Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    We Remember Jorgen Jorgenson

    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’.

  • Fool's Gold

    Fool's Gold

    Hundreds of Tasmanians up and left when gold was first struck in the Victorian goldfields in 1851 – men of every stripe and occupation, suddenly making an exodus from the island, crossing the strait to try their luck in looking for colour.

    It was yet another economic setback for Tassie, although some on the north-west coast made good selling shingles and laths for the booming populations to shelter themselves in ramshackle accommodations all across the goldfields.

    In February 1852 a pioneer farmer from the north-west named James Fenton left his family and took off for Melbourne on the Sea Witch. Some of his fellow-passengers, he noted, were successful diggers who had come back to Tasmania in order to make purchases or retrieve possessions, such as horses, to bring back to the goldfields. Fenton, a Congregationalist and teetotaller, frowned upon their roughness and the lack of class with which they were employing their newfound wealth. Their conversations were lubricated with rum, and they argued the merits or otherwise of prospective gold sites in Victoria. Tempers flared without warning. One ruffian started a fistfight with another fellow after taking offence to the style of his hat.

    Some had come back to Tasmania to reunite with lovers and bring them to the diggings. Fenton recorded one such mistress, “one of the most hideous-looking women that ever escaped strangulation in those days of the hempen noose”. She had been draped in expensive fabrics and laden with jewellery. Her cheeks, too, glowed red with the influence of an intoxicant.

    Good luck to that blessèd couple, perhaps. A more miserable story of ill-fated romance emerged from the Sea Witch, however. One digger had secreted his paramour in the hold of the ship; she was a convict, and not able to freely transport herself off the island, so her plucky lover was smuggling her in a crate. It was nailed shut, but the fellow had left enough holes in the box for her to breathe, as well as a supply of food and water to last the journey’s duration. Sadly, as further cargo was thrown onto the ship, the case that carried this young prisoner of the Crown was covered with a large quantity of hay. She suffocated, and her body was discovered dead when the ship arrived at Melbourne.

    Of course, for every bastard that got lucky and was able to doll up their women and use £5 notes to light those biddies’ cigarettes, there were dozens that stood around up their ’nads in freezing water, sluicing and panning to no avail. A better career path was selling booze to the hordes, or exporting shingles across Bass Strait. James Fenton himself returned after a short while, and went back to the farm.

     
    The story of how a Hawaiian woman ended up living on King Island, in Bass Strait.

  • A Geologist in the Cuvier Valley

    A Geologist in the Cuvier Valley

    Since everywhere else (Victoria, New South Wales, New Zealand) was having a gold rush, Tasmania wanted one. So in 1859, the government hired its first geological surveyor, a young British scientist with a famous naturalist father. He was Charles Gould.

    Charles Gould would spend a decade on the island looking for gold; he would fail. “It is difficult to understand how Gould,” a later writer would wonder, “leading a gold-seeking expedition, could have spent so long in a valley which later yielded so much gold from almost every creek, without finding a trace of the metal.”


    In the spring of 1859, a group of experienced bushmen, prospectors and surveyors was recruited, and in December they took off from Lake St. Clair. From there, they cut a narrow cart track up the Cuvier Valley, plodding through black mud and over golden tussocks, through spiky heath and mountain berry bushes. The mountains of Olympus, Byron and Hugel loomed over them.

    Gould was thrilled by what he saw, and his mind quickly spurred to theorise. He was one of the first to postulate that glaciation had created the incredible landscape he was witnessing. Standing at their improvised campsite in the Cuvier Valley, at the beginning of a decade of tough bush-bashing expeditions, the young geologist was driven to distraction imagining the great rumble of glaciers carving out valleys, tearing at mountains and spilling boulders for miles. He was only grumpy about the weight of expectations upon him. He wrote in his journal about the limited time he had to devote to “this very interesting question” because he was occupied with gold-seeking instead of indulging his geological curiosity.

    Gould’s scientific insight was brilliant: if he didn’t find gold during his decade as the chief geological surveyor of Tasmania, it was because he was thinking about something else. Gold was not nearly as exciting to him as other rocks. Much more precious was the dolerite sheet of the central highlands, and the fossiliferous Permian mudstone layer beneath it.

    Leaving the Cuvier Valley, Charles Gould entered the dense and dark forests of Tasmania’s west with a lot on his mind.

     

    Surveyor George Frankland gave many of Tasmania's natural features their names.

  • The Nant Rebels: Part II

    The Nant Rebels: Part II

    Last week, this column followed the story of Irish rebel John Mitchel, who escaped from Bothwell in Van Diemen’s Land, with the assistance of a man nicknamed ‘Nicaragua’.

