality deteriorated to the point where, in 1895, he was declared “of unsound mind” and was committed to an institution.

There, he became increasingly more incoherent, and he died in 1897 at the age of 72.

Only a handful of people attended his funeral. He was buried in the historic Ross Bay Cemetery.

Even today, de Cosmos’ unusual name and his colourful career in provincial politics reminds us of B.C.’s sometimes bizarre approach to government and its strange tolerance for unorthodox public figures.

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