Manitoba Historical Society
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Was Amor de Cosmos The Louis Riel of British Columbia?

by Abraham J. Arnold

MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 28, 1971-72 season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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There is sufficient evidence to show that Amor de Cosmos played a very significant role in the history of British Columbia and consequently in the history of Canada, particularly in regard to the entry of British Columbia into Confederation. Since 1971 marked the Centennial of B.C. in Confederation, it was appropriate to observe the occasion with a presentation on Amor de Cosmos, who, in my view, is one of the most underwritten personalities in Canadian History. As far as I am aware, De Cosmos never met Louis Riel but the former did make his views known about the Métis leader. In October, 1870, De Cosmos wrote about the “Red River Difficulty”:

“... For twenty odd years before Confederation occurred, the Canadian papers, particularly those of Upper Canada, were crying down the Hudson Bay monopoly; were sympathising with the people of Red River; were inciting them to petition against their galling oppression; and over and above all, were promising them the largest liberty consistent with colonial dependence, nothing more nor less than representative institutions ... No sooner, however, do the Canadian Government ... insure themselves the possession of the country than they enact in the Dominion Parliament a constitution that falsified every previous profession of being in favor of free institutions for Red River ... Such an execrable constitution was treated as it deserved by the people of Red River under Riel ... The consequence is that today the people of Manitoba have as free a constitutional form of Government as the other Provinces of the Dominion. We are not disposed to justify all of the acts of the Red River Provisional Government, and particularly the execution of Scott, but we do not find any ground in the Canadian papers to justify their unqualified denunciations. Besides that, we believe that when present political antagonisms shall have disappeared in Canada, a more correct judgment will be passed by the press upon the conduct of the people of Red River. We had expected that Her Majesty’s Government would have issued a full and free pardon to the rebels, including Riel, O’Donahue and other leaders, as the best and magnanimous way of ending a political difficulty that was really produced by the illiberality of the Canadian Government. But in this expectation it appears we have been mistaken; for at last advice Riel, O’Donahue, and Lepine were said to be un-pardoned. With this exception, however, the Red River difficulty is at an end, and that, we hope will soon be adjusted.” [1]

In December, 1870, De Cosmos again wrote about “Manitoba Affairs” and reviewed some of the circumstances of the Riel Rebellion and the manner in which the Ottawa Government responded to it. He pointed out that “Governor Archibald arrived in Red River, as the real author of their liberties, Riel, escaped to a secure shelter from ‘the might that makes right’ ...”

Later in the same editorial he commented about “The contiguity of Manitoba to British Columbia.” He was possibly unaware of Manitoba’s actual boundaries at the time and was probably more directly concerned with the fact that simultaneously with the establishment of the Red River based province, Canada was taking control of all the Northwest Territories which were of course contiguous with British Columbia. This was to remove one of the stumbling blocks to B. C.’s entry into Confederation. In his second major comment about Manitoba De Cosmos added:

“... the way in which that country has been treated creates a kind of sympathy in its favor. The recent rebellion there has doubtless been of eminent service to liberty; and possibly has had its effect in producing a higher degree of liberality here. At any rate we feel bound to take a deep interest in the political and material development of Manitoba ...” [2]

Amor de Cosmos was born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1825, of United Empire Loyalist stock. Leaving Halifax in 1852, Smith reached California two years later. He was moved by a feeling of great idealism to change his name legally to Amor de Cosmos—“lover of the world.” De Cosmos was already living in Victoria when the Fraser River gold rush began early in 1858. That year, on December 11, he began his colorful public career with the founding of the Victoria newspaper, the British Colonist.

In his very first editorial he directed a sharp criticism to Governor James Douglas over his policy on the influx of population brought about by the gold discovery. The new editor wrote:

“Tens of thousands came eager to engage in the introduction of all the appliances of civilization and thus lay in a few weeks the foundation of a nation in a land almost unknown ... Unfortunately, for these colonies, Governor Douglas was not equal to the occasion. He wanted to serve his country with honor, and at the same time preserve the grasping interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company inviolate. In trying to serve two masters, he was unsuccessful as a statesman. His administration was never marked by those broad and comprehensive uses of government which were necessary to the times and to the foundation of a great colony. It ... was exclusive and anti-British; and belonged to a past age.

