Hi everyone welcome back, to season four of the podcast. This week we’re delving into the picaresque, and the life of one Jorgen Jorgensen – a man whose trajectory in life was akin to the character in Sinatra’s That’s Life. A puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a King. Jorgensen was all of the above and more besides. For a start you could add explorer, spy, war tourist, gambler… and another word my humble pop filter will despise – a prisoner. We’ll get to Jorgensen in a moment, but first we need to visit Britain’s House of Commons, the year 1779.
Britain had quite the problem having arisen from both it’s changing demographics, and from the rise of their middle classes following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
In last year’s post on The Bottle Conjuror, I briefly touched upon the Glorious Revolution – and while it really deserves it’s own episode – we need to know the following today. In 1688, a Dutch aristocrat named William of Orange sailed an armada of ships more than twice the size of the Spanish Armada down the River Thames. For months he’d made his intentions clear, he was going to be the next king of England. A growing number of British aristocrats, displeased with their King, James II, were happy to sanction the invasion. In return they expected the Royal family to be less autocratic – to give politicians more sway – and to allow wealthy Britons to pursue capitalism more freely.
Under the old system, if you had a brilliant idea that could somehow improve the world and make yourself rich in the process; the idea could still be killed the instant a monarch refused to grant a patent. One often quoted example is of William Lee – a 16th Century clergyman and inventor, who made a knitting machine. The reverend had fallen for a local woman who knitted to make money, and who either was far too preoccupied by knitting, or was very slow at it – so was ‘always busy’ when he came calling. Lee, smitten with the lady – invented a machine that automated the process, speeding the job up considerably.
It should have been a no-brainer to patent this machine. An effective labour saving device, it could have sped up the production – giving thousands of women thousands of hours of their lives back (possibly to date a Reverend Lee, or possibly the lady just wasn’t that into the reverend so thousands of hours of ‘washing her hair that night’, till the reverend took the hint?)
but if this didn’t hook the royals, how about the fact increased productivity equals more product, equals more trade – equals more sales – equals more tax money in the Royal Coffers?
None of this impressed Elizabeth I. She worried the machine would lead to skilled artisans losing their valuable skills forever, and, so declined the patent. When Elizabeth died soon after, and Lee’s business partner got involved in a coup attempt against her successor, James I, Lee fled to France – who in turn loved his invention and granted that patent – England’s loss was France’s gain.
Anyhow, long story short – a greater freedom to pursue inventive ideas, combined with offshoring a lot of agricultural work to the colonies, and a rising coffee house culture where ideas could percolate like coffee beans among inventors; and finally having all the pre-requisite concepts needed for an industrial revolution – meant the Industrial revolution came to Britain first. It also meant Britain was became urbanised and industrialised, and experienced the rise of a wealthy, powerful middle class. The middle classes were determined to have their say in this new Britain – a top priority for them was more laws to protect all the shiny new things their new-found wealth was buying.
On one hand, a group of people with some things already, suddenly had more things – and were becoming increasingly serious about protecting those things. On the other hand, many people moving to the cities were headed in the other direction. The former villagers lost old community ties when they moved. In hard times, those former connections had banded together to help those in need – but the tyranny of distance made this more difficult. Many also had to work new factory jobs, and the unskilled jobs particularly, did not cover their basic needs when times were good. Add job loss, or sickness and suddenly times were dire for many. This led to a sharp rise in what we now think of as petty crime.
The law codes moved with these changes – in favour of the rich. Even minor crimes became hanging offences. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, 220 crimes carried the death penalty. At the time of this meeting in Parliament in 1779, people were looking for an answer to the ‘Bloody Code’ as it later became known. Owing to a squeamishness in executing a starving person for thieving a meal, 35,000 people were sentenced to death, but only 7,000 executions actually occurred. ‘Just lock em up’ wasn’t working terribly well for them either, and the prisons were overflowing. Prisoners had to be moved en-masse to prison boats until an answer could be found.
Speaking to Parliament that day, one of the rock stars of Pacific exploration, and head of the Royal Botanical Society – Captain James Cook’s former botanist, Joseph Banks.
