Chapter Six: “They always want a little more liberty than white men”

At the end of the 1850s, James Douglas was the governor of two separate colonies in the Northwest. The mainland, under the HBC, had been New Caledonia; now, under the crown, it was British Columbia. The new colony was thinly populated, with a largely transient scattering of miners, and Douglas ruled there without interference from elected representatives.

On Vancouver Island, however, rudimentary political institutions were growing rapidly. In the quiet days of 1856, the Vancouver Island House of Assembly had consisted of just seven men, elected by a handful of property-owning voters. The representative for Nanaimo, in fact, had been elected by a single voter—the only man in that coal-mining hamlet with the required property qualifications.

This first Assembly had been dissolved in the fall of 1859. Its successor would reflect the dramatic changes the colony had undergone. Now Vancouver Island had nine electoral districts instead of four, and voters would choose a total of fifteen representatives. The electorate, though far larger than it had been, was still only a tiny fraction of the total population. The voters in Victoria Town, the largest district, could be listed in large type on less than one page of the Colonist.

Everyone realized that the election, scheduled for January 1860, would be a crucial one. The Hudson’s Bay Company was no longer the power it had been, but its employees and supporters were still in control of the government. A growing class of newcomers, impatient to take over, grumbled over Douglas’s policies and his manner of carrying them out. Many of these new voters were Englishmen or Canadians accustomed to “responsible government,” which ruled only with the confidence of elected representatives. The newcomers also regarded the HBC as a relic of an earlier age, a protected monopoly in the century of laissez-faire capitalism. In their view, Douglas and his HBC henchmen would never give the colony the progressive, democratic government it deserved.

These newcomers found a spokesman in late 1858 in the editor-publisher of a new weekly paper, the British Colonist. He spelled out his principles in his first issue:


In our National politics we shall ever foster that loyalty which is due to the parent government. . . . Particular interest will be taken in the absorbing issues now before the British North American colonies: the union of these colonies, representation in the imperial parliament, the Pacific railroad. . . . In our local politics we shall be found the sure friend of reform. . . . We shall counsel the introduction of responsible government—a system long established in British America, by which the people will have the whole and sole control over the local affairs of the colony.


The editor was a Nova Scotian named Amor De Cosmos. Born William Alexander Smith, he had moved to California during the gold rush. He was a photographer, and, by specializing in pictures of mining claims, he had prospered for several years in the camps and boom towns. For reasons still unclear, he applied to the state legislature for a change of name. He himself explained: “I desire not to adopt the name of Amor De Cosmos because it smacks of a foreign title, but because it is an unusual name and its meaning tells what I love most, viz.: order, beauty, the world, the universe.”

The California legislators, delighted by the diversion Smith had afforded them, toyed with alternative names, and he was very nearly saddled with “Amor Muggins Cosmos” instead. It was later suggested that he had changed his name to evade the attention of the vigilance committees (hardly a sensible way to do so, if true), or simply to ensure prompter delivery of his mail in towns full of men named Bill Smith. Whatever the reason, he was Amor De Cosmos when he arrived in Victoria in the summer of 1858.

A tall, pale man with a glossy black beard, De Cosmos seems to have had no private life during his long residence in British Columbia. Except for land speculation and drinking (both of which he excelled at), he put all of his considerable energy and intelligence into public affairs. In the colony’s early days, this was expressed as a violent and often libellous attack on Douglas’s government.

For all his abilities, Douglas was certainly an obvious target. He was a benevolent despot, but a despot nonetheless. His career in a wild country had taught him to rule with a judicious mixture of arrogance, violence and biscuits with molasses. This would not suit the new society created by the gold rush.

The only limits on Douglas’s power were the slack reins of the Colonial Office, the colony’s perpetual lack of money and the good sense of the naval officers whose warships backed up his authority. The governor was temperamentally remote from the idea of responsible government; he had not, after all, lived in a parliamentary state for forty years. His most recent exposure to democracy had been the self-styled provisional government of the American settlers in Oregon. In Douglas’s opinion, “people do not naturally take much interest in affairs of Government as long as affairs go on well and prosperously, and are content to leave questions of state to their ruling classes.” In his time, the “ruling classes” had been the top men of the HBC.