“The great mistake of the administration occurred early. Instead of taking the responsibility to throw the country open to free trade and colonization; instead of sinking all sordid considerations for the public good, we fear our executive gave honied words to those whom he would partially prohibit; made his policy approximate to ‘masterly inactivity’; published obstructive proclamations for acts; and excused all by a doubtful claim to ‘exclusive trade and navigation’ ...” [3]

What caused De Cosmos to evaluate Douglas so harshly? Tens of thousands of people did flock into British Columbia in early 1858, but many of them left again in frustration before the end of the year, talking about the “Fraser River Humbug.” It is true that many came in search of easy riches and perhaps with no idea of settling down. But there were also many others who might have remained had they received the proper encouragement. On May 8, 1858, Governor Douglas, who was then only the Governor of Vancouver Island, reported to the Colonial Secretary in London that at the end of April the first contingent of some 400 miners had arrived in Victoria from San Francisco on their way to the Fraser River. They included about 60 British subjects, an equal number of native-born Americans, together with Germans, Frenchmen and Italians. Douglas called them “a specimen of the worst population of San Francisco; the very dregs, in fact, of Society.” But he added “their conduct while here would have led me to form a very different conclusion.” Nevertheless Douglas began to raise doubts about the foreign element. “... If the country be thrown open to indiscriminate immigration”, he warned, “the interests of the Empire may suffer from the introduction of a foreign population, whose sympathies may be decidedly anti-British.” He suggested that this was something rather alarming and that there was a doubt as to the policy of permitting the free entrance of foreigners into the British Territory for residence without first requiring them to take the oath of allegiance, and to give security for their conduct. [4] Acting on this view he issued a proclamation declaring it illegal to engage in trade in British Columbia without a license from the Hudson’s Bay Company, for whom he claimed exclusive rights. [5]

The Colonial Office replied to Douglas on July 1, 1858, informing him that it was not British policy to exclude Americans and other foreigners from the gold fields and that he was “to oppose no obstacle whatsoever ... so long as they submit themselves in common with the subjects of Her Majesty, to the recognition of her authority and conform to such rules of police as you may have thought proper to establish ...” [6] And on July 16 he received a further despatch disallowing his proclamation on trade licenses from the Company. [7] Moreover he was urged to seek all legitimate means to secure the confidence and goodwill of the immigrants, and to exhibit no jealousy whatever of Americans or other foreigners who may enter the country.” [8]

With these circumstances as the background for his criticism, the Colonist editor, within a week of his debut, went after the governor again. This time he attacked Douglas for running the colony with a “Family Company Compact” and for appointments made on the basis of “toadyism, consanguinity and incompetency, compounded with white-washed Englishmen and renegade Yankees.” [9]

After four months of this type of villification Governor Douglas tried to muzzle the Colonist by invoking an old British regulation under which editors and publishers were obliged to post a large cash bond as guarantee that they would not break the law. The Governor announced on April 1, 1859, that the newspaper would have to put up $3,000.00 immediately or suspend publication. De Cosmos knew that this was no “April fool” joke and he ceased publication temporarily. This apparently brought a popular reaction in his favor, because three days later, at a public meeting, the amount demanded by the Governor, was subscribed in amounts of $25, $50 and $100. The paper was back in circulation in a few days and as De Cosmos wrote: “this was to enable the Colonist to lay barer still the rascality that was done under the guise of government and under the sceptre of Governor James Douglas.” [10]

Aliens and the Oath Problem

A major issue which often had controversial aspects in those years was the status of aliens in the British Pacific Colonies. On May 14, 1859, Douglas, who was by then governor of the British Columbia mainland colony as well as Vancouver Island, (they were still separate Crown Colonies) proclaimed an act for the naturalization of aliens in the mainland colony only. It included the controversial oath clause “on the true faith of a Christian.” [11]

“Governor Douglas is again behind the age in which he lives,” De Cosmos thundered on May 20. “He has issued a proclamation affording facilities for the naturalization of foreigners, but with an illiberality worthy of a bigot, he has excluded members of the Jewish persuasion from its benefits. He has prescribed a form of oath which it is well known Jews cannot and will not take.” [12]

Immediately after this editorial, Governor Douglas issued another proclamation entitled “The Oaths Act” relieving Jews of the necessity of taking the Christian form of oath and also making provision for Catholics, Quakers and others to take the form of oath most suitable to them. [13] This proclamation was dated May 19, 1859, one day before the Colonist editorial. De Cosmos immediately renewed the onslaught saying that Douglas “has mixed up the Quakers and the Jews in a very clumsy manner, and of course he also claimed that he antedated this new oaths act in order to avoid the criticism which De Cosmos had levelled in the first place. He dismissed the new proclamation as “a miserable subterfuge to conceal a forced concession to the Jews!” [14]

