As part of our Vancouver Island Masonic History Project, with its sections on Vancouver Island Cemeteries – Masonic Interments and Deceased Brethren, here is a page on Amor de Cosmos (1825-1897), who is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C.
Amor de Cosmos is a major figure in British Columbia history. Arriving in Victoria from California in 1858, he set up the city’s first newspaper, The British Colonist (now the Times-Colonist). He sold the newspaper to David Higgins, also a Mason, in 1861.
Amor de Cosmos went on to serve as a provincial M.L.A, Premier of B.C. and federal M.P. He was instrumental in getting B.C. to join Confederation as a Canadian province in 1871.
Amor De Cosmos was also a Charter Member of the first Masonic Lodge in Victoria and B.C. in 1860. He was Initiated, Passed and Raised in Oroville Lodge, No. 103, Oroville, California in 1856-57. He demitted from Oroville Lodge, No.103 in 1858.
Amor de Cosmos (the name means “lover of the universe”) was born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1825. William Smith changed his name to Amor de Cosmos during his time in California, ca. 1851-1858.
Here is a short video on Amor de Cosmos, produced by the Provincial capital Commission:
Here is a brief biographical sketch of Amor de Cosmos taken from the newspaper reports of his death, funeral and letters to the editor from prominent citizens after his funeral.
Amor de Cosmos suffered from dementia, possibly Alzheimer’s disease, during the last years of his life and, as a result, spent his last years as a recluse, largely hidden from public view and attention. Given de Cosmos’ major contributions to Victoria and to British Columbia during his lifetime, it is interesting, and sad, to note the small attendance at De Cosmos’ funeral and the seemingly scant attention paid to his passing.
This was commented on at the time by, among others, Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, whose letter to the editor of 9 July 1897 is reproduced below.
Despite de Cosmos’ prominent and active role in establishing the first Masonic Lodge in British Columbia, there does not appear to have been any formal Masonic recognition of his passing and no Masonic ceremony at his funeral. He appears to have demitted from Victoria-Columbia Lodge, No.1 in the 1870’s.
Here are some of the newspaper accounts of his death and funeral:
“AMOR DE COSMOS
A picturesque figure in the public life of this Province has passed away. Among the pioneers none were more conspicuous and few more influential that Amor De Cosmos. When this portion of British Columbia was yet directly under the administration of the Crown – that is when, to use his own words, “ it was necessary in discussing executive acts to deal directly with the representatives of Her Majesty, there being no executive council in British Columbia or Vancouver Island responsible to the people.” Mr. De Cosmos undertook to do his share to foster good government and promote reform. On December 11, 1858 he issued the first number of the BRITISH COLONIST, of which the DAILY COLONIST of to-day is the outgrowth, and therein he declared it to be his “primary object to advocate such changes as to bring about self government.” In this self-imposed and patriotic duty he did yeoman’s service, both in the press and in public speeches. In January 1859, he proposed a political union of the Island and the Mainland, giving as one of the reasons something that would sound strange to most people nowadays, that the trade between the two would, in the event of union, be no longer hampered by high duties and troublesome customs restrictions. Mr. De Cosmos believed that the administration of provincial affairs was not in the public interest, and he displayed great earnestness, and perhaps not always the best judgment, in contending for what he believed were the rights of the people. He wielded a vigorous pen, and the columns of the COLONIST bear abundant evidence of the fact he was regarded as a formidable opponent by Governor Douglas and his political friends.
The history of this rugged and courageous pioneer shows that he brought from his Nova Scotia birthplace a great deal of the same kind of fire that burned in the breast of Joseph Howe, than whom America never produced a more determined and fearless champion of popular rights. Indeed, to properly appreciate his character, and the impetuous assault he made on the system of administration which obtained here in 1858 and 1859, it is necessary to bear in mind the traditions in which he was educated. When he left Nova Scotia that province was recovering from a political controversy of the fiercest kind. Howe was fighting the battle of responsible government, taking his property and his liberty in his hand when doing so. De Cosmos appears to have been convinced that there was a similar battle to be fought here, and he plunged into it with his whole heart and soul. He did the province much good service, although doubtless at times his zeal greatly outran his discretion. His name will always occur a conspicuous place in the annals of British Columbia.”
