Jorgen Jorgenson’s Liberation of Icelandic in 1809 - A Bicentenary

A BICENTENARY is a unique opportunity to remember an historic event and though Jorgenson’s liberation of Icelandic happened on the other side of the globe, he played a significant role in the early days of Tasmania, then called Van diemen’s Land, both before and after the dramatic events in Iceland. Though Jorgenson may have been remembered as a colonial writer in Van Diemen’s Land, it was those heady days in Iceland that secured his fame and made him more of a significant historic character than he otherwise would have been. Was there another ex-head of state dispatched in chains to Van Diemen’s Land as a convict?

Jorgenson’s role in Iceland has caused the magnifying glass of history to be cast across the rest of his life with greater interest and what we find is an amazing tale of bold action and poetic whimsy. 
His life story is in many ways comparable to the Vikings written of in the old Icelandic Sagas. A 1936 play written by Indrid Einarson in Iceland is entitled ‘The Last Viking’ and who better than an Icelander to write this about Jorgenson.

There are so many layers to the life of Jorgenson, that it is like wandering through a maze to figure out all the connections. For now I will focus on a book that he wrote on Christianity while in a British prison, only just having escaped being executed for failing to leave England when previously released. The man who pleaded for his life and saved him from the gallows was William J. Hooker, the head of Kew Gardens after Sir Joseph Banks, who wrote of him in 1833, “That man’s life would form a perfect Romance, if written with the strictest attention to truth.”

Hooker’s intervention saw Jorgensen’s death sentence transmuted to one of transportation to New South Wales in January 1823, but Newgate Prison was slow to act on this as Jorgenson was very useful as a medic in their hospital. Hooker had been on the ship with Jorgenson when approaching Iceland, when the vessel nearly ended up wrecked on submerged rocks, which was avoided by Jorgenson’s expert skills as a mariner. Hooker went to Iceland as a young scientist and did not become involved in the politics that ensued, but later wrote of the events.

On 28 March this year I was privileged to be on the panel of the inaugural All Heretic’s Day in Brisbane, organised by the Brisbane Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, at which I raised the matter of Jorgen Jorgenson as a likely heretic. Why? It was over a book that he wrote while incarcerated in Newgate Prison, entitled ‘The Religion of Christ is the Religion of Nature’. There were other prisoners there locked up for blasphemy over holding religious views along the lines of this book who took objection and protested at Jorgenson’s religious liberty. Their rumblings reached the authorities and caused Jorgenson to be put in chains on the next available ship out of England, which turned out to be sailing for Van Diemen’s Land on 6 December 1825. Jorgenson left the manuscript with Mrs Elizabeth Fry for publication, a prominent Quaker and prison visitor.

It was while working as a police constable in Oatlands in 1830 that a copy of his book finally found its way to him, which included a long account by another writer of his time in Iceland in the Dog Days of summer of 1809. While reading his book, Jorgenson wrote his own comments in the plank pages, which can now be seen in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. When Jorgenson died in Hobart in January 1841, his long and complimentary obituary mentions this book and shows that it was well known that he had once ruled Iceland. Like a ghost that won’t lie down and after all these years, his book on Christianity has been published again in a special edition by the Legacy Reprint Series.

Jorgenson is one character from our past who keeps reminding us that he was there. Every time we visit Ross and look at the king among the stone carvings on the Ross Bridge by Daniel Herbert, another convict who won his freedom for this work, we are reminded that he had been popularly dubbed the ex-king of Iceland and in Iceland he is remembered as Jorundur hundadagakonungur, which translates as ‘Jorgen the dog-days king’. He never made himself a king, or even the governor, but referred to himself as the Protector of Iceland.

Jorgenson’s rule was doomed from the start, as the British Government had decided to allow the Danish crown to continue ruling Iceland, even though they had sided with Napoleon after the British invasion and theft of their navy in 1807. This was against the hopes of Sir Joseph Banks, who had been lobbying for the British Crown to take possession of Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland and make the North Atlantic and North Sea a British lake. Jorgenson had been in meetings with Banks before joining a trading expedition to Iceland. 
When on the ground Jorgenson proved to be an able administrator and looked to the revival of the ancient Viking republic of Iceland and its democratic parliament, the Althing. His dream was for Iceland to be an independent nation once again.

Perhaps Jorgenson was buying time. As a Danish prisoner of war on parole he was not permitted to leave England and if Iceland could secure its independence, he might have a new home. Any such hopes were dashed when HMS Talbot sailed into Reykjavik on 14 August and Capt. the Hon. Paddy Jones released the Danish governor and subsequently had him put back in charge of affairs in Iceland. Jorgenson was ordered back to England, where he was tried and thrown onto a Danish prisoner of war hulk. In Denmark he was declared a traitor and a price put on his head.