What was worse, Douglas’s rising young men tended to marry into the boss’s family. Donald Cameron, Douglas’s brother-in-law, was appointed the colony’s first judge despite his utter lack of legal training. Dr. John Helmcken, who served for years as Speaker of the House of Assembly, was the HBC physician in the colony and married one of Douglas’s daughters.

When De Cosmos attacked the government as a “Family-Company Compact,” therefore, he was on firm ground and won a good deal of support for reform. Stung by this upstart’s incessant criticism, Douglas tried clumsily to suppress the British Colonist by forcing De Cosmos to post a $2,500 bond. No doubt delighted by this gift of an issue, De Cosmos raised the money from his subscribers in just two days and was soon hammering away at the government with more energy than ever.

As 1859 drew to a close, De Cosmos could look back on a highly successful year. He was prosperous, famous and influential. Now he meant to carry his attack into the House of Assembly itself.

Douglas had had bitter enemies in the first Assembly, but they had been an ineffectual minority. The new representatives could pose a real threat to him. Party politics were still far in the future, but candidates in the 1860 election were generally identified as “Company” or “Reform.” De Cosmos ran for one of Victoria Town’s two seats; his opponents, both company supporters, were the twenty-eight-year-old Attorney General, George Hunter Cary, and auctioneer Selim Franklin.

Vancouver Island’s voting laws were clumsy and already made obsolete by the colony’s rapid growth. Only British subjects could vote. Since Vancouver Island had no naturalization law, one could become a British subject only through birth or naturalization in some other colony, such as Nova Scotia or Jamaica. Such a subject must also hold enough property to qualify for the franchise. After he had registered as a voter, he might still be challenged at a Court of Revision.

This system was far from foolproof: unqualified voters sometimes stayed on the list only because no one challenged them, and some who did deserve to vote were prevented from doing so because they lacked proof of British citizenship.

This was certainly not what Douglas had promised the Pioneer Committee when he had told them that any property owner with nine months’ residence could vote. No doubt many Black property owners soon learned of their actual unfranchised status, perhaps after applying for British citizenship in 1858. But in the fall of 1859 Attorney General Cary approached Mifflin Gibbs with a very attractive idea.

Since the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, Cary pointed out, American-born Black people were by definition non-citizens. Consequently, such Black settlers in the colony faced no naturalization problem. Any Black man meeting the property requirements could vote simply by swearing allegiance to the queen.

The franchise had for generations been one of Black Americans’ most desired privileges. When the Attorney General himself assured Gibbs that Black Vancouver Island residents could presumably vote, he saw no reason to ask questions. Over twenty Black men therefore went to the sheriff’s office, swore an oath of allegiance and were duly registered. Although the registration period had ended, neither the sheriff nor the election superintendant raised any objections; they were HBC supporters.

De Cosmos raised no immediate protest either, though he could have. He may have hoped to gain the Black vote himself, for his editorials had supported them (especially in the church-segregation dispute), and he had criticized White American bigotry. But if he had such hopes, he must soon have realized the Black voters would not support him; some weeks before the election, he warned the “foreign portion” not to vote at all until passage of a naturalization bill would permit them to become British subjects.

On January 7, 1860, voters gathered to elect two candidates (out of three) for seats in the House of Assembly. It was not a secret ballot; each voter stated his preference in public before the sheriff, who recorded the vote. It was soon clear that the eighteen Black voters were voting as a bloc for Cary and Franklin, and their votes were decisive. The final tally gave Cary 137, Franklin 106 and De Cosmos 91. Without his Black supporters, Franklin would have lost and De Cosmos would have taken a seat in the House of Assembly.

He was furious at this defeat, and a few days later he published a long, bitter editorial on the perfidy of the Black voters and their White allies: “The colored people who have . . . controlled the election are not the only parties to blame. Coming hither from a country where no political rights are conceded to them, it is quite natural that they should accept every privilege offered them. The chief blame . . . belongs to the Attorney General.” De Cosmos also implicated the sheriff, revisor and chief justice, as well as Douglas himself, in the plot.

