The career of Captain James Cooper, first marine agent at Victoria, inspector of steamboats and inspector of lights for the Pacific coast, will serve to illuminate the time when initiative, brains and courage, so often evident in our rapidly developing country, were sometimes difficult to distinguish from cupidity, opportunism and a readiness to accept risks. In the first half of the last century British Columbia was an unpopulated wilderness. Later it became a place where fortunes were won, or lost, and seldom did the lucky ones achieve their dreams by the measured steps and public conscience required of a government administrator. The very men who were outstandingly successful became the first public servants and, if the change was difficult for them, it was more so for the few to whom every change was but another unfulfilled opportunity on the road to fortune.
Captain James Cooper first came to the Pacific coast in 1844 as master of the barque Columbia, a Hudson Bay Company supply and trading ship. At that time Sir James Douglas who, between the years 1851 and 1864 was successively the Governor of Vancouver Island and of British Columbia, was chief factor of the Company whose trading monopoly he guarded with the utmost attention. The first commandment to all his officers and clerks, and the creed of the Hudson Bay Company, was "Thou shalt not trade on thine own account, nor on any account which is not the Company's." Cooper, who is described as " . . . having a mind more than ordinarily subject to the wrap of fortune", had other ideas and left the Company on return to London where he attempted to raise interest in a scheme to establish a steam sawmill on Vancouver Island. Unsuccessful in this, he came back to the west coast as a settler and, bringing with him the prefabricated material to build a small iron schooner, he went into business as a trader dealing in everything from coal to cranberries. It was during this period that he was elected to be a member of the council for Vancouver Island, a triumvirate headed by Douglas. Opposition in business, particularly from a former employee who was now a political colleague, was galling to the Governor who then started a price war which drove the newcomer out of the trade and converted what had been a smouldering dislike of the Hudson Bay Company into a fierce hatred of their chief factor. In this situation, James Cooper found himself at a disadvantage, for Douglas, although something of a despot, was regarded as a wise administrator who ruled the young colony with firmness and vigour.
However, not to be browbeaten, Captain Cooper entered on the life of a settler and bought a 300-acre farm at Sooke where he lived till 1857 when, in circumstances of some financial embarrassment, he returned to England. There he gave evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons which was then investigating alleged maladministration in the Hudson Bay Company.
This inquiry had partly been stirred up by Cooper and his friends but, while personal grievances may have been well founded, no discreditable conduct was proved and both Cooper and the Company came out more or less unscathed, despite charge and counter charge. James Cooper was now a well known personage in the new colony but he had neither income in British Columbia nor a disposition to remain in England, and the problem was what to do with him in the face of Douglass determination to keep him out at all costs. In these circumstances Lord Lytton, who had just been appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies, directed Douglas to nominate Captain Cooper for the office of harbourmaster at Esquimalt. Douglas thereupon took the unusual step of protesting to the Colonial Secretary, stating bluntly that:
"Mr. Coopers office is a sinecure, there is literally nothing for him to do, the entering and clearing of vessels being effected at the Custom House. His services would be no acquisition in any other Department and his pecuniary embarrassments present an obstacle to his being employed as a collector of revenue."
If the Governor of the Colony could hardly have been expected to welcome a harsh and embittered critic who was a former employee, he was stuck with a harbourmaster with whom he intended to have no more contact than was absolutely necessary.
James Cooper was now outside the hard core of the political and trading establishment of the Colony but he was not without influence and, in 1860, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly as a Reformer. The following year Douglas had him transferred to New Westminster, on which he resigned his seat and, there being some dissatisfaction with Captain Coopers services as an official, he was then retired with a gratuity of eighteen months salary in lieu of office. In fairness to Douglas, who was a judge of character, there was almost certainly a basis for this action and, colonial secretary or no colonial secretary, the troublesome harbourmaster was put out to pasture or rather to the Beehive Hotel at Victoria which he purchased with the money.
Remaining in oblivion for a few years, Cooper found opportunity anew when the Colony came into Confederation. He was not immediately successful in obtaining employment, as the Surveyor Generals Department looked after the affairs of Marine and Fisheries until the federal organization was in a position to take over and, in any case, it is more than probable that local advice would have been against precipitate appointment of a controversial figure. However, Douglas was by now long out of office and, whatever clouds may have formerly darkened the colonial sky, the political climate had changed and no such shadows dulled prospects with the federal government. In 1872, Captain James Cooper was appointed as marine agent for British Columbia with the added portfolios of steamboat inspection and inspection of lights.
Reports of the next few years show the marine agent at Victoria to have been a hard working and competent official, well versed in the technicalities of shipping, aids to navigation and steamboat inspection, and great progress was undoubtedly made. But the years of frustration, failure and financial depression had left their mark on a man who felt that he had been hardly served; now that it was Coopers turn to taste success, the fruits had already soured. Shortly after assuming office, Captain Cooper appointed a keeper to the new light at Cape Beale, Robert Westmoreland by name. Westmoreland lived on his salary of $700 a year and, when shortages became apparent in stores shipped by the steamer Sir James Douglas, rumours began to circulate that coal and oil for the Department was appearing elsewhere as items in a more profitable trade for the erstwhile businessman. As a result of these rumours Cooper brought an action for slander against Westmoreland on four charges involving misappropriation of stores. The verdict was found for the plaintiff who was awarded damages of $500 against the unfortunate Westmoreland. However, in October of the following year, events finally caught up with Captain Cooper who was charged with obtaining money under false pretences whilst acting as marine agent in 1876.
The hearing was in the Municipal Court at Victoria under Magistrate A. F. Pemberton, who granted bail and sent the case to the Supreme Court but Cooper, who by now realized that the game was up, failed to appear and forfeited bail. A bench warrant was issued but no trace of Captain James Cooper was ever found and it was thought that he absconded to the United States. It is a sad story, for Cooper undoubtedly had talent and energy. Perhaps the last word should rest with Captain Walbran, that gentle and charitable man, who merely recorded that Cooper
". . . was Agent of Marine and Fisheries for British Columbia 1872-79 when he was succeeded by Captain F. Revely, subsequently leaving with his family for California."
Official records show that, by Order in Council dated June 25, 1879, the appointment was cancelled on evidence showing that the agent had been guilty of fraud in the transaction of Departmental business.