(Source: Victoria Daily Colonist, 6 July 1897, page 4 column 2)
“AMOR DE COSMOS DEAD
The Pioneer Journalist and Political Leader Passes Peacefully Away
He Had Played an Important Part in the Making of Provincial History
Brief Resume of a Busy and Eventful Career of Usefulness
The Hon. Amor De Cosmos, founder of the British Colonist, and for many years the acknowledged leader in the political as well as the journalistic affairs of British Columbia, died at his house in this city on Sunday morning last, in the 72nd year of his age. He had been incapacitated for more than a year past from participation in public events, his failing mental and physical health during the last twelvemonth having made it unhappily certain that he could not long remain with those for whose public rights he had so bravely battled in the early days of the colony, and who in return had signally recognized his efforts in their behalf by confiding to his care the most honorable and responsible offices in their gift.
It was in Windsor, Hants co, Nova Scotia, that Mr. De Cosmos was born, on the 20th of August 1825, and it was there that he received his education. At fifteen his school days terminated, and on the removal of his family to Halifax he commenced the battle of life as a clerk in the wholesale grocery firm of Charles Whitman & Co. At the same time his ambition to secure an education such as would enable him to make his mark in the world induced him to take the fullest advantage of the facilities afforded by an excellent night school over which Mr. John S. Thompson, father of the late Canadian premier, presided, and it is a certain fact that the wholesome advice and intelligent counsel of his instructor in these impressionable days of boyhood materially affected his subsequent useful and distinguished career.
The opinion that a newer and broader country offered to him greater opportunities for advancement than did his native Nova Scotia, induced him in 1851 to join in the exodus to California, where the gold discoveries of a few years before were leading an indomitable and energetic army of workers from all parts of the East. There were no railways in those bringing Atlantic and Pacific into companionship, and so, the steamer having landed the adventurous young Canadian in New York city, he started thence on the tiresome and apparently interminable tramp across the continent. His journeying to St. Jo, then the rallying point for the westbound caravans of white-hooded wagons, was devoid of special incident or importance. At this breathing place on the border of the unknown he fell in with a number of equally ambitious emigrants, and with them he made the passage to the golden land of promise, the laborious crossing of the prairies being made anything but monotonous by several skirmishes with predatory bands of Indians and one pitched battle with the redskins in which two men and one of the women of the little party lost their lives.
On two other occasions the party was obliged to give up a great portion of their slender stock of provisions to conciliate the none-too-friendly reds, and thus it was that their original plans were sadly disturbed, and when the green fields of Utah were reached a halt was called perforce, and not until the following spring was it possible to again take up the march California-ward. The golden state was reached some eight months later, further uninvited and undesired meetings with the natives of the West having greatly increased both the length and hazard of the trip to the Coast.
At Sacramento the little party that had been as one big family on the dreary passage of the plains, disbanded, and while some went to the agricultural lands of the Santa Clara valley, the young Nova Scotian, with the determination to learn for himself the full value of the gold mines that had tempted him westward, passed on to the diggings in which he spent four years of varying fortune crowded with adventure and profitable experience. Realizing that profits were to made from miners as well as from mines, Mr. De Cosmos – or Smith, for that was the name of his parents although to gratify his craving for a less commonplace patronymic a convenient legislature enacted that it should be DeCosmos – during his residence in the California gold diggings embarked in business as a general trader, at the same time engaging from time to time in various speculations in which he displayed a sagacity that was alternately designated as luck, intuition or common sense according to the tastes and dispositions of his critics and fellow citizens.
All however were compelled to admit that his fortunes steadily prospered, and that De Cosmos’ views on public affairs were as sound as the basis on which he built up his business success. Politics, whether national or bounded merely by the necessities and actions of a mining camp, he entered into naturally and with enthusiasm, so that even those who disliked the man – for he was too strong opinioned to invite universal friendship – were compelled to admit his power as a leader of men. To what place in the making of California history he might have aspired no one can guess. His stay in the land of the Argonauts was too quickly terminated for this to be determined, and with a long cherished desire to be once again under the old flag, he was one of the first to turn his eyes to Vancouver Island when the stream of gold-seekers began to flow in that direction.
It was in ’58 that De Cosmos landed in Victoria, then a city of tents and transient fortune-seekers on the outskirts of an inhospitable forest. He at once cast himself with that restless energy that was his most marked characteristic into the making of history for the new town and colony, carrying out the project that even before he left California had been taking practical form in his busy brain, and presenting to the public shortly afterwards, a pioneer newspaper of the Canadian far west – the British Colonist.
