Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • A Human Comet

    A Human Comet

    A sailor's life leads many places.

    I have spent part of this year visiting certain locations that bear the memory of a man named Jørgen Jørgensen (1780-1841). Jørgensen's frenetic behaviour and multiplicity of careers led Australian novelist Marcus Clarke to describe him as 'a human comet'.

    It was a life that saw him visit Iceland twice, once as a merchant, and a second time as a would-be revolutionary, in 1809.

    It would also have him wind up in Tasmania as a convict, where he lived his final days, trying his hand at everything from clerical work to police work, farming to exploring.

    Jørgensen also spent considerable time in London, particularly at a certain pub named the Spread Eagle Inn, on Gracechurch Street.

    As part of his nautical career, he had stopped in ports in the Baltic Sea, South America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

    He sailed the South Seas on a whaling vessel, and wrote a treatise on the work of missionaries in Tahiti.

    He may have even worked as a pirate in the Americas.

    Briefly, he went to Spain and Portugal to escape his gambling debts; and later was employed by the British Crown to operate as a spy in continental Europe, making a colourful journey on foot. He lost almost everything (including, literally, the shirt on his back) in Parisian casinos, and accidentally committed to a marriage in Frankfurt - a vow that he was never to fulfill.

    But what of Jørgen Jørgensen's hometown? The son of the official watchmaker to the Danish Crown, Jørgensen grew up on the street in this photograph, Østergade, just by one of the city of Copenhagen's main squares.

    It was from this vantage point that an adolescent Jørgen witnessed a great conflagration in the harbour city. King Christian VII, considered a madman, had to be removed from his burning palace. Unfit to rule, tension brewed between the Queen, the Prince, and the King's physician over the issue of power.

    Jørgensen left Copenhagen to work on British ships from the age of 14, but returned when he was 27, in December 1807, to find 'my native city bombarded'. The Danes had sided with Napoleon Bonaparte against the British. It was a painful time for the returning sailor. In Jørgensen's words, 'a considerable portion of the best city in Europe was destroyed'. He was put in charge of a vessel, the Admiral Juul, which was captured in short time off the east coast of England.

    He would never return.

    His compatriots came to consider him a possible traitor. Jørgensen himself seemed to hint at this in some writings, but passionately denied it in others.

    During his time in Iceland, his lack of a national identity was attacked. 'Avoid Denmark, there you won't find a grave,' one of the prefects from the south of the island wrote to him, abandoning mildness. 'Every
    where you will be cast away, hated, banished, cursed. In the end you will be suffocated in an ocean of hate.'

    He would sporadically write letters to family members, and described an intense suffering at being far from them, especially his mother. His Danish fell into disuse. Roaming the wildernesses of Van Diemen's Land, where he did indeed find a grave (although in the cemetery of a religion he did not belong to; and these days a school as been built upon it) he must have felt as far as possible from where he was born.

    One can only hope that as he married, and bounced between occupations, and came to know different parts of Van Diemen's Land better than most colonial settlers of his day, that he felt somewhat at home in that land where Aboriginals, convicts and bushrangers mingled beneath the forest canopies and mountain silhouettes.

    But perhaps, at times, he felt regret: having left his family, their trade, his language, and that elegant city.

    One can get sentimental about home, though, especially after having seen so many places in this world.