It is a wonder he survived those months on a hulk among other Danish prisoners of war, but it is part of the incredible story of Jorgenson that he did and also take to the pen to write and make a number of paintings. One watercolour from this period recently came to light in the Alexander Turnbull Library in New Zealand, depicting the wreck of the Porpoise and the Cato off the coast of Queensland in 1803, and can be seen in Sarah Bakewell’s book on his life, ‘The English Dane’, illustration 4. We can say with certainty that Jorgenson was not present at this maritime disaster, but he was in Australia at the time, serving as first mate on the Lady Nelson. Someone who was there is Matthew Flinders, attempting to return to England. Jorgenson had sailed in company with Flinders on the first leg of his circumnavigation of Australia as far as central Queensland, until the Lady Nelson was forced to turn back because of mechanical troubles with the experimental keel.

Anyone approaching the Mitchell Library from Circular Quay will come upon a statue of Matthew Flinders and if you look about, you will find the bronze statue of his cat on the sandstone railing nearby, looking up at his master. This is Flinders’ illustrious cat Trim, who he wrote a small book on. Both Flinders and Trim were involved in the shipwreck depicted in Jorgenson’s painted and he would probably have met Trim when serving with Flinders, but that is another tale in the maze of Jorgenson’s life.

In the great hall of the Mitchell Library you can put in a request to see Jorgenson’s book on Christianity, don the white gloves and find his own words added with quill on many pages, particularly commenting on his rule of Iceland. On one of the blank pages he wrote: “At the time the British Government was actuated with fear and the name of republican was synonimous with rebel, traitor, disturber of legitimate government. They stared at the republican like the man at Hamlet’s ghost.”

Though Iceland is a world away from Tasmania, there is a part of the State, with Macquarie Island, that is exactly opposite on the globe of the World. Though Iceland eventually gained its independence from Denmark on 17 June 1944, the island nation has been particularly hard hit by the current economic meltdown and they are applying for membership of the European Union. At an earlier time under Danish rule, perhaps the memory of Jorgenson and the 1936 play about him by Einarsson served to rumble the Icelanders toward independence.

At this time when Iceland is being drawn into the European family of nations, Tasmania has been drawn closer to Denmark with the marriage of Crown Prince Frederik to Mary Donaldson in May 2004, where Prince Frederik said in his wedding speech, “Almost 200 years earlier another Dane called Jorgen Jorgenson, arrived under completely different circumstances, but with just as high hopes and just as much confidence.”

The story of Jorgenson is one of survival in the face of dizzying odds, whether on the high seas or facing the gallows. At this time of troubles in our World, perhaps Jorgenson can be an inspiration to draw upon, and remind us all that no matter how dark the days may become, there can still be hope, if we look for it and perhaps even hope of Australia becoming a fully independent nation, if we, like Jorgenson did in Iceland, dare to cut the apron strings to the Crown.

Kim Peart

A search of the Internet reveals only one event, with The Culture House in Iceland, the home of original copies of the Viking Sagas, displaying documents from the period of Jorgenson’s rule of the island.

If anyone is aware of any other event, in Iceland, Tasmania, or elsewhere, I would be pleased to hear about it.

With not much apparently happening, there could be some simple ways to remember this interesting event, including:

Make up a JJ badge for yourself to wear during the period and if you see someone else with a JJ badge at the Salamanca Market or by the water cooler, there could be grounds for discussion.

Bookmark this story and if anyone expresses interest in remembering Jorgenson, his rule of Iceland and his time in Tasmania, direct them to this story.

The Tasmanian Times has expressed interest in running a series of weekly reports as if from Iceland in 1809.

There are still questions begging for answers where Jorgenson is concerned, such as:

Is the image of the king on the Ross Bridge really Jorgenson? Don’t be tricked by the nose, as the end of it fell off into the Macquarie River in 1967. Also, is the lady or queen next to the king intended to be that of his Irish wife, Norah Cobbett?

Folk histories claim that Jorgenson, in company with Hugh Germain, named the Jordan River, Bagdad, Jericho, Lake Tiberias, Jerusalem (now Colebrook), Abyssinia, Bashan Plains and probably many other places. The story goes that they had with them the Bible and a copy of the Arabian Nights and amused themselves by picking names alternatively from each book. Is this fact or fiction?

Jorgenson claims to have harpooned the first whale caught in the River Derwent in 1804, thus launching the whaling industry in Van Diemen’s Land. Is this a tall tail or true?

Where is Jorgenson’s art? If it has survived, there is a bundle of it somewhere in the World, or scattered in collections like the painting found in New Zealand. This would probably include drawings from the time he helped found the Risdon Cove settlement in 1803 as first mate with the Lady Nelson, waiting around for a few days until eventually Bowen turned up.

Do you own any old books that once belonged to Jorgenson? He had a habit of writing in them and could also speak Latin, French and German, in addition to his native Danish. There might also be a drawing hidden away there.

Jorgenson was a journalist in colonial Van Diemen’s Land, where reports were mostly anonymous. Might it be possible to determine which reports were by Jorgenson? With Jorgenson’s knowledge of science, perhaps he was invited to report on Darwin’s visit to Tasmania.

I have made paintings of Jorgenson and Norah, the king and the queen as they appear on the Ross Bridge. There may still be an opportunity for a display on Jorgenson, the events in Iceland in 1809 and the connection with Tasmania, should there be interest.