    Mitchel had lived at Nant Estate, alongside a fellow Irish political prisoner, John Martin. Today, the estate is the home of an exceptional whisky distillery. It was John Mitchel who noted in his Jail Journals that “Tasmanian honey is the best in the world”. This reporter agrees – but Mitchel would no doubt be shocked to discover that nowadays, Tasmanian whisky is highly-esteemed too, one single-malt batch earning the official epithet “World’s Best” in 2014.

    While Mitchel high-tailed it, he had left his own wife, Jane, and their children high and dry. In the end, they made it back to Ireland.

    Mitchel’s roomie at the Nant cottage, “Honest” John Martin, remained at the estate. No doubt the other Young Irelanders were under heavy suspicion after Mitchel’s brazen escape, but they did not make attempts at escape. And in 1854, they each received a conditional pardon – they were allowed to leave the island, and go wherever they wanted, so long as it wasn’t Ireland.

    John Martin went to Paris, albeit through an incredible overland journey, beginning in Ceylon. And two years later, along with the other Young Irelanders, the British Empire bestowed unconditional pardons upon the rebels. They were free to go back to their home.

    The roommates Martin and Mitchel reunited in Paris in 1859. It had been over six years since Mitchel’s sudden departure. Stories were no doubt bandied around, perhaps flowing more freely with the aid of some liquid lubrication. Reminiscences of their days together at Nant, with its “vast view of endless mountains, covered with wood” may have brought tears to the eyes. Martin would have borne news of the other revolutionaries, all of whom had made it back to the motherland; Mitchel was privy to the political turbulence of America, where he was still a political agitator. Mitchel would fight for the Confederates in the American Civil War, claiming that slavery was “good in itself” and that blacks were inherently inferior to whites.

    They kept in touch, but didn’t meet again until seven years later, in 1866. Perhaps by then, the stories had gotten grander. Their lives were becoming more settled. They were, after all, getting older. And perhaps, amid all the laughter and bluster and exaggeration of their reunion in ’66, there was a serious word, too. For shortly after that rendezvous, John Martin finally became engaged – to wed his old roommate’s sister, sweet Henrietta Mitchel.

    He was 56. The next year, John and Henrietta went to New York, for a magnificent Mitchel-Martin family reunion. Corks popped, and their captivity in beautiful Van Diemen’s Land must have seemed a million lifetimes ago.

    Oddly, the New York Irishman known as “Nicaragua” – journalist P.J. Smyth – had remained in V.D.L. too. In the most unlikely of circumstances, he had fallen in love. It was the New York Irish Directory who had sent him on the mission to free the Young Irelanders, under the guise of employment with the New York Tribune; Nicaragua never went back to New York, though. He met a lass in Hobart by the name of Jeannie Regan, and they got married in the lovely sandstone confines of St Josephs Church, on Macquarie Street.

    Nicaragua and Jeannie returned to Ireland to live out their days.

    And John Martin died aged 62. His honoured widow lived far longer; even longer lived a mysterious lady by the name of Miss Thompson, to whom “Honest John” wrote politically-themed letters over his lifetime. Perhaps the story of Miss Thompson is one even more fascinating – if we only knew it.

  • The Nant Rebels: Part I

    The Nant Rebels: Part I

    Nant Estate, in Bothwell, in Tasmania’s southern highlands, was settled by Welsh agriculturists in 1821. Today it is famous for its whisky. World-renowned, Nant whisky is Australia’s only highland single malt distiller of the beverage known as the ‘water of life’. At one stage in history, it housed Irish revolutionaries.      

    A man known as ‘Nicaragua’ had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land with a mission: gaolbreak. Of the six Young Irelanders sent to V.D.L. for treason, William Smith O’Brien was the only one holed up on an island goal. The oldest and most respected of the Irish convicts (having just turned 46 when he arrived), he had refused a better deal on a matter of principle. The others hadn’t. They had accepted a ticket-of-leave, which gave them a good – if restricted – life.

    John Mitchel was the first Young Irelander to be sentenced, if the last to arrive after a short stay in Bermuda. He’d been a solicitor, but threw it in to start his own newspaper, the United Irishman, which supported a forced dissolution of the union with England. For his work, he copped a fourteen year sentence of transportation.

    While Smith O’Brien suffered, though, Mitchel and the others rather enjoyed their exile. Their only rule was to not to leave their police district. However, John Mitchel was allowed to share a cottage on the Nant estate at Bothwell with another rebel, John Martin; and they managed to arrange meetings at Lake Sorell with two more, O’Doherty and Meagher, where two more districts fortuitously met.

    In June 1851, John Mitchel’s wife Jane and their children arrived at Bothwell. Mitchel moved out of the Nant cottage. Martin remained. William Smith O’Brien was still in gaol.

    Enter Nicaragua – real name, P.J. Smyth – an Irishman in the U.S.A., working as a New York Tribune correspondent. A body of Irish sympathisers arranged for him to come to Van Diemen’s Land with the idea of retrieving one or more of the Young Irelanders captive there. John Mitchel’s eyes went wide as saucers when he saw Nicaragua.