We don’t need to go into detail on his speech – we have a half hour podcast episode, and an infamous Filibuster still to speak of – but we need to know Banks had been on Cooks voyage which put New Zealand and much of the East Coast of Australia on the map in 1770. He loved Australia, and saw huge potential there. Based on the land he’d seen – Banks imagined a land teeming with farmland. He suggested parliament save hanging for the more serious offences – and to start shipping petty criminals out to Botany Bay, in their colony of New South Wales.
This wasn’t an entirely new idea. Before the USA separated from the empire, 60,000 convicts were sent over there as indentured labourers. If they survived a couple of years of back breaking work (many didn’t) they might even become land owners themselves at the end of their servitude.
In May 1787, the first eleven of many convict ships, set off for Australia. In excess of 160,000 men, women and children would be shipped out to the prison colonies between 1787 and 1868.
Now we’ve added some context, let’s discuss Jorgen Jorgensen.
Jorgen Jorgensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on 29th March 1780. His family were comfortably middle class. His father, Jorgen sr. was so well thought of as a watchmaker, he was contracted to make timepieces for the Danish Royal family. While Jorgen’s family expected the boy would set up a business like his father on adulthood, as a child he’d longingly sighted a Dutch East India-man setting sail for faraway lands. From that day on he dreamed of becoming a sailor. At 14 his father partially relented and apprenticed him to an English Collier named the Janeon – a coal carrying vessel which rarely voyaged. After four years, Jorgensen had enough of that and quit. He signed up for a whaling ship headed for South Africa.
This gave Jorgensen his first experience of life at sea – and a part of the world he’d come back to later in life. First on a whaling ship called The Fanny, then on The Harbinger, which on at least one occasion carried convicts to Algoa Bay – he worked the waters around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1798 – well before Napoleon lost two thirds of his fleet at Trafalgar – he survived being fired upon by a French gunship. In 1801, Jorgensen finally got a chance to go exploring, when the Lady Nelson arrived at the Cape, en-route to Sydney Australia. They needed men, so Jorgensen – now going by John Johnson – signed up for the voyage.
In Sydney, Jorgensen met the famed explorer Matthew Flinders. He travelled on the Lady Nelson as it sailed southwards into what is now the state of Victoria; surveying Port Phillip on the way, before crossing the Bass Strait to Van Diemen’s Land – now Tasmania. They surveyed much of the shoreline, before setting up camp in Risdon – where another group of explorers entirely would senselessly massacre a large group of aboriginals in 1804. He helped found a settlement down a ways – at the now state capital, Hobart. They explored the Derwent river, Jorgensen taking time out between missions to wander inland near Sydney with a French explorer who was determined to claim he’d been further inland than any other European. Once it seemed they reached that point, one would upstage the other by taking just another twenty paces, before the other reciprocated.
This first visit to Australasia sounds like one big boys own adventure. Jorgensen took time out to join a sealing ship headed to New Zealand. Once back, he spent time as a chief officer on a whaling ship that travelled between both countries. Two decades before the Weller brothers arrived in Sydney themselves and started buying up their own whalers – such as the Billy O’ Tea, now famous thanks to Tik Tok sea shanties – Jorgen Jorgensen was out on Tasmania’s Derwent river, harpooning the first whale ever killed on that river. One presumes many a Sea Shanty were sung onboard Jorgensen’s whaler – well before Soon May The Wellerman Come?
After an eventful couple of years, he sailed for London in 1806. Along the way, he convinced two Maori, and two Tahitians’ to join him on the voyage homewards. His plan was to bring them to someone in England who would show them western ways, especially Christianity. Once schooled, the four would be sent back as brand ambassadors for European ways. Back in London, he met royal botanist Joseph Banks – and handed his guests over. Banks found them a home among the church – but tragically, all four guests would be dead within the year.
In 1807, Jorgen returned to Copenhagen to a hero’s welcome. The locals were ecstatic this local boy done good was back, with tales of his many adventures – but Jorgensen was far from ecstatic. The town was a mess! Denmark was a neutral party in the Napoleonic wars, albeit a party with a large collection of war ships. The British worried Napoleon would invade Denmark just to get his hands on their ships – so twice, first in 1801, then again in 1807 – The British navy sidled up to Denmark and bombed their fleet to smithereens. Jorgensen was incensed at this act of terrorism, and convinced eight of Copenhagen’s wealthiest citizens to buy him a gun-boat. With a crew of 83, and 23 big guns – Jorgen Jorgensen set sail as a privateer on the Admiral Juul – his mission, to rob and incapacitate any British ship that crossed his path.