In this instance, however, De Cosmos’ attack against Douglas was later proven unjustified. Douglas had asked Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie, the first Chief Justice of British Columbia, to draft the proclamation for the naturalization of aliens. In a letter to the Governor when the first proclamation was being issued, Begbie advised that the form of oath was “not adapted to the case of Jews: and might be objectionable to Papists, while Quakers and Moravians object to swear altogether.” Begbie, therefore, proposed the issuing of another general proclamation that oaths “may be taken in the way most binding on the swearers’ conscience ...” he submitted a draft for the proclamation on oaths adding that it “should be kept quite separate and be of a different date.” [15] Douglas was therefore aware of the oath problem at the time of issuing the original Aliens Act and probably had the Oaths Act ready to be proclaimed when De Cosmos launched his editorial attack.

It may still be asked however: What was the actual effect of the Douglas Aliens Act in regard to the Jews? In the same issue of the Victoria Colonist in which De Cosmos attacked Douglas on this question there appeared the following advertisement:

“The Israelites of this city are respectfully invited to attend the meeting at Mr. Simpson’s Store ... at 3:00 o’clock on Sunday, 22nd inst., for the purpose of procuring a suitable place for a Burying Ground. Signed A. Blackman, I. A. Brunn, Committee.” [16]

This was the traditional first meeting of a group of Jews for communal purposes and it must have afforded an opportunity to discuss the Aliens Act and the editorial. Some Jews may have been upset by the Governor’s proclamation before the oath was amended. They were all living on Vancouver Island however, while the Aliens’ Act only applied to the mainland; thus it really didn’t affect them or would not have benefited them even if they wanted to become naturalized. What is really significant is the timing of the B. C. Aliens’ Act of 1859 since no one living in the mainland colony considered it important enough to become a naturalized citizen for at least four years. In the Vancouver Island colony, which acquired a settled population much more quickly and where some people wanted to become citizens there was no proper provision for naturalization until 1861.

Aliens and the Franchise

In November, 1859, the Colonist discussed the problem of aliens and the franchise in Vancouver Island. An editorial pointed out that “all persons born out of the British Dominions are excluded from the privileges of the franchise, unless they have obtained an act of the Legislature conferring naturalization.” An act could be passed for a single individual but a general act providing for naturalization would be much more desirable. [17] This was a prologue to the Legislative Assembly election of January, 1860 in which a group of Negro immigrants became political pawns in a controversy over voting rights. The government found itself confronted in this election with the first effort of De Cosmos to gain public office. Because of his open opposition to Governor Douglas the governor’s supporters were anxious to do whatever they could to keep him from being elected. There were three candidates for the two seats in Victoria. The first was George Hunter Carey, the Attorney-General, the second was Sclim Franklin, an auctioneer and pioneer Jewish resident who was also a government supporter and the third was Amor de Cosmos, the only opposition candidate. In an effort to secure a few more votes for the government, Attorney-General Caret devised a stratagem for giving the vote to Negroes. He felt sure they would be grateful to Governor Douglas for having permitted them to settle in Vancouver Island when they came from California. Carey announced that because of the Dred Scott decision of the United States Supreme Court by which the Negroes were stripped of American citizenship rights, they could not be considered as foreign citizens. In this way he decided they belonged in the same category as former British subjects who had renounced their citizenship and could therefore be given the right to vote on proof of three months residence and by taking the oath of allegiance. [18] It can be understood that the franchise was something very highly prized by the Negroes who saw it as an important symbol of equality and so when it was offered to them by a leading government official who were they to question it.

De Cosmos understood the strategy of his opponents and published a warning to the foreign population not to record a solitary vote. While favoring a general naturalization law, he was opposed to the granting of naturalization privileges as political patronage. However, he failed to carry his objections to the extent of an official protest before the election. Perhaps lie hoped that the Negroes would vote for him because some time earlier when there was an attempt to segregate them in one of the churches, he had championed their cause. The result of the election turned out differently, however, 137 votes for Carey, 106 for Franklin and 91 for De Cosmos. Since this was still in the days of open voting it was known that the 18 Negro votes were all registered for Carey and Franklin, and proved to be the measure of defeat for De Cosmos. [19] Following the election, the Colonist editor began proceedings to open the polling lists, charging that there had been at least 28 fraudulent votes. Governor Douglas, however, refused to permit the examination of the poll books and the De Cosmos appeal was referred to the Assembly itself where it was postponed for six months.