    John Mitchel kept a diary that he called the Jail Journals. His phrases are full of Romantic ornamentation, poetic in their praise of the island’s beauty. And why not? He was free to ride his horse, exploring and hunting throughout the Bothwell region's sublime landscapes. Thus it was Smith O’Brien, not Mitchel, for whom the gaolbreak plan existed. He was the one with the raw deal. But the plan to get him out of the island prison failed; he was double-crossed by the captain of a schooner who’d been employed for the purpose.

    And so it was Mitchel who was freed. Boldly, he went with his gun into the Bothwell police station, and gave up his ticket-of-leave. Nicaragua had arranged everything: Mitchel escaped on horseback, got on a vessel at Hobart, and went – via Sydney, Batavia, and San Francisco – to New York, arriving at last in November 1853, to a hero’s welcome.

    William Smith O’Brien was eventually pardoned, reuniting with his wife and seven children in Brussels in 1854. He returned to Ireland two years later.

     

    Another Irish convict was Thomas Meagher. Thomas, his wife, and his child all died on separate continents.

  • The Captain's Lover

    The Captain's Lover

    It was one of the most important voyages in history. When the Géographe and Naturaliste returned to France with their cargoes after four years at the bottom of the world, some of the most impressive specimens in natural science arrived in Europe for the first time.

    At the helm was Captain Baudin. He was a passionate man, driven by his desire to chart the Terres Australes before his rival, the English prodigy Matthew Flinders. They had only the one confused meeting at Encounter Bay. Flinders’ navigation had been superior. Whereas Baudin had gone back and forth, and tried to in natural sciences with exploration, the Flinders expedition had run smoothly.

    And aside from this, Baudin’s own men were against him. The roguish Freycinet brothers wryly tried to undermine the skipper’s authority; the petulant zoologist François Péron rewrote Baudin’s own diaries at the end of the expedition, and wrote the expedition’s account to paint Baudin in such unflattering light that Napoleon himself said: “Baudin did well to die; on his return I would have had him hanged.”

    He had died instead of tuberculosis in Mauritius, only a short few months before the voyage concluded in France.

    Péron’s own log takes note of the woman Baudin took as his companion for the latter part of the journey. She was a 17-year-old convict, believed to be a whore, named Mary Beckwith. What did she see of the world in those days? Sentenced to Sydney for simple theft, Mary’s life changed forever when she was surreptitiously spirited away by the French and taken for a ride across the seas. At first it was all adventure, around the coasts of Van Diemen's Land and South Australia; but after Baudin tried to dump her in Timor, she became renowned for drunkenness and for sleeping with numbers of the French sailors on the ship.

    None of this did wonders for Baudin’s reputation.

    Interestingly, it was Baudin’s chief rival who gives us our last piece of information on Mary Beckwith. Shortly after Baudin’s death, Flinders was imprisoned on Mauritius. One day, Baudin’s brother Augustin approached Flinders, apparently asking his advice “concerning the propriety of taking a young woman to India whom his brother had brought hither from Port Jackson”.

    We don’t hear of Mary ever again. It seems likely that she did follow Augustin Baudin to the Tamil lands of India. We can only hope things turned out better for her there.

    Tasmania has plenty of French nomenclature. Explorers Bruni d’Entrecasteaux, Huon de Kermadec and Marion Dufresne are honoured. Biologists (Labillardière), astronomers (Bernier) and mineralogists (Hauy) are remembered in rocky formations, alongside Freycinet and Péron. Baudin has a small (and belatedly-bestowed) mountain named after him.

    I would like to suggest that a memorial to Mary Beckwith would be fitting, should an opportunity present itself.

  • Fram

    Fram

    The triumphant Captain of the Antarctic exploration crew finally disembarked from his vessel, Fram - Norwegian for 'Forward' - and wandered into the obscurity of Hobart Town.

    He was the last one off the ship. The Captain signed his declarations and was obsequiously welcomed to town by the officials. His men all had found the grimy hotels attached to brothels, no doubt, and were probably enjoying themselves and renewing their religious sentiments as he took his first steps out of the port. The Captain would be alone whatever he did. He considered a meal, but had breakfasted late, and heartily. No, what he really wanted was a stiff drink.

    First of all, he booked into a hotel, the Orient Hotel, where he was treated as if he were a tramp, and shunted into a small back-room without windows. The Captain didn’t give himself time to be frustrated. He was thirsty for liquor. It was a little surprising to him just how quickly the urge to drink had come upon him. The Captain thought of one of his men, Johansen, who was a pest and a boozehound, the only one of the crew he couldn’t stand and had no respect for. No doubt he was already wallowing in drunkenness. The Captain figured he better find a better place to drink than one of those seamy wharf bars that sold moonshine and watery beer. He went back out into the street without bothering to bathe or change his clothes. The Captain walked with his head and shoulders lifted high, his spine erect. He seemed to sniff the air with curiosity.