It was vigorous and direct – a newspaper symbolic of the times and people and consequently it grew in popularity and in influence. Popular government was not then in the hands of the people of this section, and this offered a them which the editor of the British Colonist was ever ready to discuss. Naturally he spoke to an appreciative audience, and when in April of 1859 Governor Douglas took a step in the direction of restricting the liberty of the press, or rather with the object of crushing out of existence the local representative of the world of publications, it was found that Victorians as a unit were with the editor. The proclamation of the Governor on this important and interesting occasion will be read with special interest in these days of free speech and unrestricted discussion. As printed in the British Colonist of 9 April it was as follows: “By His Excellency James Douglas, Commander of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath, Governor and Commander-in-Chief, Vice-Admiral, etc of Vancouver’s Island and its dependencies,
“Whereas the laws of the United Kingdom and Ireland, regulating the privilege and publishing of pamphlets and newspapers, are the laws regulating the same and in force in this Her Majesty’s colony of Vancouver’s Island, except in so far as the said laws impose any stamp duties on newspapers and duties on advertisements published therein;
“And whereas there is reason to believe that infractions of these laws have been committed by persons in ignorance thereof; and it is expedient to declare and make known the same to prevent infractions in future, and that none of Her Majesty’s loyal subjects, nor any other persons, may incur the penalties prescribed for their violation.
“Now, therefore, in consideration of these promises, I, James Douglas, Governor of Her Majesty’s said colony of Vancouver’s Island, do hereby declare and make known, that, with the exception aforesaid, the statutes 60, George III, cap. 9 – II George IV and IV William IV, cap. 75 and the 6th and 7th William IV, cap.76, and the statutes regulating the printing and publishing of pamphlets and newspapers in this colony.
“And I further make known that the declarations required by the statute 6 and 7 William IV may be declared before the Colonial Secretary, or person acting in that capacity for the time being, in lieu of a commissioner of stamps, and filed in his office; and the recognizance required to be entered into by the said statutes of 60 George III, cap. 9 and II George IV and 4 William IV, cap. 75, may be entered into before the Chief Justice of Vancouver’s Island in lieu of a Baron of Exchequer.
“Given under my hand and the Seal of the Colony of Vancouver’s Island, at Government House, Victoria, this 30th day of March, 1859, and in the 22nd year of Her Majesty’s reign.”
This proclamation was the cause of a meeting being convened “of the inhabitants of Victoria, Vancouver’s Island, held at the Assembly Hall, Broad street, at 7 ½ o’clock p.m. of Monday evening, April 4th, 1859, at which were present a large assemblage of people, crowding the hall in every part.” Mr. H. Holbrook was chairman and Mr. John Copland secretary, and the business of the evening was introduced by the reading of the notice of which the meeting was the result. This was to the following effect:
“To take into consideration the best means of carrying out the law, declared so to be by His Excellency the Governor of the Colony, as regards the Independent press of this Colony.”
There were several addresses, notably one by Mr. G L Wight, a barrister, who explained the law at some length, and a resolution was finally passed unanimously:
“That, with reference to the proclamation read by the chairman of this meeting, and appreciating the hardships it places on the Independent Press of Victoria, more particularly the proprietor of the British Colonist, upon whom the said proclamation more directly bears, and with a full determination to obey the law which His Excellency the Governor has, by his proclamation, extended to this colony, this meeting, with a view of supporting the liberty of the Independent Press, and appreciating the efforts made by the editor, Mr. Amor De Cosmos, of the British Colonist, for the advancement of the public interest of this colony, is of the opinion that Mr. Amor De Cosmos be requested to again issue his paper, which has been stopped by said proclamation for want of sureties, and for that purpose a list of those who are willing to subscribe toward the guarantee of those who may be selected or willing to become sureties out of said list, and thus enable him to comply with the requisitions of the law as laid down by the proclamation of His Excellency the Governor.”
This resolution was adopted unanimously, and it being evident that any desired amount would be forthcoming, a second resolution was passed restricting the subscription list to £800, the sum required by the law for sureties. Finally it was agreed bonds would be preferable to cash, and Messrs. Yates, Homer, Bayley and Wight having been named a committee to provide the bonds, the meeting adjourned, after ordering copies of the proceedings to be sent for publication to the London Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily News.
And so the first pitched battle for the liberty of the press in this new country was ended in victory.
A Victorian and a Canadian first, last and all the time, Mr. De Cosmos was one of the first to espouse the cause of confederation, and government by the people, and although the unity of the provinces was ultimately accomplished on a basis other than that which he had originally championed, he was one of the most sincere in the rejoicing at the accomplishment of the natural destiny of the British North American possessions. Fearless and outspoken in his discussion of public questions, both with pen and voice, it was natural that he should have been selected less than five years after his arrival in the colony – in 1863 – as a member of the colonial legislature; or that he should have continued as a representative in that body, of the people whose interests he had so much at heart until the amalgamation of the Island with British Columbia, as the Masinland was then termed, under Governor Strong. New Westminster was at this time the capital, but Mr. De Cosmos concluded that Victoria by reason of its greater population and important commerce was the more suitable place from which to direct provincial affairs. He therefore entered with zeal into a campaign for the transfer of the capital, in which he was ultimately successful. Victorians have, therefore, to thank the pioneer statesman whose demise yesterday brings his career into prominence, for the position which their city occupies to-day as the executive centre of Canada’s most western province.
