Once, long ago, there lived an explorer who helped to colonise a country, only to be sent back there as a convict a few decades later. Amoral it may have been, but you have to admit that Jørgen Jørgensen’s questionable life makes for a damn good story.
Sarah Bakewell, a British curator and historian, certainly thought so. Detailed research into his life resulted in her 2005 historical biography of Jørgensen, ‘The English Dane’, a globetrotting romp through one of the most turbulent chapters in history.
Little known in his native Denmark, the memory of adventurer Jørgensen found a surprising ally in today’s royal court. In his wedding speech to Princess Mary Donaldson in May 2004, Crown Prince Frederik stated that 200 years before his visit to the country, a fellow Dane had arrived “under different conditions, but with just as great expectations and confidence”.
This more recent connection between Tasmania, the birthplace of Mary, and Denmark has revived interest in the fascinating though flawed character of the restless Jørgensen, whose life – especially in the hands of a skilled writer like Bakewell – reads like a comic soap opera, part ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and part ‘Blackadder’.
Born in 1870, Jørgensen was not one of those people forced into a life of crime and adventure by unfortunate circumstances; rather, he had a personality that positively sought it. His father was clockmaker for the Danish royal court, but there was to be no such life of order for Jørgensen Jr, who was expelled from school at 14 and at his own request sent off to sea on an English coal boat.
With this apprenticeship it seemed Jørgensen had lost his taste for dry land, and upon his arrival in London as a 26-year-old he could boast of having travelled around the world and back – the Napoleonic Wars providing the exciting backdrop. Three years earlier he accompanied a British-led expedition responsible for locating a sailing route through the ‘Bass Strait’, which consequently discovered King’s Island between Australia and Tasmania – which was then known as ‘Van Diemens Land’.
Coup in Iceland
A visit to his parents in Copenhagen in September 1806 brought new adventure. Even though Denmark and Britain were at war and the capital placed under siege, Jørgensen was somehow given command of a small ship-of-war and sent to France to convey troops, captured on the way and returned to England, where his imprisonment lasted eight months.
He then heard of a food shortage in Iceland – which was under orders not to trade with Britain – and negotiated with a merchant to send a trading ship, The Clarence, to the Danish colony. When The Clarence docked in Havnefjord in January 1809, Jørgensen advised the crew to hoist American colours, but when word got out that the ship was British, Count Trampe, the Governor of Iceland, refused to trade and ordered the ship to set sail immediately.
Jørgensen’s charisma and sweet talking convinced the owner of The Clarence into making a fresh expedition not long after, and that summer two vessels, The Margaret and Anne and The Flora, arrived in Iceland, where they were refused trade. Undaunted, the seamen waited until Sunday 25 June, when most of the islanders were at church, and organised a coup, forcing themselves into the governor’s residence and arresting him.
Downhill from there
Jørgensen took charge himself, drawing up a proclamation and announcing his full title as ‘His Excellency, the Protector of Iceland, Commander-in-Chief by Land and Sea’. For two heady months Jørgensen was ‘the Dog Days King’, lavishing public money on islanders, lowering their taxes, offering provisions and generally making himself very popular; some have even suggested that his brief tenure laid the foundations for Iceland’s eventual independence.
It couldn’t last forever. On August 22 of the same year, the arrival of the British ship HMS Talbot restored the Danish government to the island and took Jørgensen to England.
Over the next 15 years Jørgensen yo-yoed between travels and imprisonment, on the one hand meeting Goethe in Berlin and publishing memoirs of his travels, on the other doing time for pawning his landlady’s furniture to pay off gambling debts.
Transported to Tassie
Finally, Jørgensen ran out of chances – at least in this continent. A death penalty was reduced to deportation to the colonies, and in 1826, the ‘Viking of Van Diemens Land’ returned to Hobart, Tasmania, as a convicted criminal.
Of course, so were most of the population, and four months later he was working on the island as a policeman and involved in the campaign against the Aborigines, the ‘Black War’, which by its conclusion in 1832 had all but annihilated the island’s indigenous population. Many historians consider it the worst genocide in British colonial history.
Jørgensen finally died in Tasmania in 1841 of pneumonia, just six months after the death of his alcoholic wife Norah Corbett, an Irish immigrant to the island.