Also, when the colonial posting for British
Columbia became available and was offered him, Begbie wrote "Looking
to my position and standing at the Bar...I think I am justified in stipulating
that the salary shall be £1000 per annum..." although he didn't
get that amount the statement shows that he was quite confident in his skills
and reputation and was rather in a position of bargaining than begging.
So, although he was perhaps not as prolific or renowned as some of his colleagues,
he was, nonetheless, successful in the eyes of his peers as well as his
What were the circumstances of Begbie's
coming to British Columbia? There is much speculation as to how this event
transpired and, as is common in history, little known fact. We do know that
in 1857, news of gold discoveries on Fraser's River had spread to San Francisco,
chief city of the then depressed California Gold Rush. This news incited
between 25-30,000 miners from that region to flood the colony by 1858. James
Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, immediately recognized
the threat that this influx of Americans posed to the fledgling British
colony and wrote the Colonial Office in London to request that aid be forthcoming.
London's response was to send Magistrate Begbie (later on the Royal Engineers
and Chartres Brew, head of the colonial constabulary, joined him).
As for Begbie's own initiative, one fellow,
D. W. Higgins, former editor of theVictoria Colonist quoted barrister William
Kelly as saying that Begbie "...laid himself out to please the Lord
Chancellor...an acquaintance sprang up between the two, and when the British
Columbia appointment [presented itself...Begbie's name was] too." However,
this scenario, interesting as it is, proves unlikely when inspected more
closely. First, judicial and other government appointments to the colonies
and departments of the British Empire were made solely by the Colonial Office
and not, as Kelly suggests, by the Lord Chancellor. Second, William Kelly
was an avowed enemy of Begbie, making him, at best, a dubious and biased
witness. Kelly eventually quit the colony after several unpleasant court
encounters with Begbie, writing that "the Supreme Court of British
Columbia as at present constituted is a mockery, a delusion and a snare,
in fact a disgraceful parody on the venerable parent institution."
Another writer has suggested that Begbie
left England for British Columbia because his younger brother, Thomas, had
supplanted him in a lady's affections. This too, appears to be unlikely,
as Thomas had been married some eleven years by the time Matthew made the
decision to part for the colony.
Looking back over his illustrious career
we see that he was nothing if not a great traveler, spending much time all
over Europe when residing in London and most of his time riding circuit
throughout the vastness of British Columbia when there. His lust for travel
and adventure was probably one of, if not the, motivation for his acceptance
of the post of 'Stipendiary Magistrate of British Columbia'.
Matthew Begbie left Liverpool on board the
Cunard Line steamer Niagara on September 11, 1858. He traveled lightly,
sending most of his heavier possessions along with the Royal Engineers,
who were to come later. At New York he changed ships and carried on to the
Isthmus of Panama, crossing by narrow-gauge railway to the Pacific side.
(Editor's note: Readers pleased be reminded that the canal, whose existence
is but common knowledge today, was little more than a idea in the head of
a Frenchman during Begbie's journey).
The next stage of his trip involved
taking a mail steamer from Panama to San Francisco, where, it has been speculated,
he disembarked for a short stay to survey the likes of the miners he would
be dealing with in Cariboo.
On November 16, a little over nine weeks
since his Liverpool departure, Matthew Baillie Begbie stepped off the vessel
Panama and on to colonial soil in Esquimalt, several miles from Victoria.
He was greeted by James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island. The pair
left almost immediately for Fort Langley where a small ceremony took place
that made Douglas, Governor of the colony of British Columbia as well as
Vancouver Island; Begbie, a colonial magistrate, and proclaimed an end to
the monopoly of the Hudson's Bay Company in the area (James Douglas had
earlier agreed to give up employment with the HBC as a condition to becoming
Governor of British Columbia). Such was the entrance of Begbie to the colony