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The De Cosmos Enigma

By Gordon Hawkins

The Honourable Aleck: Love, Law and Tragedy in Early Canada

By Ian Bruce Robertson

Review By Adam Coombs

November 3, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 153-155

On a grey day in November of 1868, lawyer Alexander “Aleck” Rocke Robertson met with journalist and politician Amor De Cosmos. Both men had been born in Eastern Canada and, while pursuing different careers — Robertson (from Canada West) in law, and De Cosmos (from Nova Scotia) in photography and journalism — both moved to Victoria to pursue their substantial ambitions. The subject of this meeting was what they considered the disastrous result in that month’s colonial elections. A few days earlier, the political faction supporting British Columbia’s entry into confederation, of which De Cosmos and Robertson were leading figures, had suffered a massive defeat; even De Cosmos lost his Victoria seat to anti-Confederation stalwart Dr. John Helmcken. Despite the setback, both men were cautiously optimistic that the impending transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Canadian government would renew support for British Columbia’s entry into Confederation (Robertson, 177-178). Ultimately, their optimism was justified, and thanks in part to their efforts of these two men, less than three years later British Columbia became the sixth province to join Canada.

While historians are broadly familiar with the role Robertson and De Cosmos played in pushing British Columbia to join Confederation, these books, by Gordon Hawkins on De Cosmos and Ian Robertson on his ancestor Alexander Robertson, document the political careers of these key figures. Hawkins seeks to address what he perceives as the relative lack of attention De Cosmos has received since his death – part of what he terms “the enigma of De Cosmos” — arguing that “he failed to secure the degree of fame and respect he both deserved and expected” (141). However, as Hawkins admits, writing about De Cosmos is exceptionally challenging given the lack of primary sources, and Hawkins himself is forced to rely on secondary sources to fill in substantial gaps in De Cosmos’s life. Sometimes, such as the cause of his late-life insanity, Hawkins is forced to rely on pure speculation.

Similarly, Robertson’s self-described work of “creative non-fiction” focuses on the life of Alexander Robertson and his wife, Margaret. Using a collection of letters exchanged between them, Robertson reconstructs key moments in their lives. When the letters provide limited information, such as on Alexander Robertson’s initial trip from Ontario to British Columbia in 1864, Robertson relies on secondary literature to fill in the gaps. As he openly admits in the introduction, he imagines creatively how the events described in the letters occurred, including the dialogue between the key actors (xii). The 1868 meeting between De Cosmos and Robertson described above is one such example. For Robertson, the letters provide a framework to explore the world of his subject, but his re-creative enterprise is not limited by the content of the letters. Indeed, the creative and non-fiction aspects of his work are present in equal portion.

While neither author has written a conventional biography, their works are important contributions to the political and legal history of British Columbia: Robertson has never been the subject of a monograph, and the last book-length biography of De Cosmos (Amor de Cosmos: Journalist and Reformer, by George Woodcock) was published in 1975. The strongest moment in each book comes when the authors employ the biographical tradition to its fullest potential to open a window into the world inhabited by Amor and Aleck: both books consider their subjects’ prominent role in securing support in British Columbia for the province’s entry into Confederation with considerable attention to the broader political and social context.

Despite their excellent use of secondary literature to depict the political situation in British Columbia, both books might have engaged with a broader body of writing, particularly with works from outside of political and legal history. While Hawkins focuses almost exclusively on the colony’s white settlers, a number of scholars including Robin Fisher (Contact and Conflict), Cole Harris (Making Native Space), and Douglas Harris (Fish, Law, and Colonialism), have demonstrated that Aboriginal inhabitants of the colony played an integral part in many aspects of its history. Key events such as the gold rush, which brought De Cosmos to British Columbia, are impossible to describe adequately without considering the role of Aboriginal inhabitants in the Pacific colony. Moreover, as owner of the British Colonist between 1858 and 1863, De Cosmos in his editorials and articles was aware of, and commented on, issues relating to the often confrontational relationship between white settlers and Aboriginals, particularly in the Fraser Valley and the Gulf Islands. De Cosmos’s engagement with indigenous issues makes Hawkins’ almost exclusive focus on white settlers seem somewhat incongruous.

While Robertson limits his focus largely to white settlers, his narrative is driven by the content of his letters, which reflect the biases and priorities expressed by Alexander Robertson and his wife in their epistolary exchanges. However, his work would be strengthened by incorporating insights from cultural history, particularly gender history. Robertson recreates the couple’s daily interactions as well as some of their social relationships, including parent-child and cross gender friendships, but Robertson’s characters speak and react in a manner similar to what one would expect from people today, despite the massive gulf in social norms and expectations between Victorian Canada and the present. By drawing on the pertinent work of historians such as Adele Perry (On the Edge of Empire) or Sarah Carter (Capturing Women), Robertson could have constructed a much more textured and convincing dialogue for his characters while deepening his analysis of their relationships.

Overall, both Robertson and Hawkins tackle a conventional subject — political history — in an unorthodox but informative and entertaining manner. By focusing on these key figures, both books chart broader political and legal changes in British Columbia in the latter half of the nineteenth century. While both could benefit from engaging with a greater range of existing analytical literature, they remain worthwhile and useful for scholars and members of the general public interested in exploring the political and legal history of British Columbia.

The De Cosmos Enigma
Gordon Hawkins
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2015. 170 pp. $17.95 paper

The Honourable Aleck: Love, Law and Tragedy in Early Canada
Ian Bruce Robertson
Victoria: Friesen Press, 2013. 344 pp. $19.99 paper