Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • The Former King of Iceland

    The Former King of Iceland

    This bridge tells some stories.

    Not only because it is the third-oldest functioning bridge in Australia; not only because of the colonial context in which it sits; nor because of the geographical milieu that made its existence necessary. Nor, even, just because of the convict labour that made it happen, the quarrying of rough stone, the arduous efforts of construction, the curious interaction of government supervision and forced labour.

    But also because one of the convict stonemasons carved portraits into the rock.

    And one of the carvings has a crown on his head.

    It is not the noggin of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur that is crowned either. Instead, the decoration sits atop the chiselled scone of a man who was working for the local police at the time, in the constabulary around the town of Ross, in central Tasmania, where this lovely bridge still conveys traffic over the Macquarie River every day.

    Jørgen Jørgensen was born in Denmark in 1780 and died in Van Diemen´s Land in January 1841. What happened in between spanned the whole globe, and a dazzling variety of careers. He sailed into ports in Brazil, South Africa, Australia. He whaled in the Pacific Islands. He was a spy in continental Europe. He wrote treatises about economics and religion, as well as fiction and plays. His friends were at times important historical figures, such as Sir Joseph Banks. He also frittered away his money at the casino and the inn.

    He also was the so-called King of Iceland, for two months of 1809.

    And he wound up a Vandemonian lag, a convict in that hellish island gaol. There, even with his freedoms heavily restricted, he embarked on a series of careers that not only would make good cinema, but are at the centre of a vortex of global forces, colonial expansions and political revolutions and economic reforms and scientific developments.

    Into all of this, Jørgen Jørgensen charged like Don Quixote at a windmill.

    For this, he has been mocked, as on the side of the Ross Bridge, his nose chipped off and washed away by the Macquarie. And it is true, his life was tragicomic. His vices were his undoing. He wrote too much, in a second language. He was naive and idealistic. Quixotic.

    But could it be said to have been worth it, just to be known as the former King of Iceland? To have been, after all, remembered?

     

    This is not the first time I have written about Jørgen Jørgensen. Nor will it be the last.