In 1866 his persistent demand for popular government led to the summoning of the Yale convention, which formulated a bill of rights and called for the extension of self-government to the people of British Columbia. Success was not immediately achieved, but the convention was nonetheless not without its practical and important bearing in the accomplishment of its desired aim.
In 1868 Mr. De Cosmos paid an important visit to the eastern provinces, his mission being nothing less than to advocate the confederation of the provinces from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and returning to his home in the west he bent his every energy to the tremendous scheme of building up a united nation. In 1870 his formulated project was laid before the local legislature, the government scheme for the accomplishment of the same great project under other conditions at the same time being considered. The government plan prevailed, and in July 1871 the province became a part of the Dominion.
Three years after this Mr. De Cosmos was chosen premier of the province, and president (without salary) of the executive council – this being upon the resignation of the government led by Premier (now Justice) McCreight. At the same time he was the representative of Victoria in the Canadian House of Commons, his capacity for work appearing to have no bounds, and his attention to the needs and opportunities of his constituents being generally admitted as unassailable. Upon the abolition of dual representation, Mr. De Cosmos chose to represent his constituency in the Dominion house, and accordingly resigned the premiership and threw himself with augmented enthusiasm in national affairs. During his representation at Ottawa of the city whose interests he made his own, he repeatedly urged the desirability and necessity of providing a first class graving dock at Esquimalt, and upon his efforts in this direction being rewarded in by the vote in 1881 of a sum of $250,000 by the Dominion government, in lieu of the guarantee stipulated in the terms of union, he promptly followed up the advantage gained by visiting London and prevailing upon the Imperial authorities to contribute a similar amount toward the accomplishment of the important public work in question. Before his retirement from federal affairs in 1882, when he was defeated on his return to his constituency, he had the satisfaction of seeing his work on behalf of the dock had been successful.
During the past fourteen years Mr. De Cosmos had drifted away from the public with whom he had been so closely in touch, taking after the suspension of the Standard – an evening paper with which he was identified practically until it ceased publication some seven years ago – but a small part in public affairs. His iron constitution had stood the strain well of long years of arduous mental labor, but it was not to be expected that with advancing age it could be taxed as in the years of vigorous manhood.
The advocacy of the railway ferry project to Westminster was in reality the last project on which the old “war horse” came before the people of Victoria, and the failure of the public to accept this scheme as he saw it occasioned him no little annoyance and disappointment. It was in the hope of carrying through this pet project of his declining years that he offered himself as a candidate for the Dominion house little more than two years ago, but his brief candidature on that occasion only demonstrated emphatically that his day was over. Subsequently his decline in strength was rapid, and the failure of his mental powers and the necessary appointment of guardians as a result, came the close of his brilliant, remarkable and useful career.
He had never married, and four sisters and a brother, Mr. C. McK. Smith, of this city, compose the family more directly grieved by his decease.
Of the part he played in the making of British Columbia’s history much might be said. He was not always right, nor was he at all times ready to concede that those who differed from him in opinion were actuated by the same honest motives which, to his credit, undoubtedly actuated him. He was a strong, positive writer, and an equally emphatic speaker, making up for what he lacked in oratorical power, in precision of statement and fertility of argument – and these, with his immense fund of information on every public question, constituting him a very powerful opponent in any debate. Conscientious, persistent, industrious, he was a man whose individuality would have forced him to the fore in any community. That he was a power for great good in British Columbia none will for a moment question or deny.
“One of the ablest men in British Columbia and the ablest man the province has ever had in the Dominion house. I knew him well,” soliloquized Mr. Alexander Wilson, when told of Mr. DeCosmos’ death yesterday. “He was a peculiarly tempered man to anyone not knowing him well, and to understand the man one had to be well acquainted with him. He always fought for Victoria’s interests and if all were told that he has done it would fill a book of many pages. On almost every subject he was well informed, and if he was not conversant with it he could refer to his splendidly equipped library wherein the desired information could be found. Electricity was something he always seemed to regard as dangerous and I frequently have endeavored to induce him to have it in his house, but on each occasion I was met with arguments against it that were almost convincing. So adverse was he to the use of electricity that to the very last day of his life he never rode in a street car. Through his efforts while occupying the editorial chair at the COLONIST a committee of the British House of Commons representatives was appointed to investigate the claims of the Hudson Bay Company against Vancouver Island. He was largely instrumental in bringing about the union of the Island and Mainland while acting as a member of the House of Assembly, and making Victoria the seat of government for the province. It was due to him that Victoria as a free port was abolished, and that the tariff applicable to Mainland ports was here adopted also. It was due to him also in great measure that Confederation was brought about. His last fight was for the Victoria-New Westminster railway.”