When the new Assembly met for the first time in March, 1860, Selim Franklin, who was the first Jew to be elected to a Legislature anywhere west of Lower Canada, and who was part of the government majority, was nevertheless subjected to the indignity of being challenged for not using the words “on the true faith of a Christian” when he took the oath of office. There is strong evidence to show that this challenge was completely unwarranted and that there was legal precedent for a Jew to take the oath in accordance with his own conscience even on being elected to public office. But the other members of the Assembly insisted on their right to change their own rules of procedure in this case, before fully conceding Franklin’s right to take his seat. Even Attorney-General Carey was a party to this charade, knowing that if Franklin was unseated, for whatever reason, his place would undoubtedly be taken by De Cosmos. [20]

While the oath issue was being debated in the house, the other newspaper, the Victoria Gazette, levelled the charge of anti-Semitism against the Colonist. To this De Cosmos responded:

“No such principle belongs to the Liberal Party. If any exists at all the government party entertain it. Current rumor has it that a certain editor remarked lately that if he had known Franklin was a Jew he would not have voted for him ... the Liberal Party made no question as to whether a man is Jew or Christian infidel or saint. In Franklin’s case, the entire Assembly except two opposed him in taking his seat whilst every member repudiated intolerance ...” [21]

The oath problem was disposed of however, Franklin remained in the Legislature and De Cosmos’ petition was still to be heard. It finally came up that summer before a Select Committee, which first heard the arguments of Franklin’s Counsel to the effect that no such person as Amor de Cosmos existed as a British subject nor was qualified to vote; and that De Cosmos had obtained an act from the California Legislature permitting him to change his name by avowing that it was his intention to become an American citizen. The committee rejected both objections.

There were two crucial points on which De Cosmos’ petition against Franklin rested. One was his claim that the bill for registration of voters was limited only to one particular year and there had been no new law introduced to make it legally possible to prepare a revised voters’ list. The second argument comprised a list of objections to specific voters, questioning the legality of their votes. The response of Franklin’s Counsel was obvious; the proper place to question the right of any voter was before the revising barrister and the revision of the list made then was final. The committee rejected both of De Cosmos’ arguments, at which point his counsel declined to proceed further: the decision was. of course, in favor of Franklin. [22] Although the committee decision rested on the fact that no one had objected to the registration of Negroes before the election there continued to be much criticism about this matter. A court of revision to hear complaints about the voters’ list and to consider the registration of new names was convened in the Spring of 1861. A revising barrister found that 24 out of the 26 Negroes who voted in the 1860 election were American Negroes and not entitled to the franchise. [23]

The outcome of this court of revision could not be used to unseat Franklin but it confirmed the questionable methods used in the 1860 election and demonstrated clearly the need for a proper naturalization act for Vancouver Island. Speaking at a public meeting in May, 1861, the Attorney General promised to introduce a naturalization act. When he was asked why he had put “50 or 60 foreigners on the voters’ list in 1860 without an alien bill”, he replied: “I told Mr. Gibbs (the leader of the Negro community) that he had better put his name on the list to test the question.” Mifflin Gibbs disputed this and asserted that Carey had told him “that colored people who had no political status in any other country had a perfect right to vote on taking the oath of allegiance.” [24]

The following evening the opposition met to review the actions of the Attorney-General and to organize a reform association. Amor de Cosmos was the principle speaker. The disputed election of 1860 and the naturalization issue thus contributed to the establishment of the reform movement which played an important part in the future political development of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. [25]

An Act for the Naturalization of Aliens on Vancouver Island was finally adopted in 1861. [26] De Cosmos raised the problem that this Act like the earlier one for the mainland, limited naturalization rights to one colony only. He called for a naturalization law “granting to the naturalized the same privileges in any part of British North America ...” He went as far as to project the idea that “when the North American Provinces are united under one government—as they probably will before too many years such a law will no doubt be enacted; but not before.” [27] This was one of the earliest expressions of the need for Confederation projected as a means of expanding the citizenship rights of the people of British North America.

While looking to the future, De Cosmos did not ignore the present and with the naturalization law on the books he began an editorial campaign to have alien residents become naturalized. The response was almost immediate; 28 people took the oath of residence with the intention of becoming naturalized in Vancouver Island and by December the number had increased to 54 including 53 Negroes and one white man. The Negroes thus became the first naturalized citizens on Vancouver Island and in all of British Columbia. The one white man was a Jewish Indian trader named William Copperman.

