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COOPER, JAMES, HBC employee, master mariner, politician, and public servant; b. 1821 at Bilston, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, Eng.; date and place of death unknown.

James Cooper joined the Hudson’s Bay Company in August 1844, and in 1845 was appointed first officer on Vancouver, of the Columbia Shipping Department. In 1846 he was given a command, and in 1847 he sailed Mary Dare to Fort Victoria for the north Pacific trade. He took a cargo of flour and deals to the Sandwich Islands, and the opportunities in the expanding Pacific trade impressed him. In 1848 he became captain of Columbia, the annual supply ship for Fort Vancouver. On his first voyage he violated company regulations by carrying goods to trade on his own account at Honolulu.

Visiting Fort Victoria on 16 Oct. 1849, Cooper decided to leave the company and emigrate as a “free settler” to Vancouver Island, the new colony in which the company had proprietary rights. In England he obtained an appointment as Lloyd’s agent on the island but could not raise capital for a saw-milling venture. With his wife, four children, and workmen, Cooper came as supercargo on Tory, arriving at Victoria on 9 May 1851, and having met his future farm superintendent, Thomas Blinkhorn, on board.

An enterprising colonist, Cooper at first prospered. Then misfortunes, which he blamed on the HBC and James Douglas, befell him. The 385-acre farm at Metchosin, on which he had paid a deposit to the company, was nine miles by water from Fort Victoria and the lack of a road became a grievance. He depleted his capital by purchasing two properties at Esquimalt and a part-interest in a tavern at Victoria. In 1852, his 45-ton iron schooner Alice, brought with him on Tory in sections, began to carry potatoes and cranberries to San Francisco. Douglas at first assisted him, but became less amiable when he learned that Cooper had not paid Fort Langley for the potatoes and that his cranberries were obtained from Indians of the Fraser River delta against the company’s monopoly on the mainland.

Cooper, however, had won the trust of the island’s first governor, Richard Blanshard*, and was named on 27 Aug. 1851, with Douglas and John Tod*, to the island’s ruling council. On his departure, Blanshard carried a petition signed by Cooper and the other independent settlers opposing the selection of Douglas as the new governor. Even so Douglas obtained the appointment. When, in 1853, he and the council imposed licence fees for the sale of spirits, and Douglas forbade members of the council to sell liquor, Cooper, a man of “an irascible, grumbling disposition,” complained bitterly. His business affected and his shipping restricted, he prepared an attack on Douglas.

His excuse came with Douglas’ appointment of David Cameron, the governor’s brother-in-law, on 2 Dec. 1853 as judge of the Court of Common Pleas. Supported by the HBC chaplain, the Reverend Robert J. Staines*, and by Captain Edward Edwards Langford*, a disaffected Puget’s Sound Agricultural Company bailiff, Cooper organized the settlers to petition London to revoke the company’s grant and put the colony under imperial control. Two further petitions were presented to the two houses of parliament in March 1854.

In June 1856, “in circumstances of some [financial] barrassment,” Cooper returned to England to become a merchant at Bilston. In 1857 his testimony before the House of Commons Select Committee inquiring into the administration of the HBC corroborated that given by Blanshard, Rear Admiral Fairfax Moresby, and Charles W. Wentworth-Fitzwilliam, mp. Their evidence was so damaging that the company’s crown grant to Vancouver Island was revoked in 1859.

Cooper was still in England in August 1858, when Douglas was appointed governor of the new colony of British Columbia. But on 25 Dec. 1858 Cooper returned to Victoria with a commission from Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton appointing him harbour master at Esquimalt, “chiefly for the purposes of British Columbia.” Douglas protested: “Mr Cooper’s office is a sinecure, there is literally nothing for him to do.”

Once again, Cooper became politically active. He allied himself with Amor De Cosmos* and, though a public servant, stood twice for election to the Assembly of Vancouver Island. On 12 Jan. 1860 he was elected as a “reformer” for Esquimalt and Metchosin district. The Colonial Office intervened: he was ordered on 17 March 1860 to reside at New Westminster, the capital of B.C. In October Cooper resigned his seat.

Douglas and Cooper engaged in a bitter dispute in 1861 when Cooper employed a coxswain without authorization. Cooper continued to make unwarranted appointments and expenditures and interfered with the duties of the collector of customs. He also associated with the element which pressed for Douglas’ removal as governor, demanding representative government in the gold colony.

After Douglas’ retirement in 1864, Cooper was less closely supervised, though the colonial secretary suspected him on occasion of sharp practice. With the union of the seaboard colonies, he returned to Victoria in 1867 to take on additional duties as harbour master of Victoria and Esquimalt. On 27 Jan. 1869 he resigned, with the promise of 18 months’ salary in lieu of service. He became a hotel-keeper and wine merchant in Victoria. In 1870 he engaged briefly in a salmon fishing venture on the Fraser River six miles below New Westminster.