“We are heartily willing,” De Cosmos continued,


that colored British-born citizens should fully enjoy all the rights of Englishmen. . . . We are also opposed to excluding colored foreigners from our soil. But it is in the nature of things unjust . . . that they should be allowed to vault upon the proud eminence of British citizenship, after a residence of four months in the colony. [This was almost surely a distortion; while a few of the Black voters may have been such recent arrivals, most had been living and working in Victoria for a year and a half.] There is rank absurdity as well as gross injustice in the idea of a colored man coming here fresh from slavery and gaining the franchise in four months. . . . We are quite aware of the ingenious plea set up in reference to the Dred Scott decision, which denies American citizenship to the colored man. But this decision does not make him less a foreigner. . . . Though disfranchised, they are still Americans.


Ominously, De Cosmos warned that the Black voters’ triumph would backfire: “The best friends of the colored people cannot but see that what has taken place is calculated to do them an injury, by provoking a war of races, strengthening prejudice wherever it exists, and rousing it where it has had no existence hitherto.”

Had he confined his opinions to this editorial, De Cosmos would have had a strong position on the facts of the case. But he was Vancouver Island’s leading exponent of defamatory journalism, and he launched a vicious anti-Black propaganda campaign with the same issue of the Colonist. A paragraph titled “The Ruling Powers” appeared just below the editorial: “Carroll’s bookkeeper was severely beaten on Saturday evening by some fifteen or twenty colored men at the Mosquetaire Saloon, corner of Government and Johnson Street.”

De Cosmos also devoted a good deal of space in that issue to a purported eyewitness report on the “Colored-Cary-Franklin Jollification” held the night after the election. The speech of Selim Franklin was reported at length, but not necessarily with accuracy:


“Gentlemen, when I came into this country, it was not my intention to enter into politics, but after a short sojourn here, my friends, the colored people, discovered my latent powers, as it were, and found that I contained all the inherent qualities needed to be a good legislator, also that I was eminently fitted to nurture the interests of the young Colony.” (Sensation.) . . . Mr. Franklin wished to finish here, but a loud No! Go on! induced the speaker, after applying a white handkerchief to his olfactory nerve, to resume his eloquent discourse thus: —“Gents, as I stated . . . my colored friends placed me in the battle’s van, and through them alone, I am enabled to repeat the words of another great man, veni, vidi, vici.” Here the speaker became exhausted (mentally). . . . Did Cary and Franklin have any “essence of Old Virginny” rubbed on their coat tails as a decoy?

Mr. Francis (colored) then arose amid a perfect shower of dust and effluvia and recounted the Julius Caesaren [sic] deed achieved by the Anglo-African race &c. The speaker said, “My father fought at Trafalgar, and received medals. I have them in my possession now. Gentlemen, I was determined to bring the colored influence to bear against American prejudice. We have done it, and we have achieved a victory. (Sensation.) Gentlemen, I have been oppressed in the United States. I came to Victoria, and I found an asylum. We came here knowing the Governor was favorable to us, and that he was down on Englishmen who have been in California. [This was an unlikely dig at De Cosmos, who was still in California when the Pioneer Committee arrived in Victoria.] Queen Victoria knows our worth, also that we are down on Yankees and that we’ll fight them to the death. Put rifles in our hands, and we will fight the San Juan battles.” [This last remark was an allusion to the dispute between Britain and the US over ownership of San Juan Island, between Vancouver Island and Washington Territory.]


De Cosmos kept up his anti-Black campaign. A week after the election, the Colonist published a long letter over the pseudonym “Shears”—probably De Cosmos himself, to judge from the writer’s style.

Shears had little understanding of the Black voters’ position, and saw their pro-Douglas vote as pure self-interest: “The only question they asked was, ‘Who is most friendly to the [Black man], or who will promise most to the colored man?’” He went on to offer some generalizations with a very contemporary ring to them:


The truth is—and the sooner it is told the better—the colored people do not know what are their rights, and are not satisfied when they have them. They always want a little more liberty than white men, and if they can’t get it they fancy themselves ill treated. . . . Acting upon the mistaken notion that freedom is without limits, they succeed in making themselves hated wherever they go. . . . Who, then, but themselves are to blame for the prejudices existing against them? They never fail to find Carys and Franklins enough to flatter them in their extravagant ideas of liberty, and to pander to them for their support, and thus they are made the tools of demagogues and the enemies of themselves.