De Cosmos Elected

In the general election of July, 1863, after a second unsuccessful attempt in a by-election De Cosmos, on his third try, finally won a seat in the Legislative Assembly. (This time Selim Franklin was defeated, although he regained a seat in a by-election the following year). The alien issue continued to agitate the colony, particularly since naturalized citizens had not been given the right to run for Election to the Assembly. De Cosmos invariably campaigned for the extension of political rights. But he soon turned his attention to wider horizons: (a) Colonial Union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia and (b) Confederation.

As early as 1860 when a visit to the colony by the Prince of Wales was being planned De Cosmos called on “provincial statesmen to take advantage of the Prince’s visit to initiate British North American policy to put an end to disjointed provinces” and he called for a “union of the North American Provinces ...” [28]

A year later he wrote: “The advantages of federal union, politically and commercially can scarcely be estimated at present.” And with idealistic naiveté he added: “Petty politics of disjointed, disconnected provinces will disappear. Politics will take a more elevated station.” The united provinces, he asserted, would no longer be “racked by petty political questions” when matters affecting a population of 4,000,000 would have to be dealt with. But perhaps even more important: “their public men could aspire to almost any national position, before which the highest prize of colonial politics would appear contemptible.” [29]

From 1863 onward De Cosmos remained in public office until 1882, except for a period of one year when he suffered defeat during the height of the Confederation debates. A few months after he was first elected, he gave up his editorship of the Colonist and sold out his interest in the paper. Seven years later, however, when the Colonist joined the ranks of his detractors, De Cosmos found it expedient to re-enter the journalistic ranks; he acquired the Victoria Standard and became its editor.

The Union of Vancouver Island with British Columbia, achieved in 1866, proved less than satisfactory because, among other things, the Legislature of the united colony was largely appointive, whereas the previous Vancouver Island Legislature had a fully elected Assembly in addition to an appointed council. De Cosmos was one of the elected members in the Legislative Council and early in 1867 he moved the first resolution asking for admission to Confederation. At the same time he argued that local institutions must be made more representative to prepare the way for Confederation.

In June of 1867 he travelled to the eastern provinces to be present at the birth of the Dominion and he attended the Reform Convention in Toronto, which laid the basis for the founding of the Liberal Party. When he returned to Victoria at the end of that year he learned that the Governor had failed to act on the unanimous decision of the Legislative Council to initiate discussions with the Canadian Government for the entry of British Columbia into Confederation. A group of 50 citizens called on the Mayor of Victoria to convene a protest meeting. The Mayor complied and a mass meeting took place in a Victoria theatre in January, 1868, where De Cosmos moved a resolution condemning the inaction of the Governor.

There was no such thing as irresponsible government in Canada he said and he added: “It is manifest destiny that this colony shall within two years become part and parcel of the great Dominion.” [30]

A committee of seven was appointed to meet with the Governor and press him for action. The committee included De Cosmos, Mayor Trimble and the former Mayor of Victoria, Lumley Franklin (brother of Selim). (Incidentally, of the three Jews elected to public office in British Columbia before Confederation, Lumley Franklin was apparently the only one who ever ended up on the same side of an issue as Amor de Cosmos.) At the next legislative session De Cosmos introduced an address to the Queen calling for Confederation, but his effort was stopped by those who opposed Confederation for a variety of reasons. And the Dominion Government’s efforts to bring B.C. into the fold were delayed because they had not yet resolved the problem of the intervening Northwest Territories.

Confederation League

In May of 1868 De Cosmos and his supporters began to organize the Confederation League. Branches were formed in centres throughout the colony and in September a convention took place at Yale with 26 delegates in attendance from 16 localities. The 37 resolutions adopted at the Yale Convention constituted an endorsement of the terms for Confederation as set out by De Cosmos in his resolution in the legislature. Some of the Confederationists were influenced by a world vision. Mifflin Gibbs, the Negro leader, who once voted against De Cosmos, was one of the delegates at Yale. Gibbs was a correspondent for the Elevator, a San Francisco newspaper, and in July, while the Confederation League was being organized, he wrote the following in a dispatch:

“The great principle of national centralization and fraternity now extant, which Prussia accomplished, and for which Italy yearns, the union of people of a common heritage for purposes of progress and security—finds an echo here; and if it be true that the triumphs of peace are greater than those of war, we shall have reason to congratulate ourselves that the ‘change of base’ sought for here will be at once bloodless and progressive ...