Jorgen Jorgensen’s war started out well. From the get-go he captured three merchant ships in open waters – but then he decided to try his luck along the British coast. Just outside of Yorkshire, he ran across two large British war ships – the Sappho and the Clio. Jorgensen engaged the two ships in battle, and managed to hold his ground for around 45 minutes before – the Admiral Juul all shot to pieces – he saw it prudent to surrender before he was sent to Davy Jones locker. He was taken to a jail cell in Yarmouth.
He was not there for terribly long. Jorgensen has claimed he was a double agent – having been approached by a British spy back in Copenhagen – but he was also a notoriously unreliable narrator. It is as possible someone high up who knew him and liked him – like Joseph Banks – caught wind of his capture, and figured why not make use of him elsewhere? Either way, he was called to London and asked what he could do to help the British war effort?
A suggestion was made by Jorgensen to let him sail to Iceland.
High up in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Iceland had suffered greatly over the course of the Napoleonic wars. Then a colony of Denmark, they were only allowed to trade with the Danish. Denmark now had fewer ships left to do things like trade with remote Northern outposts. This left Iceland bereft, in the midst of a great famine. Jorgensen planned to brave the waters and land a ship full of supplies. He was to set up a trading post between the two countries, and wage a soft-power operation while there. While saving the Icelanders from starvation, he’d convince them the Britons were not so bad after all. When Jorgensen sailed off, most people expected he’d run afoul of the weather, or a Danish warship – and never be seen again. He did, however, land at Reykjavik safe and sound. Having offloaded his cargo, he sailed back to Liverpool, England – this time to pick up two ship loads of supplies.
While he was away, the Governor of Iceland – a man named Count Von Tramp – heard about the shipload of British goods and forthwith barred all merchants from trading with him. When Jorgensen returned, he was bluntly ordered away, and told in no uncertain terms he was not to return. He stated his ships would pack up and leave in the morning.
The following morning – a Sunday when it appears all of Iceland, barring Count Von Tramp and his cook, were at church – Jorgen Jorgensen landed with twelve armed men. The men marched straight to Von Tramp’s residence and arrested the governor. When the congregation left church that morning, they found their governor deposed – and that Jorgen Jorgensen had declared himself King of Iceland.
In his brief reign as King, Jorgen Jorgensen brought in a raft of policies that radically changed the nation. First, he halved income tax, then forgave all debt owed by anyone to the Danish crown. He took money from former Governor Von Tramp’s coffers, and invested it in upgrading the schooling system. He also radically changed the nature of work in Iceland. For centuries workers had been tied to the land – herding sheep primarily for the European wool markets. Though surrounded by oceans teeming with fish, the Danish crown had refused to grant the people permission to fish full-time. For one thing, the Danish felt they really needed the wool. For another, they didn’t fancy Iceland becoming wealthy enough to no longer need them. Jorgensen not only lifted that embargo, but he threw government money at the nascent industry. He had a fort built, established a small army – and realising he needed to win the clergy over – he gave all the priests on the island a hefty pay rise.
Where earlier government was autocratic – Jorgensen set up law courts and announced he would establish a system of elected government to help him rule as soon as practical to do so.
Unsurprisingly, the people of Iceland loved their new king, and, for the most part – embraced the new regime enthusiastically.
He did one other thing, however, which left the British fuming. All his changes would have brought prosperity over time – but in the meantime, Iceland desperately needed money. To raise funds, Jorgensen set a tariff on British imports. Two months’ into King Jorgen’s reign, the British warship the HMS Talbot showed up in Reykjavik harbour to find out what in the hell was going on in Iceland. Jorgensen boarded the Talbot, and returned to London to plead his case. When Joseph Banks, furious with him, refused to help him – Jorgensen went into hiding. He was arrested a few weeks later, and had his parole revoked. He was then sent to Tothill Fields Prison, London. As his two month reign roughly coincided with the hottest time of year, when the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius hangs over Iceland’s night skies – Jorgen Jorgensen became their ‘Dog-Days King.’ Historically the phrase refers to a time when the world is altogether too hot and clammy, and people feel altogether too languid to get much done. His brief reign was anything but.