“He was a very intelligent man,” said Mr. E. B. Marvin, “He took a great interest in the affairs of British Columbia, and in many cases had his views been carried out Vancouver Island would be in a better position to-day than it really is. The CPR, instead of having its terminus in Vancouver would have had it in Esquimalt. Being of an arbitrary disposition, however, he could not get along very well with his colleagues at Ottawa, and therefore could not carry as many points as a more politic but less capable man. I knew the late Mr. De Cosmos before he entered political life; he was born in the same town as I, in Windsor, N.S. In that province his sisters, who are all married to men holding prominent positions, still reside.”
Sheriff McMillan, another pioneer familiar with the life of the deceased in Victoria, said of the late Mr. De Cosmos that he was very eccentric, but straightforward and honest in all his dealings. As a politician everybody knew him and as an editor he was very able. In fact his political history began with his taking the editorship of the COLONIST; he was a terror to evil politicians. In matters of religion he was inclined to be skeptical.”
(Source: Victoria Daily Colonist, 6 July 1897, page 6 columns 1,2,3)
“It was a group of the old pioneers that gathered around the open grave at Ross bay cemetery yesterday afternoon, to pay their last respects to the memory of Amor de Cosmos. Although to all intents the deceased had dead to the world for some years, that he was not altogether forgotten was borne out by the floral offerings, which covered the coffin. Still the few who formed the cortege was a sad commentary on the evanescence of public gratitude, and led one honorable pioneer who was present to remark, “And this fame! How quickly people forget the services rendered to the state!” But that the memory of Amor de Cosmos will find an enduring place in the annals of the province goes without saying. The services were conducted by the Rev. Canon Beanlands, both at the cathedral and at the grave, the following well-known citizens acting as pallbearers: Mayor Redfern, H.D. Helmcken, Q.C., M.P.P., William Wilson, R.A. Brown, E.B. Marvin, and Alexander Wilson.”
(Source: Victoria Daily Colonist, 8 July 1897, page 5, column 1)
“SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI
TO THE EDITOR – A few hacks, a score of men at the residence, the footfall of a dozen men sounding from the wooden sidewalks, three-score men and a few women in the church, no sepulchral tones from the organ, no singing of sacred, hopeful hymns, a sort reading of the burial service – all dead, dead, as cold and lifeless as the corpse in the dismal coffin. At the graveyard some twenty or thirty saw the casket lowered to its last resting-place – ashes to ashes; dust to dust – all is over. This was the mockery of honor paid to Amor DeCosmos, whom forty years ago, and thirty after, a large section of the people of Victoria considered a hero, a patriot, who fought for the emancipation, improvement, progress and welfare of the country, less for his own material interests than for fame, honor and glory – even those, and they were not few, who disapproved of his course and opinions, for the most part admitted this much. That such a man should have come to this – alas, poor Yorick! Such a funeral is neither worth living, or dying for. Is honor and glory then, a mere temporary public gaseous emanation, like the will-o’-wisp, leaving no trace behind, only beautiful and deluding whilst it lasts? This is not the first time that a public man, a pioneer who has stood “behind the gun,” has been thus heartlessly treated. Governments, corporations and the public seem to have no hearts, no sentiment, no memory – callous to all but their own interests or affairs.
What an example to hold up before the rising generation. Does it represent them?
No wonder that public men nowadays think of their own interests first and those of the country last or not at all; the public men are only the representatives of their constituents. Doubtless there are still some who value honor and honesty more than the dollar, and it is to be hoped that the “brave days of old” may soon re-appear and virtue again be in the ascendant, to render honor and respect to whom honor is due – to those who have served their country, not necessarily politically, but faithfully and well.
J.S. Helmcken” [Note: Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken was a prominent Victoria physician and B.C. pioneer. He was a member of the colonial Legislative Assembly and a political opponent of Amor de Cosmos during the Confederation debates prior to B.C. joining Confederation in 1871.]
(Source: Victoria Daily Colonist, 9 July 1897, page 7, column 2)
For more information on Amor de Cosmos, see:
Amor de Cosmos is buried in Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, B.C. with his brother Charles Mckeivers Smith (died 1911, aged 88).
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