Jorgen Jorgensen was an adventurer who fitted more excitement into his life than anyone could possibly invent. People have asked why I haven’t written a story about him, but there is almost too much material available, and that is without even researching him in any depth.
Jorgen born in Copenhagen on 7th April 1780, the son of a royal clockmaker of Denmark and ran away to sea on an English collier at 16. He eventually sailed to Cape Town on a whaler in 1799, and then to Port Jackson in 1800. While in Sydney he joined the crew of the Lady Nelson, captained by Mathew Flinders, to explore the coasts of New Holland and then later on to Van Diemen’s Land and the founding of the settlements of Risdon Cove in September 1803, and of Sullivan’s Cove in February 1804. Later in 1804 he joined a whaler as first mate on an expedition to New Zealand, and claims to have been the first whaler to have harpooned a whale in the River Derwent, before returning to England via Cape Horn.
He returned to Denmark in 1807, just as the Napoleonic Wars were really getting serious, with the British Navy shelling and burning Copenhagen because the Danes were allies of the French. As an experienced sailor Jorgensen was given command of the ship, the Admiral Jawl, and sent to attack British ships, however, he was soon captured and taken to England as a prisoner of war.
When the war ended Jorgensen worked on an English trading expedition to Iceland in the summer of 1809. As a colony of Denmark the Icelanders were being badly treated at this time by the Danish merchants and in a valiant, but ultimately treasonous act, Jorgensen declared himself the ruler of Iceland in an attempt to overthrow Danish rule. Two months later was deposed by the British Navy and sent back jail to England.
Always a man with friends in high places, including the famous Sir Joseph Banks, Jorgensen was freed and went to work as a spy for England against Napoleon in France where he witnessed the Battle of Waterloo. Back in England and enjoying rising fame as a writer, Jorgen became addicted gambling and alcohol, which were to become the seeds of a great deal of his future misfortune, and he was soon hopelessly in debt.
As a party animal he still had a reasonably successful career as a writer, publishing many books and pamphlets, even though with modern eyes he wrote the most boring books imaginable, but his constant gambling and drinking led to brushes with the courts over large debts. After serving time in the infamous Newgate Prison, he was banished from England, but true to form, he didn’t quite get around to going, so was sentenced to death. His friend Joseph Banks and other notable gents were able to get his death sentence downgraded to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.
He arrived as a convict in Hobart 1826 and, as one of the few convicts who could read and write, was soon given a job as a clerk at Van Diemen’s Land Company, and soon afterwards as a police constable in the Midlands where he explored and mapped much of inland Tasmania. Here he also had plenty of contact with the Tasmanian Aborigines, writing one of the few books on their language and customs.
In 1831 Jorgen married a wild, drunken, illiterate, Irish convict called Norah Corbett, who had been transported from Cork in 1827, and spent they their married life in passionate misery having regular drunken brawls in public, usually at throwing out time. In spite of his unhappy home life Jorgen made a meagre living from his royalties (nothing changes) and writing newspaper articles. He did also manage to write A Shred of Autobiography, an entertaining and almost unbelievable rollicking yarn, had it not all been true. In 1840 Nora died and a year later Jorgen was found sick, drunk and destitute in a Hobart gutter and he died a few days later on 20th January 1841.
Jorgensen’s remarkable life, apart from him roaming the world, becoming King of Iceland, and being sentenced to death, is incredible in that he was at the very early days of Sydney, at Waterloo, at the foundation of Hobart and then, years later, was to die there as a ticket-of-leave convict in the same town he’d helped settle. On the far side of the world the Icelanders are still particularly fond of him, and often refer to him as their one time king and inspiration for their eventual freedom from Denmark.
I find Jorgen’s life a particularly useful guide to me as well, and every time I’m tempted by an extra glassful or two of red or I’m standing at a Lotto queue about to spend a fortune, I spare a small thought for Jorgen Jorgensen and his ultimate downfall, but then I think, what the hell, why not?
I wish I had a tenth of his spirit.