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The Daily British Colonist
Amor de Cosmos
Born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Canada in 1825, de Cosmos changed his name later in life (translated as "Lover of the Universe"). Well-educated, he was 28 when he was attracted to the goldfields of California, where he became a photographer. He arrived in Victoria from California in June of 1858, starting the Colonist on December 11, 1858. In 1860 he was treasurer of the newly-formed Victoria Lodge No. 1085. De Cosmos sold his stake in the Colonist in 1866 to D. W. Higgins, but in 1870, started another Victoria newspaper, the Standard. His political career began in 1863 when he was elected to the Vancouver Island colonial assembly. After Canadian Confederation in 1867, De Cosmos was elected to the British Columbia legislature, and was at the same time, elected as a Member of Parliament to Ottawa. He became the second premier of BC on November 13, 1872 and retained his MP’s seat as well. De Cosmos served as BC premier until December 20, 1874. He died in poverty in 1897.
The appearance of the Colonist, in retrospect a political and journalistic landmark, was apparently not considered newsworthy by the men from San Francisco since no mention of de Cosmos or his new weekly was made in the Gazette throughout the whole of December, 1858. In contrast to the bland tone of the Gazette, the vehemence of the reform-bent Colonist must have created considerable stir in the community. Yet, despite the severity of some of the de Cosmos attacks on Douglas and his government, the Gazette would not reply in kind until its American pride had been bruised, neither attempting to defend the governor against the Colonist broadsides, nor joining in criticizing him.
Nothing in this period illustrates the editorial differences between the two papers better than their respective positions on a proclamation by Douglas in the spring of 1859 requiring both to post bonds to secure payment of fines or civil damages in case of conviction for libel. The bonds required were 400 pounds for each proprietor of a newspaper, plus two sureties of 400 pounds each. As historians have pointed out, the proclamation was an obvious attempt by Douglas to muzzle de Cosmos. But the regulations also worked against the Gazette. Times were no longer as prosperous as they had been in the summer of 1858; Victoria’s population was on the wane, and many American merchants were beginning to return to California. With them went their advertising. The Gazette had already cut back from daily publication to tri-weekly, it was faced with populist competition from the Colonist, and 1,200 pounds was a great deal of money for a small newspaper to lay out, even as a bond. The proclamation was disagreeable to the Gazette owners, but they complied with it promptly, commenting mildly that "we regret that it was not included among those English acts which, in the discretion of the Governor, are inapplicable to one of these colonies."
De Cosmos, on the other hand, turned the proclamation to his advantage, declaring that it "infringed the constitutional rights" of the colonists. The week before, when the scheduled issue of the Colonist failed to appear, a public meeting had been called and 800 pounds quickly pledged by some of Victoria’s citizens to pay the sureties required for Victoria’s "independent press." In one blow, de Cosmos succeeded in polarizing two kinds of public opinion: opposition to Douglas and anti-American feelings against the Gazette.
The impression has been given in most historical accounts of the episode that the missing April 2 issue of the Colonist was never made up because de Cosmos could not afford the bonds. In fact, copies of the Colonist for that day were printed as usual, but apparently never distributed and de Cosmos later wrote the following explanation: he had learned accidentally of the proclamation on April 1 and noting that a 50-pound fine per issue was the penalty for non-compliance, hastened to find a government official with whom he could file the necessary declarations, and so publish the following day. But the proper officials were inexplicably not to be found, and so the April 2 issues languished in the Colonist office. Nowhere in print does de Cosmos hint that he could not afford the bonds; indeed, the opposite is implied.
The issue that was withheld contained on the front page a particularly venomous attack, even for the Colonist, on Douglas and his government. The article, signed only by "B.Wm." urged the colonists to demand the removal of Douglas by the British authorities; they must get rid of the "present government, with its lick-spittle characteristics, its crawling and evil proclivities, its thousand and one faces, and all the corruption which it has engendered; they must curb its profligate extravagance.....they must show it to the world in all the hideousness of sin, that honesty may blush and bow the head....." A shorter, unsigned article on the same page also called for the removal of Douglas.
Once the bonds had been posted for the Colonist, there was nothing to prevent de Cosmos from reprinting the articles and giving them circulation, except the fear of a libel action. But he never did, and it is likely Douglas had prior knowledge of the projected April 2 attacks. In any case, the relationship between the proclamation and the withheld Colonist could hardly have been one of simple coincidence.
The Gazette emerged from the episode looking even more like a disinterested interloper, but as spring wore into summer, the San Juan Island controversy caused the paper to bare at last its American soul. Soldiers from the U.S. had been landed on the island, and the Gazette said in a lead article entitled "A Teapot Tempest" that the move was only made to protect American settlers already there from Indian attack, and there was no violation of "alleged" British rights. The island obviously belonged to the United States, "such clearly being the fair interpretation of the treaty [of 1846]," so there was no danger of Anglo-American relations being impaired unless action was taken from the British side that would aggravate the situation, a reference to Douglas" desire to match force with force.
The newspaper’s tone was calm but assured. It continued to refer to the "alleged" rights of Britain, and sent its reporter "Curioso" to the island to view the situation at first hand. He wrote back that increasing numbers of American settlers were arriving to take up land under United States pre-emption laws and that any attempt to land British troops would be regarded as invasion. The Gazette commented that Douglas had no authority to land troops in any case; that was a decision for the home government in London, and settlement of the matter should be left to the British and American governments without interference form Victoria.
Then the Gazette offered the ultimate insult. The island it said, would be wasted on Britain which would make no effort to settle and develop the disputed territory. The Americans, on the other hand, with their heavy western population, would put the island to good use. To Douglas and those who shared his dread of American expansion, the Gazette’s stance must have acted like a red flag waved in front of a bull.

By Hugh Doherty: Copy editor, city editor, The Daily Colonist, 1968-73. Based on a research paper done at the University of Victoria graduate history department in 1973.


© 1871-2017 Grand Lodge of British Columbia and Yukon A.F. & A. M. Updated: February 28, 2001