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Helmcken’s Memoirs

August 19th, 2010 · No Comments · British Columbia, Vancouver Island, Victoria

Dr. J.S. Helmcken in his later years.

Doctor John Sebastien Helmcken is one of the most well known members of Victoria’s original pioneer community. In this 1961 Islander article, “Helmcken Memoirs Name His Villains” author James K. Nesbitt provides some interest excerpts from Helmcken’s personal memoirs. As a former member of the colonial legislature, Helmcken vividly describes colonial politics and political life at their rip roaring, wild, wooliest worst.

He described the members of the second colonial legislature.

“In it were Cary, Waddington, Franklin, Crease, Tolmie, Southgate, myself and Cooper for Esquimalt. Undoubtedly the members were above the average. and all were of expirience and travel, and, certainly for the most part, honourable.

Apparently, Helmcken was not a supporter of Amour de Cosmos, who was not a member of the Government at the time. In spite of this he provides some first-person insights into de Cosmo’s character and temperament.

“At the election of course, the government by the HBC was denounced and must be got rid of. Governor Douglas came in for a great deal of abuse and criticism, but he had many friends, now that he was attacked. The Colonist, under Amour de Cosmos, had been, from its very commencment, hostile, vituperative, and abuseive of, and to, the Governor, the government, and every thing in general. He seemed altogether too violent…but it pleased the dissatisfied, and made them more so; but many Americans cried shame – in our country it would not be allowed!

At this time de Cosmos was a radical and a demagogue…a good speaker, knew all the captivating sentences for the multitude…well read, a free thinker in religion – a sort of socialist , and uncommonly egotistical. Nothing was right if he said the contrary…and nothing good done but what he had been the author thereof.

One newspaper made the remark they could not report de Cosmos’ speech in full because they had not a sufficient number of capital I’s”

In one pre-election meeting, Attorney General George Hunter Cary took on Amour de Cosmos.

“Cary was in his glory…lashed de Cosmos to fury, and got furious himself…What shouting cheering and hissing, and all kinds of noise…de Cosmos appeared…performed all sorts of semi-theatrical attitudes – boasted of traveling throgh California with a revolver in each boot, or something of this kind – was vain glorious and egotistic to the utmost degree.

The theatre was crowded…de Cosmos was drunk. This settled the latter…he lost the election…He took a little too much, for I am told he always “took a little” before appearing on a public platform.”

And then, election day:

“the day arrived…the voting open…so one could see which way the wind was blowing. In the afternoon many held back; whisky became not a rare thing…People from town harassed them, and so did our side. De Cosmos came down, too, and was told by Burnaby he was only fit to be a Bootblack, which riled him very considerably. Some voted the wrong way – both sides said so; so the grog perhaps influenced them, or something else; anyhow Cooper and I were elected, and there was not a fight.

After the elections Mrs. Mackenzie gave us a jolly good dinner …The men regaled themselves in the kitchen, and after a while came in to congradulate us…Burnaby sang some comic songs – in fact, there was a feast of reason and a flow of sou ’til midnight.

The MacKenzies were whole souled people and felt the victory as much, or more, than the candidates, for not much love existed between them and the Langfords Skinners and Coopers, but they were not enemies. It was a hard fought battle and we learned new dodges of crooks from Victoria interfering with the district elections with voice, carriages, and spirits.”

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