    Just around the corner from the Orient Hotel, he found what he was after. It was a whisky bar: a squat brick building with dark windows wrapped around it. The Captain walked in and was surprised to see it so full at such an early hour. Many of them clearly came from the shipyard, but there were a number of other unlikely characters frequenting the bar. The place was so busy, and so heavily populated with rugged souls, that the Captain entered completely unnoticed, despite his improbable appearance. Unbelievably, there were a number of others in the bar who looked like they too could have been journeying through that frigid desert – youths and women included.

    Later in the day, reports would come from Hobart Town, Tasmania, that Roald Amundsen was the first person in the world to reach the South Pole.

     

    Another famous ship had docked in Hobart nearly a century earlier: the Beagle.

  • The Otago

    The Otago

    Joseph Conrad was an enigmatic man. Born in the landlocked far east of Poland as Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, he became a ship captain, and then one of the most famous names in English literature – even though he only learned the language when he was twenty.

    Joseph Conrad never came to Tasmania, but the first ship he captained did. The Otago was skippered by Conrad from Bangkok to Sydney, and later to Mauritius, then back to Adelaide. Afterwards, though, when Conrad had gone back to Europe, it was purchased as a coal-hauling barge on the Derwent River. Its twenty-six year career ended in demolition.

    Conrad was regarded as a moody skeptic, melancholy and wary of showing emotion, and his bachelorhood was confirmed by moral judgement. “This is not my marriage story,” writes Conrad in his book The Shadow-Line, its plot centred around his commissioning as captain of the Otago. “It wasn’t so bad as that for me.” And yet suddenly, in 1896, aged 38, Conrad went and married an Englishwoman. Jessie George was a young, plain, peasant girl. But they ended up having a sturdy, happy marriage until Conrad died in the 1920s. So go figure.

    The Otago wreck remains on the eastern shore of the Derwent, and is a site of pilgrimage for fans of the taciturn author, who visit the wreck on the date of Conrad’s death, August 3. Common events for Korzeniowski Day, as it is called, involve reciting Polish translations of his work. Nic tak nie nęci, nie rozczarowuje i nie zniewala, jak życie na morzu, they recite from Lord Jim. “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.”

  • The Twenty-Seventh Birthday Party of Charles Darwin

    How they loved a party in Hobart Town! As soon as he arrived, on February 5 1836, they told him of a fancy-dress ball that he'd just missed: 113 guests, all in costume. 

    "Well we may as well do something for my birthday," he said.
    "Don’t you worry Mr. Darwin," they informed the young scientist, "we already have something in mind."

    It was a funny place for Charles Darwin to spend such an anniversary and no doubt he remembered it in a strange light, many years on. Hobart was not quite as charming in its aspect as Sydney, Darwin felt, but the climate was damper, and the land was agreeably fertile. Agriculture flourished. The bright yellow of corn cobs and the dark green of potato leaves shone on the banks of the Derwent as Darwin approached. Fruit-trees leaned over the ramshackle houses. It almost resembled some parts of home, wrote Darwin in his notebook. Perhaps one could imagine someday wanting to emigrate there. This colony – all of Australia – shall be one of the jewels of the Empire, a grand centre of civilisation, he scrawled between scientific observations.

    Nevertheless there was disappointment when Darwin joined a party in climbing up Mount Wellington. After it almost defeated him, Darwin labelled it a squat, ugly mountain, and the view from the top was, to him, flat and tame. Cloud and rain besieged them. It wasn’t a wasted day, though. The slopes of the mountain were well-furnished with magnificent fern trees and eucalypts. Darwin made an excellent collection of local insect specimens: over 100. There was not a shortage of geological observations to be made there either: basalt (which surely once flowed as lava), unstratified greenstone deposits, fossiliferous strata, yellow limestone or travertine.

    The Aborigines there, believed Darwin, were a few degrees higher in civilisation than the natives of Tierra de Fuego - for example. Far from being the utterly degraded people they were sometimes described as, they are fine hunters, nimble, more astute than given credit for. But when two races of men meet, they do so like two different animal species – it is a deadly struggle, and contact between these varieties inevitably conclude with the stronger pinning down the weaker. Such would be the case, he predicted, in Van Diemen’s Land.

     But the party was wonderful! There were a number of distinguished guests, all impeccably attired; one could expect nothing more even in England. The finest classical music was played for entertainment. There were several quite beautiful women in the colony, and their dancing was something to behold - as it was with ladies in all of the Empire.

    'This voyage has been by far the most important event of my whole life,' wrote Charles Darwin on board the Beagle, as he was leaving two weeks later.