Over its history the City of Nanaimo has had its fair share of interesting and controversial characters – but none have garnered the reputation for infamy generated by the notorious Brother XII. Born in Birmingham, England in 1878, the future religious fanatic, conman and cult leader’s actual name was Edward Arthur Wilson. He had been born into what was described as a very religious family – so religious in fact he later claimed he had been visited by angels as a child.
Regardless of the veracity of the statement, whether devious or Devine, Wilson’s interest in all things different saw him depart his homeland for a life at sea. Serving as a working mariner for many years he travelled the world, making his first stop in Canada as early as 1905. But his interest in the otherworldly also encouraged a lifelong interest in the study of religions of the world, with him fervently embracing those elements he found attractive.
His voyage of self-discovery culminated in 1924 in the South of France when, according to his own published accounts, he had a vision from God that set him on his chosen path as a religious leader. Adopting the non de plume of Brother XII he founded what he called the Aquarian Foundation in 1927, a religious sect based loosely on the teachings of the Theosophical Society, which is a global philosophic course of study with roots dating back to the 3rd Century AD.
Publishing two booklets that outlined his beliefs he began to attract interest and followers, including a number of socially-prominent (and wealthy) individuals. Thanks to his powerful personality and Messianic quality he was able to convince his disciples to donate funds toward the establishment of a colony where his teachings could be expanded on.
Purchasing property at Cedar-by-the-Sea just south of Nanaimo, as well as additional acreage on nearby Valdes and De Courcy Islands, Brother XII’s spiritual community began to grow and attract acolytes from across North America. While local myths and rumors suggest that the Aquarian Foundation was a hotbed for debauchery and other depraved activity, few know what actually occurred at the colony. What is certain is that the organization grew very wealthy, and Brother XII himself grew more dictatorial and paranoid as time went on.
At one point Brother XII had a member of his flock imprisoned in a cellar on the northern end of Valdes Island for some imagined slight. This unfortunate was able to somehow escape and using a stolen rowboat made his way to Nanaimo where he reported the event to what was then the British Columbia Provincial Police. An investigation followed, but no charges were laid. This descent into madness eventually precipitated what was in essence an uprising among the colony’s members, as they increasingly grew disenchanted with the message and attitude of their leader.
The collapse of the colony continued until 1929 when the Aquarian Foundation was formally dissolved, even though many loyal followers and even new adherents continued to follow his increasingly erratic teachings. Finally a formal rebellion occurred with many of Brother XII’s former followers filing legal actions against him in a forlorn attempt to recover some of their lost money.
In what can only be described as a violent reaction to their efforts, the sometimes described “Devil of De Courcy” set about destroying the colony he built, smashing buildings and even scuttling his sailboat the Lady Royal. Avoiding all prosecution Brother XII and his lover Mabel Skottowe (sometimes known as Madame Z) fled the area aboard their tugboat the Kheunaten, in time making their way to Europe where allegedly he died in Neuchâtel, Switzerland in 1934.
Some scholars of Wilson’s history say the erstwhile Brother XII only faked his demise, having fled the area with a fortune of ill-gotten gold and silver – but like all myths concrete proof has proven difficult to find. What is certain is that Edward Arthur Wilson (aka Brother XII) has forever earned a place in Nanaimo’s long and colorful history. A sinner or a saint, the verdict is still out on Wilson’s final description.