George Robinson, Vancouver Island Pioneer


The Royal Charter of 1849 had provided that the Colony should be governed by an appointed Governor, assisted by a Council nominated by him and an Assembly elected by the populace. During his brief term as Governor, Richard Blanshard had appointed three of Victoria's landed gentry to be members of a Council. These were James Douglas, James Cooper and John Tod. Blanshard achieved nothing towards the election of an Assembly. The appointment of Douglas as Governor changed the composition of the Council but nothing else changed, and even the Council was convened as seldom as possible, to wit: 1852, 5 meetings; 1853, 6 meetings; 1854, 2 meetings; 1855, 1 meeting; 1856, 4 meetings. Apart from this, Governor Douglas ruled by proclamation and ruled alone.

In February of 1856 the British Government, perturbed at the lack of progress in establishing a Legislative Assembly, finally directed Douglas to call an election. Douglas complied, and in a proclamation dated 16th June, 1856, set out four electoral districts: Victoria (three members), Esquimalt & Metchosin (two members), Sooke (one member) and Nanaimo (one member). The proclamation also appointed a Returning Officer for each district. The Returning Officer for Nanaimo was to be Captain Charles Edward Stuart, presently in charge of the Hudson's Bay Company post at that settlement.

The proclamation also set out the qualifications required for nomination as a prospective Member of the Legislative Assembly, and for voter in the election. To become an M.L.A. a man must be the owner of freehold to the value of three hundred pounds Sterling; to vote in the election, a man must own twenty acres of freehold land. Of course women were not considered competent to vote, let alone be nominated for M.L.A.

It was all too evident that the objective of these qualifications was the election of an Assembly whose members had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Thus it is not surprising that this first election, with its sparse slate of prospective members and its few qualified voters, was a farce. When its members were called into session, even they must have wondered why they bothered going through the motions. Governor Douglas, addressing them, spoke of the Colony's slow but hardy growth and counseled financial caution: he then informed them that the only funds over which they had spending control were those derived from the sale of liquor licences, and that all monies collected from this source for the current year, had already been spent.

We do not know what George Robinson thought or said about this state of affairs, but we can guess.

By the time of the election of 1859 we have much more information in the form of articles which appeared in a newly-founded newspaper, the British Colonist. The Colonist had been started as a tiny weekly with a press run of two hundred copies, the first issue being 11th December, 1858. Its founder and first editor was the gifted and eccentric Amor de Cosmos whose name, if one applied successively Latin, French and Greek for translation, meant "Lover of the Universe". De Cosmos had been born William Alexander Smith at Windsor, Nova Scotia, on 25th August, 1825, and on reaching the age of twenty-six years had been "bitten by the gold-rush bug". He went by wagon-train to Mud Springs, California, where he found numerous other Smiths, some of whom had come by the name honestly and others of whom had adopted it as a form of protective colouration. They included several William Smiths, and even two other William Alexander Smiths. In consequence, mail was distributed in a state of chronic turmoil. Smith put up with these conditions for about as long as his temper, which was notably short, then petitioned the California State Legislature to change his name to Amor de Cosmos, a name so unique that he was certain his mail would never go astray again. After some frivolity - if one legislator's suggestion had been accepted, Smith would have found his cherished name changed legally to Amos de Cosmos - the petition was approved and Amor de Cosmos he became.

Following seven more years of various occupations, including photography, trading, speculating and mining, de Cosmos accumulated a modest "stake" in cash and property and moved to Victoria. There he looked at the extent of the Hudson's Bay Company's involvement in the government of the Colony, and did not like what he saw. Seven months after his arrival, he founded the British Colonist, which under his editorship proceeded to lambaste the Governor, the Council and the Company with all its might, both directly in editorials and obliquely through the reports of its various correspondents.

As examples of editorial comment, ". . . we honestly believe that any man who will not ask Her Majesty's Government to remove Gov. Douglas is a traitor to his country, and unworthy of her protection - and blind to his own interests." The Council he characterized as ". . . equivalent to a mockery of an Upper House."

His correspondents, if more temperate in language, gave little indication of being more favourably disposed to the Government. One of them, writing under the pseudonym of "John Bull" in the British Colonist of 27th May, 1859, reported the following on an incredible election which had just taken place in Nanaimo.