Sadly for the people of Iceland, life returned to their old normal and would stay so until an independence movement made headway in the 1840s.
Jorgensen was released from jail in 1811. He was briefly in Tothill, where he met an Irish political prisoner named Count Dillon. Dillon was from a dissident family who had never given up on the idea of Irish independence- and who had been involved in both the American and French revolutions. He was being held at his majesty’s pleasure, as the British feared he could foment a rebellion in Ireland. In the midst of the Napoleonic wars this could have been catastrophic, for one it could give Dillon’s ally, the ‘Little Corporal’ a staging post to invade Britain. Dillon’s conversations with Jorgensen haunted him for the rest of his life.
Most of his time behind bars was spent on a prison boat on the Thames.
Once released, Jorgensen turned to writing for a living, and drinking heavily while gambling for solace. His lifestyle wildly swung from wealth to poverty as he burned through his earnings. This included a large state lottery win Jorgensen and a syndicate of 15 others won. For a while he moved to Portugal, but got involved in gambling there – and one day got badly beaten up. He made his way back to England, only after joining a crew of a navy vessel sent out to capture privateers, then either becoming ill, or faking illness so as to be invalided back home.
In the closing days of the Napoleonic wars, the British government again called on Jorgensen, employing him as a spy. Once back in London in 1813, he’d come across the dissident Count Dillon one day in a coffee house. The Count shared with Jorgensen a French and American plot underway to liberate Australia, using a fleet of heavily armed warships. Jorgensen took this information to the colonial office, who were not terribly interested at the time. Count Dillon took command of a small fleet, and that fleet wrecked off the coast of Cadiz, Spain en route to Australia. An American fleet then showed up in Australia soon after, wrecking seventeen whaling ships before they were stopped. Authorities started to wonder if Jorgen Jorgensen could be of use to the war effort after all? They found him in a debtors prison, and arranged for his release.
Jorgensen was given a mission. He was to make his way to the European mainland, and write reports on the goings on in Europe. Given a large sum of money, and a wardrobe of new clothes, Jorgensen drank and gambled away nearly all of this money before he even set sail. He had to hitch a ride on a friend’s ship. He drunkenly made his way throughout the continent like a character in a picaresque novel – a real life Barry Lyndon or Candide – surviving largely on his wits and charm. He drank and gambled, often losing his shirt one night, then charming a new set of clothes from some aristocrat in the next town the following day.
Though not personally involved in the Battle of Waterloo, he was in Belgium when the battle occurred. He was close enough to the action to watch it from the sidelines, and then spent three days wandering the fields in the wake of the battle.
Postwar, now back in England, Jorgensen planned to move to South America – but every time it looked like he might get the funds together to move – he would get drunk and gamble his money away. In 1820, he stole bedroom furniture from his landlady – and was given a seven year prison sentence in Australia. Friends in high places stepped in, and it was agreed his sentence would be waived if he left Britain immediately. Jorgensen was given the money to do so, but fell upon old habits and lost it all at the gambling table. He was re-arrested, and sentenced to death – which in turn was commuted back down to time in an Australian penal colony. So it was King Jorgen Jorgensen, the first European monarch to set foot in Australia, arrived in shackles in 1825.
His time in Australia doesn’t seem nearly as bleak as much of his life prior – barring one major blot on his reputation. He was transported to Tasmania, where he resumed his earlier work – going out on expeditions into the wilderness to map out the island. For a while he was deputised to go fight the outlaws who escaped from prison camps, and were making trouble for the settlers. Disappointingly, he became involved in the ‘Black war’ where Tasmanian settlers all but wiped out the Aboriginal population on the island. He was on the colonisers’ side. In 1835, Jorgen Jorgensen was granted a pardon, but chose to stay on in Australia – at this point he was settled on his own land, and married to an Irish convict named Norah Corbett. He was living an uneventful, but happy life.
Jorgen Jorgensen, one time King of Iceland died in Australia, 20th January 1841.