November, 1853 – Outside Fort Victoria
It all started with Staine’s pigs. Farmer Robert Staines woke up early one November morning to feed his livestock. Normally, he could hear the familiar grunts of his prized pigs as he walked along the path from his house. Not this time. As he approached the gate, he realized it was ajar. His pigs were gone. After looking everywhere, he rode his horse to neighbouring “Cloverdale” farm owned by William Fraser Tolmie, who was also manager of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company.
Under this umbrella of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company, wholly owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, were four “Company farms” each with their own ‘bailiff’. Staines pounded on the door and after hearing some shuffling of boots, Cloverdale bailiff Emanuel Douillet answered.
“I’ve never seen your pigs,” Douillet said.
Five pigs meant nothing to someone like Tolmie who ran a large operation of hundreds of acres, but for Staines, whose five acres included crops for oats and barley, every loss was significant.
Sensing something was not right, Staines skulked around the property and walked alongside the pig enclosure. He recognized not three, but five of his pigs.
Staines was beside himself and rode over to see Justice of the Peace, Thomas Skinner. For a sunny afternoon in November, it was still warm enough that the leaves were still on the trees. It was the kind of bucolic setting that reminded him the day he disembarked off the ship from England just five years previous.
He told Skinner of what had happened and right away Skinner promised to go over with a warrant to Tolmie’s farm. Staines was relieved to get his pigs back, but the relief didn’t last for long.
While Staines was checking his pigs, Douillet swore a complaint to the newest Justice of the Peace, David Cameron, brother-in-law of Governor James Douglas.
“Justice Skinner came to the Cloverdale with a few of his helpers and took Tolmie’s pigs. He wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say.” Douillet said.
Cameron discussed the matter with Douglas over dinner the following evening.
“I disciplined Skinner last year over his handling of that Webster affair,” Douglas said. “Charge Staines with trespassing.”
Cameron went one step further and removed the pigs from Staines farm. “They will be taken into the custody of the court while the matter is settled.”
Two days later, Justice of the Peace David Cameron presided over the case of R. vs. Staines.
The pigs came home and the charges against trespassing were dropped, but Staines was humiliated. His outrage was kept in check until he learned that David Cameron, a mere Justice of the Peace for a few months, was soon to be a Supreme Court Justice.
Something had to be done. Staines spoke with the merchant James Cooper who in turn spoke with Edward Langford.
“The very thought of Cameron, a former manager at the Company’s coal mine, to be interpreting the rules of law is absurd!”
They decided to have a meeting at Staines house.
In attendance were three merchants and two Justices of the Peace. They were James Yates, William Banfield, James Cooper, Edward Langford and Thomas Skinner.
“When I arrived here three years ago, I assumed that matters would be settled according to British law, not by a few people with no legal background whatsoever,” said Staines.
“It’s an oligarchy, is what it is,” said Yates looking carefully at Langford and Skinner, former Hudson’s Bay men themselves.
Cooper nodded. “They want to protect their interests, but theirs is a monopoly which is completely illegitimate in its form. I’m quite sure that Her Majesty will concur. The Company has all but prevented me from doing business.”
Everyone was aware of the others troubles with the Company. Being an independent merchant in a Company town was next to impossible.
At the centre of the table was the petition that Robert Staines had drafted. Over the course of the evening, they changed sentences and paragraphs until they agreed on the wording.
It was titled “Concerning the Appointment of David Cameron, to the role of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Civil Justice.”
Yates stood as he read the petition in full:
There have been innumerable grievances inflicted by the Local Government of this Colony of Vancouver’s Island. Some of these matters may, on the surface, seem petty and ordinary but the actions by the Governor, James Douglas, have made our businesses bankrupt and our lives miserable.
We the undersigned, are protesting the appointment of David Cameron to the role of Chief Justice. As the brother-in-law of the Governor, Mr. Cameron cannot be at arm’s length from any of the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
It is our most anxious wish to have the laws of the country ably and impartially administered. We most humbly ask that your majesty would graciously cause an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the recent creation of the Supreme Court of Civil Justice.
We cannot consider our safety to depend upon our innocence or the rectitude of our cause.
Over the next ten days, sixty nine signatures were collected; representing the full population of Victoria that was not affiliated with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Many of the towns people were reluctant to sign at first, but Staines reassured them that their names would be held confidentially.
In another two weeks, a ship was due to sail from Esquimalt to San Francisco. Staines volunteered to deliver the petition to her majesty while the others raised money for his trip.
The evening before, several of the original group stopped by to wish him well. The next day, Staines awoke and boarded the ship, the Duchess of Lorenzo.
Once he was onboard, however, he grew uneasy. It wasn’t just that the ship was a wobbly, overloaded hulk, it was the feeling that he was being scrutinized, much like a bug under a magnifying glass. Of the ten people on board, four were crew members and the others he recognized as HBC men.
The first day on board, he was invited to join them for a game of cards. One of the HBC men showed him a couple of large gold nuggets, “from the Queen Charlotte Islands.” he was told. Staines was impressed at the sight of it. Then they started asking him questions. Where was he headed? What was his business in San Francisco? Staines had been so focussed on his mission, he hadn’t thought of anything to say, but he knew it wouldn’t be appropriate to tell these men that he was about to protest against one of their own.
Checking to see no one was looking, Staines took the petition out of his valise and put it inside his jacket pocket.
In the evening, dark clouds rolled overhead and large waves swelled beneath. Staines held on. At times like these he’d rather be outside facing the danger rather than in some claustrophobic cabin.
“How soon will the storm pass?” he asked one of the crew.
“Once we make it past Cape Flattery, we’ll be alright.”
Staines fell asleep in his cot as the ship tilted from side to side. There were the usual creaking noises from the beams, but his senses didn’t wake him up. A shadow came across his prone figure and struck him with a forceful blow.
Unconscious, Staines was carried to the stern and dumped overboard. The petition drifted with him to the watery depths.