"As it may be interesting to some of your readers to know how the people's representative in the House of Assembly, from Nanaimo, is elected, I send you a full account of the election which has just taken place - of course, as it is well known that the inhabitants of Nanaimo are a peculiar people, it cannot be surprising that we have a peculiar method of doing our business - nor can it be considered strange that this peculiarity should extend to the election of our representative in the House of Assembly.

" 'Tis true our mode is `rayther novel', still, perhaps none the worse for that: one thing is certain, it has one advantage over the systems adopted by your people in Victoria, viz, it is done quietly and causes very little trouble.

"The following `notice', posted on the door of the Bastion, gave us warning of the coming election:

"I, Alfred Benson, Returning Officer for the District of Nanaimo, by virtue of a writ issued under the Colonial Seal by James Douglas, Esq. Governor of Vancouver Island, etc., do propose holding a meeting of the voters and inhabitants of Nanaimo on Saturday next, the 21st day of May, 1859, in front of the Bastion at Nanaimo, to then and there proceed to the election of a citizen to serve in the House of Assembly in place of John Kennedy, deceased.
           God Save the Queen. Nanaimo, May 16th, 1859.

"Your readers will probably notice that in the above no particular hour of the day was named for `holding' the `meeting', but this you know is one of our peculiarities, for it is very well at times not to be too precise - 'tis true it was not very convenient for those of the inhabitants who wished to attend - but then you know `you cannot have everything to suit everyone'.

"Besides, the returning officer having omitted to name the hour at which he intended to hold the meeting had its advantages as well as its disadvantages, for it enabled him to hold it at any hour he pleased, and also to do the thing quietly. Consequently, on passing the Bastion at about 4 o'clock, I found some five or six `inhabitants' seated upon the ground, each of whom, like myself, seemed a little disappointed in not having had an opportunity of attending the `meeting'.

"However, . . . we had the satisfaction of learning from the following `notices' that the business was done.

"To the returning officer . . . I beg to inform you that I, Charles Edward Stuart, am a qualified voter, for the District of Nanaimo, as holding land in my possession which entitles me to vote.

"Notice - I, Charles E. Stuart, do vote according to my qualification for Mr. John George Barnston, of Victoria, to act in place of John Kennedy, deceased, in the House of Assembly.

"Thus, as far as I know to the contrary, our electioneering is over, and as it was done peacefully, quietly and without any rioting or fighting, I hope your Victoria people will admit that `we done it very nicely'."

But the election wasn't over, after all. On 23rd May, "John Bull" wrote again to the Colonist, which published his report in the issue of 27th May also, following the earlier one.

"This morning about 9 o'clock, the inhabitants of Nanaimo were somewhat surprised at being informed by the Crier, that the Returning Officer intended to hold a meeting of the inhabitants of Nanaimo, at 11 o'clock in the forenoon of today, for the purpose of electing a representative to the House of Assembly in the place of John Kennedy, deceased. Accordingly at the hour appointed, some 30 or 40 people assembled in front of the Bastion, when the Returning Officer, addressing himself to the assemblage, stated that it was intended for the election to have taken place on Saturday last, but owing to a little inadvertence in the writing of the notice of the meeting on Saturday, namely the omission of naming the hour, and as the writ was only available today, he proposed now to hold the election. He then read the writ, after which Captain Stuart proposed John George Barnston of Victoria, as a `fit and proper person to represent the people of Nanaimo in the House of Assembly', this was seconded by John Malcolm (an assistant in the H.B. Company's store at Nanaimo, and a non-elector). Mr. Geo. Robinson, Mine Agent at Nanaimo, then came forward and asked the Returning Officer whether he considered two hours' notice of the election a sufficient one, and concluded by entering his protest against the election as being informal and unconstitutional, in consequence of there not having been sufficient and proper notice given of the time of election. The Returning Officer promised to forward Mr. Robinson's protest the the Governor. Finally as no other candidate was proposed, the Returning Officer declared Mr. John George Barnston of Victoria, elected to represent the people of Nanaimo in the House of Assembly. During the proceedings it was stated that no other person except Captain Stuart was entitled to vote at this election, and he obtained his right: First, by holding lands belonging to the H.B. Company at Nanaimo; Second, by holding 25 acres of land in his own right at Nanaimo; and Thirdly, as owning property at Victoria. Thus terminated the proceedings of this `memorable and hard contested election'."

The Colonist commented acidly that: "John G. Barnston, Esq., a young Canadian lawyer, and a nominee of the Hudson's Bay Company, has been put in by Governor Douglas as the member for Nanaimo. He will no doubt serve his clients well in the case of the Hudson's Bay Company vs. the public interest. It is not often that the number of electors is the same as that of the candidates. There will be a unity of interest."