As usual, Mifflin Gibbs acted as the Black community’s spokesman in rebutting Shears, and again he kept the gloves off. In a letter to the Colonist, he wrote:


A great deal that is hasty and intemperate in disappointed aspirants may be pardoned in the heat of the moment, but the disposition exhibited in your columns in every issue since the election, to malign and misrepresent us, has induced us to lay before the community our views. . . . The colored people plant themselves by the side of and to the British Constitution, and principles, the spirit and essence of which are political and religious equality; equal respect for all men in the ratio of their deportment, industry, and intelligence, without distinctions of creed or color.

Nothing more do they seek; . . . but they insist that they shall be the judges, as far as their votes and influence go, how near a candidate’s life has been the index of these principles. How far the articles . . . in which the words [“Blacks”] and “slaves” dance in all the mazes of negro-hating parlance [offer] one indication of those principles, we leave to the impartial to determine.


After a detailed rebuttal of Shears’s argument, Gibbs went on to deal with the charge that Victoria’s Black residents were “down” on everything American:


The United States is a despotism. One out of every six of the inhabitants are forbidden by statute to learn the word of the God who made them. It is the hot-bed, the very cesspool of political corruption, and its every ruling towards us has been illiberal and unjust. This hydra-headed prejudice has pursued us to this country; and attempts to assert its supremacy through every ramification of society. This we are emphatically down upon, and when we cease to be down upon it, we are fit to be scouted from every liberty-loving community . . . it is true that scattered through the length and breadth of the United States are Americans who for sterling worth, integrity, and love of the right, regardless of complexion, cannot be excelled by any on the globe. Men whose virtues many here, who claim to be Englishmen, would do well to imitate. But these are the exceptions. . . . We are opposed to American rule as it affects us. We are opposed to that class of men, even if they call themselves Englishmen, who sympathize with that rule, or who can copy the vices of Americans. In a word, a man who pays so little regard to genteel orthography as to spell negro with two g’s is not likely to obtain a very warm support from colored voters.


The “Police Court” column was placed directly beneath Gibbs’s letter; it contained reports on three cases involving Black men. One man was suing the saloon keeper J.D. Carroll for extortion after being charged fifty cents for a glass of ale. Another was fined “for illegally detaining a dog, not his dog,” and a third was fined “for assaulting and severely beating Patrick McTurner.” Such accounts, given prominence, were obviously intended to neutralize Gibbs’s arguments and to appeal to White prejudice.

In fact, they were largely the result of something else De Cosmos had published in his paper after the election: a thinly disguised call for a boycott of Black businesses and labour.

“What,” De Cosmos asked, “would be the daily receipts of the hundred and fifty colored laborers, restaurant, store and shopkeepers of Victoria, were the patronage of the whites all withdrawn from them?”

Not content to wage war in his paper, De Cosmos appealed to Governor Douglas to investigate the election and to make the poll books public. Douglas refused, saying it would be up to the new Assembly to decide. De Cosmos then applied for a writ of mandamus to release the poll books and again was turned down. “The court was astonished,” wrote the judge, “when it was proposed to compel the Governor of the Colony,” who was in effect the representative of the Crown.

The editorial pages of the Colonist now began to coruscate with rage, but De Cosmos seemed to forget his earlier identification of the governing clique as the chief culprits. Now he turned his rhetoric against the Black settlers alone: “a lowborn, secretly banded, prejudiced race of aliens. . . . Englishmen should be slaves to escaped slaves. . . . 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.”

Douglas put off examination of the poll books by the election committee for six months. The committee, in turn, refused to make them public. Its decision was an obvious attempt to maintain the cover-up, and it worked for nine more months, until March 1861. Only then did public pressure force the calling of a Court of Revision.

M.W.T. Drake was the revising barrister and George Nias the chief objector. Some of the Black voters fought the objections on technicalities, including proper notice to appear at the court. Nias’s objection to Gibbs was turned down on the grounds that it could not be proven he had been so notified. When Gibbs’s partner, Peter Lester, was called to testify on his own behalf, however, he found he had played right into Nias’s hands. The Colonist reported Lester’s testimony at length:


Nias—Is that your handwriting on this paper?

