Political play in the province’s early days

Thomas Basil Humphreys had a way with words in the political arena. And when words failed, there was always "strategy".

by Esther Darlington MacDonald

The Province was young in 1871. So young, in fact, that it had just been ushered into the Canadian Confederation. The first assembly of elected representatives met in Victoria – all 25 of them. Some had served on the Colonial Legislative assembly, and among those was a man from Lillooet, Thomas Basil Humphreys.

Now Humphreys was described as a “man of parts”. That is, he was a man with oratorical skills, was literate, confident, and possessed, as it turned out, a fair amount of adroit ability to direct persons in his direction. In short, he was the perfect politician.

That is not to say that Humphreys wasn’t a good man. He was. And in an era when, for example, racial prejudice against the Chinese was at its worst, Humphreys’ attention to the needs of the formidable Chinese community in Clinton and Lillooet was very much appreciated by every Chinese miner, farmer, laundry operator and cook.

He kept their books for them, saw that their gold was duly shipped by stagecoach, wrote letters, and generally made himself useful to these hard working men who had endured from the outset, all the travail that a race considered inferior, was subjected to – from head taxes to indentured labor.

Humphreys had become something of an advocate for the Chinese. This service would serve to become a decided advantage to him later on.

Now there were no ballot boxes or secret voting procedures in those days. There were no nomination papers or brightly coloured ballots on which to mark your preferences. It was all word of mouth, one to one. The voter would approach the polling booth, give his name, state his candidate, and the clerk would write it down in the poll book. So the candidates knew to a man who had voted for him or his opponents.

There were no underhanded “tricks” performed, like putting dead persons on the voting list, or plying them with alcohol in the saloons before the election, although such practices were quite commonplace “down south”.

No, voting was a straightforward procedure that was both cheap to provide and safe to recognize. Actually, voting was simplicity itself.

The District of Lillooet was large under B.C.’s new regime. As it is today.  Lillooet was allowed two candidates.

Humphreys had represented Lillooet for two terms. A man named Andrew T. Jamieson was also elected to the new legislature, but he did not live to benefit from his election. He died in November, 1872 and a by-election was held. William Saul, a Clinton rancher  from the Mound, was elected to be the junior member for the district.

Talk about oil and water not mixing! This was certainly the case with Humphreys and Saul. The two men couldn’t have been more different.

Saul was a man with little education. His views were limited: he was even described as “narrow minded”.

His new colleague became an anathema for Humphreys. Here they were, two men who were supposed to work together for the good of the Lillooet district’s many concerns, and they detested each other.

Friction was inevitable.  One of them had to go. Humphreys challenged Saul to resign and ask for a new election. Saul accepted the challenge and they both resigned, leaving their fates int he hands of the voters.

A new election was called, and the campaigning began, hot and heavy from he outset. Each man, with his own brand of persuasion, catering to whichever element, right wing, as we would see it now, or left of center.

The campaign was short, hot and laden, with all the passions that an election arouses. Divisions divided.  Loyalists clamored. Each candidate was roundly condemned for flaws seen or imagined. Characters were assassinated.

It was the order of the day, and, in many respects, things haven’t changed that much, have they?

The race was neck and neck until Saul finally forged ahead, leaving Humphreys and his followers dismayed.

Humphreys deduced that they needed to come up with a new tactic. His mind turned  quickly to the Chinese community, and he met with them. Advised them, in detail, precisely what they must do.  He briefed them over and over again until he was certain they understood what to do.

When voting day came, what was described as “The Celestial procession” filed into the polling booth.

Each Chinese voter carried a small bowl of rice as a symbol of their oath. Each would be voter declared he was from Hong Kong (Hong Kong being part of the British Empire).

The issue went to the courts where Judge Sanders declared that Hong Kong was, indeed, a British possession and the 35 Chinese  would be voters were British subjects. Each man expressed his preference for Thomas Basil “Humflees” and Bill Brown.

When all the votes were in, Humphreys and Brown were elected by the narrow margin of four. A recount was held, but the numbers didn’t change.

The matter was settled. Humphreys went on to Victoria, but he never undertook to run in the Lillooet district again.

In January, 1878 to August 1882, he held the post of Provincial Secretary and Minister of Mines. But he was defeated in the next election.

Never at a  loss for words, Humphreys’ career continued, enhanced by his oratorical skills and his ability to sway a crowd. He was said to have made “full use of his gifts and opportunities”.

But his most notable achievement was getting the Chinese men with their rice bowls to the polling booth. The rice bowls thrown down, the rice scattered, signifying the oaths of those 35 men grateful for the services that Humphreys had rendered them.