After B.C. entered confederation in 1871, Cooper was appointed on 17 Oct. 1872 dominion agent for the Department of Marine and Fisheries, inspector of lights, and inspector of steamboats. In 1876 a royal commission investigated charges that he had obtained money under false pretences while holding public office. Nothing was proven, and in December 1878 he won a lawsuit for slander against a lighthouse keeper who had branded him a “d---d old thief.” His appointment, however, was cancelled by order in council on 25 June 1879 on evidence that he had been guilty of fraud. In October he was charged at Victoria with obtaining $95 unlawfully on 29 June 1876 while acting as dominion agent. Cooper failed to appear before a higher court in December. His bail was estreated and a bench warrant sworn out. Cooper then disappeared. He is believed to have drifted to California, though no proof has been obtained.

Cooper was the first political agitator in British Columbia and the first leader of a political faction. In part he was motivated by unsatisfied political and social ambitions, as well as by economic distress, but by conviction he was the foe of autocracy and privilege. He saw more clearly than the officers of the HBC the opportunity for trade created by the California gold boom and was prepared to challenge its trading privileges.

Margaret A. Ormsby

Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, James Cooper, “Maritime matters on the northwest coast and other affairs of the Hudson’s Bay Company in early times” (photocopy in PABC). HBC Arch. B.226/b, B.226/c, B.239/k. PABC, Edgar Crow Baker, diary, 1879; British Columbia, Governor Frederick Seymour, Dispatches to London, 1864–69; David Cameron papers; James Cooper papers; Henry Pering Pellew Crease, Correspondence inward, 1869; James Douglas, “A confidential report upon the character and qualifications of the principal officers of this government,” Douglas to the Duke of Newcastle, 18 June 1863; Governor James Douglas, Correspondence inward, 1830–68; Governor James Douglas, Dispatches to London, 1851–55, 1855–59 (letter book copies); Fort Vancouver, Correspondence outward (letter book copies); Fort Victoria, Correspondence outward to HBC, 1850–55, 1855–59 (letter book copies); Vancouver Island, Governors Richard Blanshard and James Douglas, Correspondence outward, 22 June 1850–5 March 1859 (letter book copies); Vancouver Island, Governor James Douglas, Correspondence outward, 27 May 1859–9 Jan. 1864 (letter book copies); J. S. Helmcken, “Reminiscences” (5v unpublished typescript, 1892), 11. PRO, CO 60; CO 305. ...      Canada, Sessional papers, XIII (1880), pt.6, no.9. G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1857 (Session ii), XV, 224, 260 (whole volume), Report from the select committee on the Hudson’s Bay Company; together with the proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, appendix and index; Parl., House of Commons paper, 1863, XXXVIII, 507, pp.487–540, Miscellaneous papers relating to Vancouver Island, 1848–1863. . . . Minutes of the Council of Vancouver Island, commencing August 30th, 1851, and terminating . . . February 6th, 1861, ed. E. O. S. Scholefield (Archives of British Columbia, Memoir no.2, Victoria, 1918). Colonist (Victoria), particularly 8 June 1859–10 Jan. 1860; 19 Dec. 1878–15 Oct. 1879. HBRS, XXII (Rich).. ...      First Victoria directory . . . 1874, comp. Edward Mallandaine (Victoria, 1874). Walbran, B.C. coast names. H. H. Bancroft, History of British Columbia, 1792–1887 (San Francisco, 1890). Morton, History of the Canadian west. Ormsby, British Columbia. “The diary of Robert Melrose,” ed. W. K. Lamb, BCHQ, VII (1943), 119–34, 199–218, 283–95. “Journal of Arthur Thomas Bushby” (Blakey Smith). W. K. Lamb, “Early lumbering on Vancouver Island. Part I: 1844–1855,” BCHQ, II (1938), 31–53; “The governorship of Richard Blanshard,” BCHQ, XIV (1950), 1–41. S. G. Pettit, “The trials and tribulations of Edward Edwards Langford,” BCHQ, XVII (1953), 5–40. G. H. Slater, “Rev. Robert John Staines: pioneer priest, pedagogue, and political agitator,” BCHQ, XIV (1950), 187–240..

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Cite This Article

Margaret A. Ormsby, “COOPER, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 16, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cooper_james_10E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cooper_james_10E.html
Author of Article:   Margaret A. Ormsby
Title of Article:   COOPER, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   June 16, 2024