Sunday, July 27, 2008

Featured Pipe Smoker: Matthew Baillie Begbie

Matthew Baillie Begbie (1819-1894)

Judge Matthew Begbie was a famous judge in the frontier days of British Columbia. His parents were Scottish, but he was actually born either aboard ship or on the island nation of Mauritius. After attending Cambridge University, he became a lawyer in 1844 and spent ten years as Chancery Court lawyer and court reporter for The Times of London. In 1875 he was knighted by Queen Victoria.

There are several theories as to why he eventually went to Canada, but in any case, he arrived there in 1858. More than one version of why we went there may be true, but I will only say that, from what I have read of him, he had obviously already traveled Europe and other parts of the world extensively and was an avid outdoorsman. An opportunity was available for him to continue his career in the wild and beautiful frontier of British Columbia, and he took it. (On a personal note: I have been through B.C., and although I haven't seen all of it, I will say that what I did see was the most beautiful wilderness I have ever seen).

He came to be known as "The Hanging Judge," although this may be unmerited. He hung only those who were found guilty of crimes for which the law required the capital punishment of hanging.

He had a commanding presence, standing 6'5" tall with white hair and a black beard. Some have portrayed him as a sort of Judge Roy Bean of B.C., but this was not so. He was very well educated in the law and had at least ten years of experience in England before moving to Canada.

He traveled a circuit, and during his travels through British Columbia he recorded many details regarding weather, sources of water, fording points of rivers and streams, information about flora and fauna, and often hunted and scavenged for edible plants. He took his judicial robes and wig with him wherever he went, and always wore them while conducting court.

During a time when advocating for minority rights had hardly even been conceived, there were notable cases in which Begbie showed he did not discriminate by race. In 1860, a white man from California was accused of assaulting an Indian (or Native American, if you prefer). This was the first time that a white man was convicted solely on evidence presented by natives.

There was also a municipal by-law that was passed with the intent of putting Chinese laundries out of business by declaring them "nuisances." Said Begbie: "Blacksmith's forges are probably more liable to give and take fire from sparks; butcher shops are far more offensive to the eyes and clothes and olfactories of foot-passengers, with greasy and bleeding carcasses lumbering the sidewalks and infecting the air with the odour of meat curing; stables with their muck-heaps several yards high are more pregnant with pungent and misalubrious gases, large packing-cases more obstructive to the thoroughfare, than anything that can be alleged against these wash-houses. Yet all these other matters, each of which might be termed a nuisance of no common degree, are allowed to exist clustered together in the very busiest part of the centre of the city without a word of rebuke." He declared the by-law invalid.

Begbie once wrote Governor Sir James Douglas, "My idea is that if a man insists on behaving like a brute, after fair warning, and won't quit the Colony; treat him like a brute and flog him."

At the conclusion of one case in which the jury had acquitted a man of assault, but whom Begbie nevertheless believed to be guilty, he stated, "Prisoner at the bar, the jury have said you are not guilty. You can go, and I devoutly hope the next man you sandbag will be one of the jury."

For further reading, I recommend Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie: First Among Men.

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