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From William Smith to Amor De Cosmos

For the week of Monday, July 3, 2017

On July 4, 1897, Amor De Cosmos (né William Alexander Smith) died in Victoria, British Columbia. De Cosmos fought for the unification of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, for the establishment of responsible government, and for the confederation of British Columbia with Canada.

Smith was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, in 1825, and travelled to California at age 27. Instead of prospecting for gold, he found employment taking photographs of miners at their claims. In 1854, he legally changed his name to Amor De Cosmos on the grounds that it “tells what I love most, viz: love of order, beauty, the world, the universe.” 

Portrait of Amor de Cosmos (né William Smith), 1874
© William James Topley / Library and Archives Canada / PA-025397

In 1858, De Cosmos moved to Victoria, B.C., where he founded the British Colonist newspaper (now known as the Times-Colonist). He used his popular newspaper to criticize the colonial government of Governor James Douglas.

In 1863, De Cosmos was elected into the Vancouver Island House of Assembly, where he was influential in the unification of Vancouver Island and British Columbia in 1866. He also supported B.C.’s entry into Confederation in 1871. With Confederation he achieved another goal, namely responsible government, which meant that the head of government is dependent on the support of elected members.

De Cosmos was elected both as a member of the new Legislative Assembly and as a Member of Parliament (MP). He became B.C.’s second premier after leading a vote of non-confidence against the serving premier, John Foster McCreight.

As premier, De Cosmos lobbied for infrastructure on Vancouver Island and fought hard, but unsuccessfully, to have the Canadian Pacific Railway terminate at Victoria. In keeping with many attitudes of the time, he also spoke against Chinese immigration.

De Cosmos resigned as premier in 1874 but continued to serve as a MP until 1882. His mental health declined with age and, in 1895, he was declared of unsound mind. Very little is known about De Cosmos’ private life. He was notorious for outbursts of violence with both his cane and his fists. He had no known acquaintances outside of politics and his newspaper. De Cosmos died in 1897.

Amor De Cosmos and Sir James Douglas are designated national historic persons. The Creation of the Province of British Columbia is a national historic event. To find out more about Amor De Cosmos’ role in Confederation, read "From Sea to Sea" at Last! in the This Week in History archives. To learn about Chinese immigration, see Legalizing Racism, Victoria's Chinatown: Not Enough Women, and Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers.

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