Recently, I wrote about an old bridge in the centre of Tasmania that portrays one of its residents as a caricature of a king. Jorgen Jorgenson, as he came to anglicise his name (after several changes throughout his life), was born in Copenhagen and died in Hobart and careered his way through the world in between.
It is in Iceland that he is most remembered today. There, he is cheerfully clept Jörundur Hundadagakonungur: ‘Jorgen, the Dog Days King’.
For it was in the days when Sirius (known as the ‘dog star’) was seen in northern night skies, during the summer of 1809, that Jorgen Jorgenson installed himself as the Protector of Iceland.
It had begun as a mercantile excursion. Jorgenson and some British businessmen went to Iceland in the dark and cold of December 1808 and tried to organise some trade with the local merchants there. It was thwarted; Iceland was a Danish colony, and Denmark refused to trade with the British, the two countries being pitted against each other in the Napoleonic War.
Jorgenson – the Dane caught up in British affairs against his own country, in theory employed only as a translator – was furious. He declared they would return to Iceland to make business, by force if necessary.
So it was that he returned in 1809 and did not come unarmed. He and his men stormed into the house of the Danish Governor of Iceland, Count Trampe, and kidnapped him. And suddenly, Jorgen Jorgenson was in charge.
The Dog-Days King instituted some quick changes. Prisoners were released. School facilities were upgraded. A new flag was designed: three split codfish on a lavender background. Jorgenson was ready to move Iceland into independence. And with five ‘life-guards’ (probably the prisoners he released), Jorgenson took off over the country, at what may have been record speed, to meet the merchants and administrators in the northern port towns, where he believed the peasants were being manipulated and oppressed by the wealthy factors.
In 1809, Iceland was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Settled by Vikings in the 800s, who invented a type of commonwealth and parliament to ensure peace and order on the island, they had lost their independence after a few centuries, first to the Norwegians and then to the Danes. Agriculture was difficult, and Icelanders were fishermen and sheep farmers, and little else. Harsh winters required much preparation and were often fatal, and volcanic eruptions could have a devastating effect on the life of the people; in fact, a volcano eruption in the decade of Jorgenson’s birth had caused a devastating famine.
As Jorgenson travelled the country, and saw this reality combined with colonial oppression, he was moved to try and change the circumstances of the Icelanders.
And yet when Jorgenson was deposed as autumn began, by a British naval captain (it turned out that Jorgenson was supposed to be a prisoner there), the people were as indifferent as they had been to the removal of Count Trampe.
Jorgen Jorgenson had crossed a land of blueberry heath and scattered lava stones, the country of Viking outlaws, edging between glacial mountains and towards the Arctic Sea. In a colony on the edge of the European consciousness, Jorgenson had tried to effect political change on behalf of farmers and fishermen who in fact had never asked for his help. In a time of political turbulence, Jorgenson marched into the middle of the powerful forces of Europe and hoped to stage a revolution.
Boldly, brazenly, and probably naively, he expected it.
Jorgenson went back into the British penal system, although he was not long after to be found in Germany and France, working as a spy for that same nation.
Iceland gained its independence through a homegrown hero a century later. Later in the 1900s, a musical was written about the Danish usurper. In it, Jorgenson taught a young woman how to sing, which probably didn’t happen in the real history. But the play was called Þið munið hann Jörund: ‘We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson’.
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