It is quite amazing to me that a documentary film has never been made on the life of Jorgenson. His is such an amazing story, made properly and well, it would have to be a hit. If anyone knows of such a project happening, I would be keen to hear about it. If nothing is happening, perhaps this event could serve to spark up interest in a documentary project. There can be strength in numbers for a good idea and considering the number of nations that Jorgenson lived in or passed through, there could be a good deal of support.

The last time I looked there was no stone from Iceland in the International Wall in Hobart. Perhaps this could be organised at a State level, by offering Iceland a copy of the king from the Ross Bridge and also perhaps his queen. In Iceland Jorgenson is popularly remembered as the Dog Days king. This suggestion is now possible since the State Government had 3-dimensional digital recordings made of all the images on the Ross Bridge, with a view to having them re- carved by machine in stone at a future time if need be.

I wonder if a similar offer might be made to Ireland, from where many female convicts found themselves in Van Diemen’s Land under English law, but only one might be seen as the queen on the Ross Bridge, the convict queen.

Though Jorgenson was never a king, this myth persists in Tasmania and Iceland, as well as through the Internet. It is difficult to separate the myth from the person and should we? We accept Ned Kelly as an Australian outlaw with a real history, but there is also the myth of Ned that is explored by writers, singers and artists, as with Sidney Nolan’s series of paintings in 1946-47. Jorgenson has been treated seriously as an amazing historic character by Dan Sprod in ‘The
Usurper’. Whether artists will feel inspired to deal with his mythic side has already happened, with the king on the Ross Bridge. Will Jorgenson find a living role in our culture like Kelly? Perhaps the key to this lies in Daniel Herbert’s art on the Ross Bridge. A musical drama was produced in Iceland in 1969 covering an interpretation of events there in 1809 and earlier Indrid Einarsson wrote a play in 1936 called ‘The Last Viking’, the first of a curious line of plays about Jorgenson. The saga of Jorgenson would certainly make an interesting opera.

The carvings on the Ross Bridge are most unique. I have not been able to find a similar bridge with carvings along the arches anywhere in the world. The ‘Animal Bridge’ in the 1893 World Fair site, Jackson Park in Chicago, has carvings along its sides, but is quite different to the Ross Bridge and was built in 1903. Normally carvings would never be included on the arches of a bridge, because they would be hard to see and admire, being located out over the water. Similarly,  it is difficult to see and admire the Ross Bridge carvings, without getting into a boat. When I look at these carvings, I cannot help but be reminded of of the carvings on the curved prow of the Oseberg Viking ship that can be seen in Oslo, Norway, not because they are similar, but because of the curving art intended to interact with the water, one upon the ocean, the other above a river.

The ABC have set up an island in Second Life, which anyone with a broadband Internet connection can access. Second Life is often described as a game, but it also offers a range of interactive opportunities and is used by companies for meetings and universities for tutorials. Should anyone take a shine to the idea, a weekly moot could be held at the ABC Island at an agreed time, no matter where in the World you may be. In Second Life you can communicate with others by typing messages or speaking directly. If this should happen at the ABC SL Island, the Jorgenson event may well appeal to Auntie and gain wider interest at the ABC.

On Saturday 22 August it will be 200 years since Jorgenson was deposed from his rule of Iceland by Capt. “Paddy” Jones, an event that would ultimately lead to his return to Van Diemen’s Land in 1826, and ten years later to Daniel Herbert making the carving of him as the king on the Ross Bridge. On this day it would be a fitting tribute to gather in Ross for an unexpected picnic, for whoever likes the idea, to pay homage to the mythical king on the bridge and
remember Jorgen Jorgenson, whose adventure through life was about to take many unexpected twists and turns. Anyone in Ross on this day could wear their “JJ” badge and seeing this on anyone else would know
why they were there as well and spark up a conversation.

HOBART: He was buried in the old St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Barrack Street, not that he was a Catholic, but because of his wish to be buried near Norah. There is no longer a cemetery at this site and whether a gravestone for Jorgenson is hidden away somewhere, I cannot say.

OATLANDS: A brass plaque in front of the Police Station,

ROSS: The king on the Ross Bridge, seen on the northern face on the town end.

CAMPBELL TOWN: A small plaque outside the house that was once an inn where Jorgen met Norah, at the corner of Adelaide and Bridge Streets.

BURNIE: Jorgenson Street in Montello is named after him.

‘The Viking of Van Diemen’s Land’, Clune & Stephensen, 1954
‘The Usurper’, Dan Sprod, 2001
‘The English Dane’, Sarah Bakewell, 2005

‘The Religion of Christ is the Religion of Nature’, 1824
‘A Shred of Autobiography’, 1935-38
‘The Aborigines of Van Diemen’s Land’, first published in 1991

Be careful. There are many items on Jorgenson, but many drift from the facts, or simply spin a yarn. My article on Jorgenson in the Lateline ABC web site was sited by a yarn spinner as evidence, who apparently didn’t read it. The same article was referred to more accurately by Prince Frederick of Denmark in an address before the Governor of Tasmania in 2005.



This year is 200 years since the Danish adventurer Jorgen Jorgenson briefly ruled Iceland for two months, from 25 June to 22 August 1809. 

Read about JJ, what he means to Vandemonians and how we may mark the occasion…