Lester—Read it, so all can hear, and then I’ll tell you.

Lester refusing to acknowledge the writing, Mr. Nias stated that he would read it for him, and read as follows:

George E. Nias, you can hand this notice back to your masters, whose lickspittle you are. Tell them Peter Lester has no use for waste paper. [Sensation] This (continued Mr. Nias) was written on the back of Lester’s notice, and returned to me. This does not seem to qualify him for the thing he is seeking—a vote.


When Drake handed down his decision a few days later, Peter Lester and most of the other Black voters were declared disqualified. Only two, who had been naturalized in Canada, remained on the voters’ list.

“We held them to be aliens,” De Cosmos crowed. “Treated them as such; warned them of the consequences of being made the tools of Cary & Co.; and after sixteen months from the time of our first warning they are told to their sorrow, by the very same party who deceived them, that their votes are illegal.”

The crusading editor’s triumph was not total, because Selim Franklin somehow managed to retain his seat in the Assembly until its dissolution in 1863. De Cosmos therefore ran in a by-election in nearby Esquimalt. Once more the resourcefulness of the Douglas faction was tested.

The incumbent, George Tomline Gordon, had been appointed colonial treasurer, and was therefore obliged by custom to resign his seat and run again for election. The co-respondent in a messy British divorce case, Gordon had come to Vancouver Island under something of a cloud. But he was politically adroit and argued that De Cosmos’s name change had no validity outside California. His opponent was therefore forced to run as “William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos.” Gordon’s supporters spread rumours about the reasons for this name change and generally did their best to alarm Esquimalt’s twenty-six voters.

When the polls were about to close on election day, ten had voted for Gordon and ten for “William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos.” No trace could be found of the other six voters until a man named Moore was escorted in by one of De Cosmos’s supporters. When the sheriff asked him which candidate he wished to vote for, Moore replied, “Amor De Cosmos.”

The sheriff at once declared the poll closed. Then he announced to the crowd of onlookers that he found ten votes for George Tomline Gordon, ten votes for William Alexander Smith, commonly known as Amor De Cosmos, and one vote for Amor De Cosmos. Since two of the candidates were tied, the sheriff said, he would have to vote to break the tie: “I vote for George Tomline Gordon.”

Predictably outraged, De Cosmos again petitioned the Assembly, and yet another election committee took up the matter. It declared the election null and void because the 1859 voters’ list had been used instead of that for 1860. Dr. Helmcken, as Speaker of the House, rejected the committee’s report on a technicality. Gordon then magnanimously resigned and ran once more. The 1859 list was used again, and once more Gordon won.

The Douglas faction might have fared better with De Cosmos after all, for Gordon was arrested in 1862 for embezzling government funds. During the investigation that followed, it was discovered that he hadn’t even been qualified to run for the Assembly: Attorney General Cary had merely loaned him the necessary land. Cary then botched the indictment so badly that Gordon was granted a new trial. Free until then, he promptly decamped to the United States, where he was killed in the Civil War.

The political status of Victoria’s Black population continued to be an issue for some time after the Court of Revision declared them ineligible to have voted in the 1860 election. The government was now under pressure to draft a naturalization law for the colony, and in May of 1861 Attorney General Cary called a public meeting to announce the imminent introduction of such a law.

“We want an Alien Bill here,” the Colonist reported him as saying, “and to put an end to the miserable, disjointed state of the Colony. I shall introduce one at the next session, giving aliens nearly every privilege. We can’t get along prosperously unless we admit to citizenship nearly every foreign resident in the Colony.”

Suddenly the meeting blew up in Cary’s face. A man in the audience asked: “Why did you put fifty or sixty foreigners on the voters’ list last year without an Alien Bill?”

This was of course a reference to the Black voters, and Cary replied, “I told Mr. Gibbs that he better put his name on the list and test the question as to whether they were entitled to vote.”

The audience was astounded to learn that the election had been a kind of political experiment. Gibbs himself was present and rose to offer a different version. Cary, he said, had told him “that colored people who had no political status in any other country had a perfect right to vote here on taking an oath of allegiance.”

Gibbs’s statement provoked a “sensation,” and when the uproar quieted, Cary asked Gibbs: “Didn’t I tell you that you had better put your names on the list to test the question?”

