Amor DeCosmos image G-05497 courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum
One day in our Local History Room I came across a book that seemed odd for our local history collection. Its title was The New Municipal Manual For Upper Canada and it was published in 1859. What could be its reason to be here? Then, as I started to put it back on the shelf, I noticed a mark on its outer pages. It was a stamp, with a person’s name, “A. DeCosmos”. Looking inside, I saw the title page had a signature, “A. DeCosmos”. The mystery was solved. This book had been owned by Amor DeCosmos.
Amor DeCosmos is one of the major founding fathers of British Columbia. He is also, strangely enough, one of the least known. Strange, because his achievements are beyond dispute. Arriving in Victoria in 1858, he established Victoria’s first newspaper, The British Colonist. He began agitating for more democratic government, and in his editorials relentlessly attacked the colonial government of Sir James Douglas. His aim was to end the rule of a privileged elite.
This inevitably led him into politics. Leaving the Colonist in 1863 he embarked on a political career. Starting off as Victoria’s representative in the Vancouver Island House Of Assembly, he rose to become BC’s second premier (1872-1874) and Victoria’s MP in the federal House Of Commons (1871-1882). He had three major triumphs in his career. One was a successful lobbying effort to have a railway built linking BC to the rest of Canada. His only regret was that it ended in Vancouver, not Victoria. Second, he led the push for BC to join Confederation. This was achieved in 1871. Finally, as premier he did not invite the Lieutenant-Governor (as had previously been customary) to sit in on the cabinet meetings. This ensured the political supremacy of the elected legislature in the province.
Why then is he so little known today? His choice of a name may have something to do with it. Born William Alexander Smith, he changed his name to Amor DeCosmos during the California gold rush. He apparently wished to lose a common name and acquire a more exotic one. It has had the effect, though, of making him look slightly ridiculous to succeeding generations. And then there is his disputatious personality. In the early stages of his career his combative personality was effective in achieving needed political reform. But in later years his personality deteriorated, and he became odd and reclusive. In 1895 he was declared “of unsound mind” and died two years later. Only a handful of people came to his funeral.
Today we can see him for the great man he was. Although relatively little has been written about him, we have a biography by George Woodcock in our Local History Room. We also have a clipping file on his life. Come and visit us, and learn more about this strange and fascinating man!
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian