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.

  • The View from Widcombe Hill

    The View from Widcombe Hill

    At the end of a career and a life that surely warped beyond the bounds of whatever he could have imagined or hoped, George Augustus Robinson ended up here, on Widcombe Hill, above the city of Bath in England.

    After the rediscovery of the ancient Roman bath there in 1780, the town flourished, becoming one of England’s most fashionable towns in quick time. When Robinson toured through there after returning from the Antipodes in the 1850s, it had several colleges, cultural and literature societies, and about 50,000 inhabitants.

    Robinson chose a home here, overlooking the town as it sat on the banks of the Avon. He was with his second wife, Rosie, the daughter of an accountant, and their five children. The house was paid for with a pension Robinson had earned from his work in Australia. He named it ‘Prahran’, the name of his home on the Yarra River, in the Port Phillip protectorate where he worked for eleven years, overseeing the interactions of the area’s new colonial settlers and the indigenous population of Victoria.

    This, a promotion after his work in Van Diemen’s Land. For a decade Robinson had worked tirelessly at a dream: to save the Aboriginal Tasmanians from extinction. The means: civilization, teaching them the British religion and custom. The method: arduous excursions into the bush, learning Aboriginal dialects, and forming diplomatic relationships with clan leaders.

    He would have the remaining populations removed to a mission camp on Flinders Island. It was a miserable place, full of sad and slow deaths, mismanagement, seasons of cruelty and apathy.

    Robinson had already been sent to the mainland by the time it was written off as an utter failure.

    Back in 1822, as a young father trying to scrape by in London, George Robinson had signed up to migrate to the Poyais settlement in Nicaragua. Poyais, as it turned out, was a fraudulent invention of Scottish rogue, who lured investors into the false republic; Robinson’s gaze shifted to an even further-flung colony, which was not a fiction, despite its fantastical elements – the ancient trees which Robinson slept beneath, the swirl of the southern constellations, the song and dance of peoples who had millennia separating their beliefs from his own.

    No, Robinson entered into a place that was all too real, all too true. Although at times he must have felt that he had stepped into a dreamscape, or that the reverie of dancing and playing the flute by the fire with these Tasmanians who had become his unlikely companions, so many miles away from London.

    When he returned to his native city on the Medway in 1853, his first wife dead, his children grown up, his wallet swollen and his reputation cemented, perhaps this place seemed like the dream. But not for long. Because G.A. Robinson had come home three decades later exactly what he had wanted. Important. Memorable.

    So when he looked from Widcombe Hill down into the spill of sand-coloured buildings in the valley, or passed his neighbours on Prospect Road as he went back to ‘Prahran’ and had them recognise him, he must have felt pretty chuffed.

    But what did he tell those neighbours about Wooraddy, Mannalargenna, Trugernanna?

    When he sat by the hearth of his Victorian fireplace, did he hear an echo of the songs about wombats and snakes come back to him?

    When he fell asleep at night, did he sometimes squirm, recalling betrayals, murders, kidnappings, occasions of unspeakable cruelty?

    Did George Augustus Robinson look through those journals he wrote - later to be the core of Tasmanian historicity - and feel his heart sink, reading between the lines (as we have since) that to ascend to his charming home on Widcombe Hill, he had trampled the people he reckoned he might save? 

    Could he foresee that although he would be remembered, he might not entirely be remembered well?


     
    Trugernanna was afraid of what would happen when she died.
    Last week, one side of Trugernanna and Robinson's relationship was wondered about.