But that was still not to be the end of it. The Colonist for July 6th, 1859, contained a lengthy article by "An Observer", who may or may not have been "John Bull" in another guise. Under the title "Nanaimo Election" and sub-title "Captain Stuart on the Stump", it reported:

"In the early part of this week a notice was posted upon the door of the Bastion informing the inhabitants of Nanaimo that, as John George Barnston the lately elected member had refused to qualify, a new writ had been issued, by virtue of which the returning officer proposed holding a meeting of the electors and inhabitants of the place at noon today, for the purpose of electing a representative to the House of Assembly.

"Accordingly at the hour appointed some twelve or fifteen persons assembled in front of the Bastion - not to elect, but to witness the election. The proceedings were commenced by the returning officer reading the writ; he then inquired if any voter had any person to propose, when Captain Stuart proposed `John Swanson' as a fit and proper person to represent Nanaimo in the House of Assembly; after a lapse of an short time, Mr. Horne, storekeeper to the H.B. Co. and a `non-elector', seconded the nomination, and as no other person was proposed the returning officer declared John Swanson as duly elected.

"During the proceedings Mr. Robinson, Mine Agent, addressing the audience, said: he did not consider it of much consequence who was elected, for he thought that no person who was a gentlemen, or who wished to be considered as such, would be likely to be found who would not do as John George Barnston had done; and as he was of the opinion that that gentleman had proved himself more honourable by refusing to qualify than he would have done by taking his seat in the House of Assembly, he considered such an election a disgrace to the place - nor did he blame the authorities so much in the matter, as he did the people themselves. True there were a few who had endeavoured to obtain possession of land and thereby qualify themselves to vote, but that was all they had done in the matter, and consequence is that Nanaimo is not now, in any respect, but little better or in advance of what it was some three or four years ago.

"Mr. Andrew Hunter, Engineer, and one of the oldest residents at Nanaimo, said that he wished the place was AS GOOD NOW as it was when he first come to it; but then, in some respects, it was far better than it is now.

"Mr. Thos. Mills inquired how Captain Swanson could represent Nanaimo when he happened to be up north, which would probably be more than six months of the year.

"Captain Stuart, in reply to Mr. Robinson's remarks, said that Mr. Barnston would possibly have taken his seat had he been qualified to do so; that he, Captain S., did not personally know Mr. Barnston, but that he proposed him at the last election in consequence of his being recommended to him by Captain Dodd; but that with Captain Swanson the case is very different, as he knew him, and he knew also that he was qualified to take his seat in the House of Assembly. He warned Mr. Robinson that he may yet have cause to regret having made the forementioned remarks. Upon which Mr. R. smiled, when Captain Stuart continued - yes, you may smile as you please. But I know Captain Swanson too well to suppose that he will not be disposed to resent such an imputation upon his character; and he hoped that parties making newspaper reports would in future report the truth - that it appeared that some one had told "a passenger" in the Otter that he, Captain S., at the last election had said that "the Indians hold land and are entitled to vote". He denied having said so; he merely said when addressing himself to Mr. Robinson that the Indians had as good a right to vote as Mr. R. had, he having no right at all.

"Mr. Robinson replied that he had made no report or communication to any one of the statement imputed by Capt. Stuart, to "A Passenger", but he believed the statement was substantially correct, and that Capt. Stuart did say so, and he believed that most of the people present at this time could attest the same. As regards Capt. Stuart's present version of the matter, Mr. R. replied that he very much questioned if his right to vote was not equally as good as Capt. Stuart's, if the truth was known. As regards the taunt held out, of his having cause ere long to regret having made the remarks he had made, he had only to say that at present he did not regret, but on the contrary, he was still of the same opinion. And as regarded Capt. Swanson's property qualifications or personal abilities, he had nothing more to say than that he had no reason to do otherwise than entertain the highest feelings of respect towards that gentleman, so much so, that he believed Capt. Swanson entertained too high an opinion of himself, to accept the proffered seat.

"The proceedings having terminated, the Returning Officer said that any person who wished to become attesting witnesses to the election, may do so by signing the document then before him. Several did so and while they were doing it, the Constable, who had not been present at the election, came up, and upon his being requested by some of the by-standers to attach his signature also, he immediately did so. So much for attesting witnesses."

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