Friday, February 26, 2016

Book review: Jobb on The De Cosmos Enigma

Guest reviewer Dean Jobb of Halifax contributes this notice of The De Cosmos Enigma by Victoria journalist Gordon Hawkins, recently published by Ronsdale Press. 
 The De Cosmos Enigma by Gordon Hawkins (Ronsdale Press, 2015).

Our nation-building first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, ensured Canada would stretch from sea to sea. But what about the role played by Amor De Cosmos? The Pacific Coast is Canadian largely due to the efforts of an eccentric newsman-turned-politician with an improbable name, who was determined to keep British Columbia from falling into the hands of the Americans.

The odd name De Cosmos adopted in his late twenties – a French-Latin-Greek mishmash that roughly translates as “Lover of the Universe” – was not enough to raise his profile in the history books. As the title of this new biography makes clear, B.C.’s second premier remains an enigma. “While his political life can be traced in some detail,” notes author Gordon Hawkins, “almost nothing is known of the personality behind the public performance.” De Cosmos left no diaries, personal letters or descendants to flesh out the picture of a difficult, forceful and single-minded man that emerges from the public record and the recollections of his many enemies.

Earlier biographers and historians have blazed a trail for Hawkins, a former CBC radio and television host who’s based in Victoria. De Cosmos, born William Alexander Smith in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1825, struck out for the California gold fields in the 1850s, where he became a photographer and land speculator and petitioned the state legislature to change his name. Lured northward by the Fraser River gold rush in 1858, he transformed himself into a crusading journalist and used his newspaper, the British Colonist, to attack the administration of Governor James Douglas and to demand responsible government.

Ever the shape-shifter, De Cosmos entered the political arena in 1863, as a member of the assembly for Vancouver Island, then a separate colony from the mainland. He championed the creation of a single West Coast colony in 1866, then pushed for union with the distant eastern colonies that formed the Dominion of Canada in 1867. His dream was realized when B.C. entered Confederation in 1871, and he served as premier from 1872 to 1874 and as Victoria’s member of Parliament until 1882. His increasingly erratic behavior spiraled into madness before his death in 1897.

Despite his political successes, De Cosmos was a reviled and polarizing figure. One opponent described him as “egotistic to the utmost degree,” and it is the critics who have shaped – one could say, tarnished – his reputation. Hawkins set out to fill in the gaps in De Cosmos’ story, travelling to Nova Scotia and California to follow in his footsteps. Like other biographers, he concludes that Joseph Howe’s fight for responsible government in Nova Scotia in the 1840s inspired his later campaign for political reform in B.C.

Other insights are based on informed speculation. Hawkins wonders if exposure to toxic chemicals during his stint as a photographer contributed to his later eccentricities and insanity. He likewise points to a near-death experience on the arduous overland journey to the California goldfields as a possible motivation to transform himself into Amor De Cosmos. Then again, it may have been nothing more than a flamboyant attempt to stand out in a sea of Bill Smiths.

Hawkins has produced a comprehensive, readable biography of a neglected builder of Canada. De Cosmos may remain an enigma, but this book offers the most complete portrait of a man who deserves to be remembered for more than his quirks and personal shortcomings.

Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (HarperCollins Canada), the stranger-than-fiction tale of a 1920s Chicago swindler who fled to a new life of decadence in Nova Scotia. He teaches creative nonfiction and journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. His website is 

As further reading, Jobb suggests the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entry on Amor De Cosmos, by Robert A. J. McDonald and H. Keith Ralston.
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