Gibbs wound up his panegyric, with an expression of his sincere desire “that the banner of the Dominion and the stars and stripes, linked and inter-linked, may go forward in healthful rivalry to bless mankind and hasten the day when from pole to zone men may exclaim: ‘The world is my country and all mankind my countrymen!” [31]

It is doubtful that every Confederationist was inspired by the vision of Mifflin Gibbs, but it was almost certainly shared by De Cosmos. The Yale Convention did accept, as part of the preamble to the resolutions, the De Cosmos statement:

“that all government should exist by the free and just consent of the governed and that government that does not exist by the free and just consent of the governed is a despotism.”

The demand for representative institutions and responsible government was strongly emphasized. [32] W. L. Morton has compared the B.C. situation with the earlier struggle for popular government in Red River and with “the old Canadian contest of the 1830s.” [33] (Shades of Papineau and Wm. Lyon MacKenzie). It is therefore hardly surprising to learn that the Colonial party in B.C. spoke of the Yale convention as the “Yale Conspiracy”. Perhaps they called it a conspiracy because in addition to demanding union with Canada and responsible government the convention called for the reduction of official salaries—a sure sign of “treachery” and “disloyalty!”

Annexation Petition

Popular support for Confederation on the mainland brought a backlash on Vancouver Island and particularly in Victoria where the annexationist movement had always been strong. A petition for annexation to the U.S. had been circulated in Victoria as early as 1867. A leading opponent of Confederation at this time was Dr. J. S. Helmcken, the son-in-law of former governor Douglas. Helmcken denied that he was a supporter of annexation to the U.S. but he considered Confederation “premature” and called it “another leap in the dark”. There was a general election for the colonial legislature in the fall of 1868 and Dr. Helmcken defeated De Cosmos in Victoria. Helmcken described the election as “one of the fiercest ever fought in Victoria, everyone seemed crazy, I among the number ... I had the British and American element and the Jewish element on my side ...”

The Jewish position on Confederation has also been brought up in connection with the annexationist petition of 1869. Donald Creighton in “Dominion of the North”, devotes barely one page to the entry of B.C. into Confederation and he mentions neither De Cosmos, Helmcken or any other B.C. representative apart from the governor. He does find room, however, for the comment that the annexation petition “was signed by only 104 people among whom were a curiously large number of Germans and Jews.” [34] This appears to be a rather gratuitous statement because there was absolutely no basis for explaining the support for annexation in B.C. on the grounds of national or racial background and the attempt to do so can only be described as an historical non-sequitur. The significant opposition to Confederation at this stage of B.C.’s history lay in another quarter. As Creighton himself has stated: “The Governor, the official clique, the Hudson’s Bay Company officials and their friends, undoubtedly would have preferred to keep the province as a separate dependency of the Crown.” [35]

Amor de Cosmos wandered in the political wilderness for a year and the new legislature had a majority opposed to Confederation. By the middle of 1869 the Canadian Government had set its course towards the acquirement of the Northwest Territories. Although its actions in the Red River situation were somewhat less than inspired, nevertheless, this opened the way for more active efforts to secure the entry of British Columbia. In the fall of 1869 De Cosmos regained a seat in the Legislative Council via a by-election and in February 1870, the new Governor, Anthony Musgrave, opened the Legislative session with a speech in favor of Cenfederation but unfavorable to responsible government. As was to be expected, De Cosmos strongly objected to the governor’s position.

“The people of this country,” he said, “aspire to and have the capacity for self-government.” He warned against trying “to cram confederation down the throats of the people if it were not to be a government by the people and for the people.”’ [36]

A delegation was chosen to go to Ottawa to negotiate the terms of Confederation. It included J. W. Trutch and Dr. R. W. Carroll recent converts to Confederation, and Dr. Helmcken, who was said to be still opposed. The good Doctor however is reported to have suggested that De Cosmos might go in his place. A public meeting was called to press the demand for responsible government. This meeting decided to appoint H. E. Seelye as the “people’s delegate” to work for responsible government as one of the terms. Officially, Seelye accompanied the delegation as correspondent for the Colonist.

De Cosmos remained at home and renewed his drive for popular government from the pages of the Standard. He called for “an immediate change of the system in order to bring the majority of the people in accord with the government ...” For this purpose he suggested it was necessary “to create a party possessing the capacity to give force, vigor, direction, weight and influence to a popular—a People’s Government.” [37]

Confederation At Last

When the terms of Confederation were announced in the British Columbia Act of August 1870, De Cosmos found them considerably wanting. They did not provide for a fully elective legislative body and even the franchise was too limited in his view. De Cosmos felt that the vote should be given not only to British subjects but to all aliens who had resided in the colony for five years. Otherwise he felt that most of the population would be disenfranchised, because large numbers of aliens living in the province had not taken the trouble to become naturalized due to the unsettled conditions of the preceding years. A year later a fully elective legislative assembly of 25 members was granted in the Constitution Act of 1871. De Cosmos probably expected to be called upon to serve as the first Premier but the honor went instead to J. F. McCreight In addition to serving in the new Legislative Assembly, De Cosmos was also chosen as one of the first two members from Victoria to sit in the House of Commons.