“You might have—I don’t remember.”

“Renewed laughter” was reported as the crowd’s response.

One would very much like to know in what tone of voice Cary and Gibbs conducted this exchange. Was Gibbs actively supporting Cary’s flimsy excuse, or genuinely uncertain about what had been said in a conversation almost two years in the past? In any case, it was now obvious that Gibbs and the other Black voters had been used—with or without their knowledge—to steal an election. Cary as much as admitted it, and the White public now had a genuine grievance against the Black settlers. The Black community, in turn, must have felt betrayed and isolated.

The government soon showed it was quite as prepared to steal an election from a Black man as from a White. In the autumn of 1861 a by-election was called for Victoria District. Jacob Francis, a Black man who had spoken at the “jollification,” ran as an independent candidate. Born in England, Francis was unquestionably a British subject, and to judge from his campaign advertising he was a middle-of-the-roader. He addressed himself to the voters of the district:


Gentlemen—having been solicited by many of the voters of your District to come forward as a candidate for your suffrages, and as a vacancy has recently occurred, I now beg to offer myself as a candidate to represent you in the House of Assembly.

Were I a member of the House of Assembly, I should devote all my energies in advocating wholesome laws, a liberal Incorporation Act, a Reform in the Courts of Justice and reduction of exorbitant fees; a Bill for the easy and cheap recovery of small debts, repeal of the infamous Registration of Deeds Act and a better law in its place. In short I should endeavor to have no law on the statute book that would not conduce to the safety and happiness of the country.

I should not do, what we as a people are accused of doing—attending solely to the advancement of our own class—but I should consult the interests of the country in general, and those of the District in particular . . .


Francis was nominated by an English engineer, James Thorne, and seconded by saloon keeper J.D. Carroll. Joseph Trutch was also nominated at the same meeting. Someone objected that since he was out of town, Trutch would be unable to take the oath required of all candidates before the election, but his name was allowed to stand. Dr. James Trimble also ran.

In the election, Trimble and Trutch won easily, with Francis a poor third. Only two of the five qualified Black voters had cast their ballots for Francis, and most of his White supporters seemed to treat his candidacy as a prank, “to create a row in the House of Assembly,” not to strike a blow for equality.

But Trutch’s candidacy was obviously illegal. He hadn’t even been in the colony at the time of the election. The Victoria newspaper agreed that Francis had a legal right to take one of the two seats. As a writer in the Daily Press put it: “It may be objected that he wears his necktie in a peculiar manner—that he keeps a drinking saloon—or that he did not take his degree at Oxford—but we do not think the members will find such objections valid according to Blackstone or any of the other legal authorities of Great Britain.”

Determined to overthrow Trutch’s election, Francis hired a lawyer and circulated a petition. Meanwhile Trimble and Trutch were sworn in and took their seats, beginning long careers in British Columbia affairs. (Trutch, a civil engineer who built the Yale–Cariboo road, eventually became British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor. Trimble, a Royal Navy surgeon, would later serve as mayor of Victoria and as Speaker of the House.)

The Assembly appointed an election committee to consider Francis’s petition. Since the government had no intention of admitting a Black man into the Assembly, the committee turned down the petition on a technicality: there were “erasures and interlineations” on the document. The deadline for such petitions had now passed, and Francis was refused an extension to prepare a new version, so he was effectively shut out of the Assembly despite his legal election.

Such was the Black pioneers’ introduction to colonial politics. They would have to be content with merely poetic justice: George Nias, who had worked for De Cosmos’s British Colonist, bought the Victoria Gazette as well as the gazette published by the government. According to historian Hugh Doherty, when the government discontinued its gazette, Nias complained of the “base deception of men in high places,” closed the Victoria Gazette and eventually migrated to Australia. George Hunter Cary soon went bankrupt trying to build an enormous mansion, returned to England and died insane at the age of thirty-four. Amor De Cosmos, after a long career in provincial and federal politics (he was the premier of British Columbia from 1872 to 1874), also died insane.

Knighted in 1863, Sir James Douglas was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath upon his retirement the following year. He later observed that “representative Governments cannot be carried on without recourse directly or indirectly to bribery and corrupting influences.” He spoke from experience.