Jorgen Jorgenson’s fall from Iceland ‘king’ to Tasmanian convict captured in exhibition


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October 13, 2019 06:30:00

Jorgen Jorgenson arrived in Tasmania as a convict in 1826, but it was not his first visit to Van Diemen’s Land.

He came to the island in 1804 and laid claim to being the first man to harpoon a whale in the River Derwent.

Jorgenson’s life — which involved stints as a spy, explorer, gambler and the self-proclaimed king of Iceland — has been brought alive by artist Caroline Amos.

“He’s such a complex man,” Ms Amos said.

“His pendulum would swing from being lauded and clever and feted to being drunken and gambling and in penury.”

Ms Amos spent two years learning about Jorgenson’s life, and retraced his steps around Tasmania.

Her works, collected under the title A Shipwrecked Life, tell the story of a man author Marcus Clarke once described as “one of the most interesting human comets in history”.

A Danish explorer

The artworks focus on Jorgenson’s time in Tasmania and feature quotes, places he visited and people he was connected to.

There are only two known paintings of Jorgenson, and there are doubts surrounding one.

“I’ve been trying to capture the essence of this fascinating man,” Ms Amos told Paul McIntyre on ABC Radio Hobart.

“All he left were his stories.”

Born in Copenhagen in 1780, Jorgenson began a navy career at 14.

He spent many years on English vessels before joining the survey ship Lady Nelson under the name John Johnson.

It is likely he sailed with Matthew Flinders in 1802 and was on board when Launceston was discovered by the British; he recorded that he spent time at the first settlement of Van Diemen’s Land.

Jorgenson returned to Copenhagen in about 1806, and from there he gained notoriety.

The king of Iceland

Jorgenson captained a brig during the Gunboat War against England but was captured and made a prisoner of war.

While on parole in 1809 he proposed a trading expedition to Iceland, which was suffering from food shortages as the ruling Danish governor would not allow trade with other nations.

Ms Amos said Jorgenson was a man who fought for causes, and arrested the governor and declared him a prisoner of war, freeing the people of Iceland.

“He couldn’t bear what the English and the Danes were doing to the poor Icelandic people,” she said.

He called himself the Protector of Iceland — locals refer to him as Jorgen the Dog-Days king — and designed a flag and built a fort, but it only lasted two months.

“The British came over in ships and said he was a very naughty man and imprisoned him and took him back to England,” Ms Amos said.

“On the way back to England the ship caught fire and he saved everyone.”

‘A flawed man’

After his release, Jorgenson went on a drinking and gambling spree, but luckily for him he had powerful friends in botanists Joseph Banks and Joseph Hooker.

“They kept saving him, but everyone got fed up with him in the end and he ended up back in prison,” Ms Amos said.

He later spent time in Europe and was recruited by the British intelligence service as a spy. In 1815 he witnessed the Battle of Waterloo which forced an end to Napoleon’s rule.

But trouble was always never too far away, and in 1820 Jorgenson was caught stealing and later sentenced to be hanged for violating his parole.

The sentence was commuted, however, thanks to lobbying by friends in high places and in 1825 he was transported to Van Diemen’s Land.

“He was a very flawed man,” Ms Amos said.

Time in Tasmania

Jorgenson was made to work in the customs office and is credited with exposing forgery, helping him receive a ticket of leave and lead expeditions across the north-west.

It was recorded that he and another convict were the first settlers to cross the Central Plateau.

Ms Amos retells a disastrous journey from Stanley to the Pieman River involving a whale boat and hunting dogs.

“They were starving, they ran out of food, and the forest was so dense the kangaroo dogs couldn’t hunt properly,” she said.

All the dogs died and his companion was killed when crossing the Duck River on the way back.

“It’s a tale of skulduggery and sadness, and Jorgenson survived them all,” Ms Amos said.

He worked as the constable of Oatlands and was eventually pardoned.

Jorgenson would enter into a dysfunctional marriage with Irish convict and alcoholic Norah Corbett, who died in 1840.

A year later, Jorgenson died of pneumonia aged 61.

“He was a lonely and sad man at the end of his life,” Ms Amos said.

Carvings remain on the convict-built Ross Bridge of Jorgenson and Corbett, with Jorgenson depicted as the “Viking King”.

“This is the only 100-per-cent-sure image of Jorgenson,” Ms Amos said.

A Shipwrecked Life runs until February 15 at the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts.

Topics:

arts-and-entertainment,

contemporary-art,

colonialism,

library-museum-and-gallery,

history,

people,

human-interest,

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