The other member for Victoria was Henry Nathan, the first Jew to sit in the House of Commons. De Cosmos and Nathan were a study in contrasts. Officially all the members from British Columbia went to Ottawa as supporters of the Macdonald Government. Henry Nathan was recorded as a Liberal [38] but judging from his private letters to his political mentor Dr. Helmcken, he played a conservative role and refused to support the Liberal Government of Alexander Mackenzie when Macdonald was defeated in 1873. [39] De Cosmos may have started out as a supporter of the Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservative Coalition, but after 1873 he was clearly on the Liberal side. De Cosmos wrote at least one editorial belittling the ability of Henry Nathan as a political representative for British Columbia. [40] Nathan, on the other hand, in his letters to Helmcken, made frequent cutting remarks about De Cosmos, whom he often referred to as “Cupid.” [41]

De Cosmos as Premier

In December, 1872, the McCreight Government in Victoria resigned after being defeated by a majority of one vote in the Assembly. Amor de Cosmos was called upon to succeed him as Premier of British Columbia. He formed a coalition government and put forward a definite program including a contract system for public works, encouragement of immigration, a bill to replace open voting with the secret ballot and a public school system. Moreover responsible government was fully achieved in British Columbia only with the advent of the De Cosmos government. While McCreieht was Premier. the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Joseph Trutch sat with the Executive Council and advised his Ministers. But when Trutch attended the first meeting of the De Cosmos Cabinet and suggested that they get down to business he was politely but firmly told there would be no business until he withdrew. This action drew wide attention and the Ottawa Free Press reported that the Victoria Government under De Cosmos was now “more commonly called the ‘People’s Government.’”

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that De Cosmos achieved universal acclaim as a politician. Even among those historians who have had something to say about him there are important differences. It is passing strange however, that the most recent British Columbia history by Margaret Ormsby, devotes but one paragraph to De Cosmos’ role as Premier and that deals with the opposition he encountered in connection with his efforts to finance the building of a dry-dock at Esquimalt which required a change in the Terms of Union. Apparently a public meeting led by Dr. Helmcken, among others, resulted in a protest march to the Legislature by 800 people who shouted: “We’ll hang De Cosmos on a sour apple tree.” [42] Shortly after this a bill was passed by the Assembly abolishing dual representation, De Cosmos decided to retain his House of Commons seat and thereupon resigned as Premier.

In the early years of his political career when De Cosmos became involved in controversy with some of the early Jewish residents and with the Negro community, it could not he said that he was ever guilty of racist views against Jews or Negroes. By the time British Columbia entered Confederation, however, there was m active anti-Chinese prejudice developing in the Pacific province. In this regard De Cosmos fell from grace and became a supporter of the campaign against the Chinese. In fact in 1879 he introduced a resolution in the House of Commons asking for the restriction of Chinese immigration and the barring of Chinese laborers on railway construction. He claimed that the Chinese could not assimilate, that they were a ‘pagan’ people and that they were sending too much money out of the country. [43]

Most leading historians who have taken note of De Cosmos have acknowledged his contribution to bringing B.C. into Confederation. A definitive study of De Cosmos however, has yet to be done.

De Cosmos made his last speech in the House of Commons during a debate in 1882 on whether Canada should be able to negotiate her own commercial treaties. Here is part of what he said:

“I am one of those who believe that this country should have the right to negotiate its commercial treaties. I go a step further, I believe this country should have the right to negotiate every treaty. The tendency of this resolution is, as the right Hon. First Minister pointed out, in the direction of independence. I see no reason why the people of Canada should not look forward to Canada becoming a sovereign and independent State. The right hon. gentleman stated that he was born a British subject and hoped to die one. Sir, I was born a British colonist, but do not wish to die a tadpole British colonist. I do not wish, to die without having all the rights, privileges and immunites of the citizen of a nation. The tendency of the right hon. gentleman’s remarks is that we must still hang on to the Imperial Government. I believe it would be well for Canada if she would hang on for some considerable time longer, because I believe the Constitution of Canada is not adapted to well-working under Independence. Before this country can assume the position of an independent State its Constitution must be changed.” [44]

De Cosmos appears to have been something of a prophet on the question of the Constitution.

Now to return to the question posed at the outset: Was Amor de Cosmos the Louis Riel of British Columbia? De Cosmos in Victoria like Riel at Red River fought for the establishment of popular and democratic institutions of government which would give the people of his province the highest degree of liberty within a British Dominion. There are similarities between De Cosmos’s actions and some of the things Riel did. But one must not indulge in facile comparisons. Riel was the native-born leader of a long established population which had already begun to acquire some of the characteristics of a nation when Canada bought title to the Northwest Territories. De Cosmos came from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to become a leader among a populace that mushroomed to provincial capacity in little more than a decade. Despite his verbal bellicosity at times, De Cosmos played a major role in the peaceful transition of British Columbia from company territory to crown colony to Pacific Province of the Dominion from sea to sea. From all this it may be said he earned his place as “Father of Confederation” for B.C. while appearing to share some of the attributes of earlier reform and “rebel” leaders, i.e. Wm. Lyon Mackenzie, Louis Papineau and Louis Riel.


1. Daily Standard, Victoria, 8 October 1870.

2. Ibid., 8 December 1870.

3. British Colonist, Victoria, 11 December 1858, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 2, 3.

4. Governor Douglas to Henry Labouchere, former Colonial Secretary, Gold Discovery Papers, 8 March 1858, BC Archives.

5. Ormsby, Margaret, British Columbia: A History, MacMillan, p. 152.

6. Lytton, Sir E. B., Colonial Secretary to Douglas, 1 July 1858, Gold Discovery Papers, p. 17.

7. Lytton to Douglas, 16 July 1858, BC Archives. Microfilm PRO. CO 305/9, p. 101.

8. Lytton to Douglas, 31 July 1858, BC Papers, Pt. 1, p. 46.

9. British Colonist, 18 December 1858.

10. Ibid., 9 April 1859.

11. BC Proclamations, 1858-1865 - 1859, No. 4.

12. British Colonist, 20 May 1859.

13. BC Proclamations. 1859, No. 5.

14. British Colonist. 23 May 1859.

15. Judge Begbie. M.B. to Douglas, 16 May 1859, F1426/5, BC Archives.

16. Colonist, 20 May 1859.

17. Colonist, 28 November 1859, p. 2.

18. Pilton, J. W., Thesis on Negro Settlement in BC, pp. 92, 93, BC Archives.

19. Victoria Gazette. 9 January; Colonist, 10 January 1860. (Pilton Thesis).

20. Vancouver Island House of Assembly Minute Book, March 1860, and documents related to the Proceedings of the House of Assembly. B.C. Archives.

21. Colonist, 10 March 1860.

22. Minutes of Select Committee of V.I. House of Assembly on De Cosmos’ Petition Against the return of Selim Franklin for Victoria Town, 20 to 24 July 1860.

23(a) Colonist. (b) Victoria Daily Press, 23 March 1861. (Pilton Thesis, p. 93).

24. Colonist, 21 May 1861.

25. Ibid.

26. The Alien Act, 1861, Vancouver Island News, Vol. I - 1864.

27. Colonist, 21 November 1861.

28. Ibid., 6 September 1860.

29. Ibid., 14 June 1861.

30. Ibid., 16 August 1867.

31. Gibbs, M.W., Letter to San Francisco Elevator, 10 July 1868, from Pilton Thesis on Negro Settlement in BC. Appendix E, BC Archives.

32. Papers on Union of B.C. with Canada, Colonial Office, 1869, p. 17 (as noted in Margaret Ross Thesis on de Cosmos, UBC, 1931).

33. Morton, W. L., Kingdom of Canada, pp. 336, 7.

34. Creighton, Dominion of the North, p. 317.

35. Ibid.

36. Colonist, 20 February 1870.

37. Daily Standard, Victoria, 20 June 1870.

38. Morgan, H. J. (ed.), Canadian Parliamentary Companion, Montreal 1873, pp. 223-4.

39. Henry Nathan, Jr. Letters to Dr. Helmcken, March 1872 to September 1874; Helmcken Collection, BC Archives.

40. Victoria Standard, 12 August 1871.

41. Nathan Letters to Dr. Helmcken, BC Archives.

42. Ormsby, Margaret, B.C.: A History, p. 263.

43. Debates-Canadian House of Commons, 16 April 1879, p. 1258.

44. Commons Debates, 21 April 1882. p. 1084.

Page revised: 30 June 2010

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