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Jorgenson, Jorgen (1780–1841)

by James Dally

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

Jorgen Jorgenson (1780-1841), adventurer, was born on 7 April 1780 at Copenhagen, Denmark, the second son of Jorgen Jorgensen, royal watchmaker, and his wife Anna Lette, née Bruun. He changed his patronymic to Jorgenson in 1817.

Jorgenson's formal education stopped at 14. At 15 he was apprenticed to Captain Henry Marwood of the English collier Jane, and served in her four years between Newcastle and Baltic ports. By his own statement, he then served on various vessels, including a British man-of-war into which he had been press-ganged. In 1801 he was aboard the Harbinger at Port Jackson, where he soon joined H.M.S. Lady Nelson as John Johnson. As he was not discharged from her until April 1804, he probably sailed with Matthew Flinders in 1802, witnessed the disbandment of the first settlement at Port Phillip, and certainly was present at the first settlement on the Derwent in Van Diemen's Land. His own testimony has generated the legend that he was first to harpoon a whale in the Derwent. For months in 1804 he was sealing in New Zealand waters and whaling in the Alexander. He left Australian waters in her in February 1805 and by way of New Zealand, Tahiti, Cape Horn and St Helena arrived at Gravesend in June 1806. After some months of London pleasures he returned to Copenhagen.

During the Anglo-Danish war Jorgenson commanded the privateer Admiral Juul and took three prizes before striking his flag to H.M.S. Sappho in March 1808. Next December after ten restricted months in London he made his first visit to Iceland. In June 1809 he returned and, with an English merchant and abetted by English seamen, arrested the Danish governor, placed himself at the head of government, and proclaimed Iceland independent of Denmark. On this escapade Jorgenson's notoriety largely rests, although his 'protectorship' lasted only nine weeks before it was ended by the arrival of H.M.S. Talbot. In August Jorgenson sailed, voluntarily, for England.

For the next eleven years Jorgenson's life was compounded of ill fortune, opportunism and debauchery. Until September 1810 he was incarcerated in the prison-hulk Bahama at Chatham, then lived on parole at Reading. After months of gambling and drinking he fled England and his creditors in 1812, but soon after his return next year he was in the Fleet prison, heavily in debt. Released in May 1815 he went to the Continent as an English spy for two years, then spent the next three in and about London, with much gambling and drinking. After May 1820, when he was arrested for petty theft, Jorgenson was in and out of Newgate prison, and once condemned to death, until finally sentenced to transportation for life. He arrived in Van Diemen's Land in April 1826. He received a ticket-of-leave in June 1827 and, after a short-lived convict-clerkship, was assigned to the Van Diemen's Land Co. and sent to explore parts of the north and north-west of the island. In 1828 he was appointed a convict-constable of the field police in the Oatlands district and strenuously employed in pursuit of Aboriginals. He was granted a conditional pardon in June 1830.

In January 1831 he married Norah, an illiterate and hard-drinking convict, born in 1800 in County Cork, the daughter of Patrick Cobbett (Corbett) and his wife Catherine, née Fitzgerald. The 1830s saw Jorgenson employed in the infamous Black Line, farming briefly and ingloriously, appointed again to the constabulary, acting as scribe for the illiterate, and selling his wits wherever possible, whether to such a one as George Augustus Robinson, to the government, or to the fevered press. Mostly he lived by his pen, precariously. During this period he accepted with considerable understanding and compassion the problems of his wife's suicidal disposition. Both he and she were granted free pardons in 1835, but did not enjoy them long. She died in July 1840, Jorgenson on 20 January 1841 in the Colonial Hospital of 'inflamation of the lungs'.

Jorgenson was an average-sized man, given to passionate expression and wild gesticulation. Gifted with extraordinary high spirits and unbalancing verve, he was ambitious, diversely talented and appreciably amoral. A measure of self-discipline came later, with reluctance. He would merit little attention had not the whole formless, headlong rush of his life been marked by such wild spirit. His status is, as it was to Marcus Clarke, that of 'a human comet'.

The two men who knew Jorgenson best were both aware of the variance between his accomplishments and his reckless aspirations. To William Hooker, his 'talents were of the highest order: but for his character, moral and religious, it was always of the lowest order'. To Thomas Anstey Jorgenson was his own worst enemy. Writing of the Icelandic revolution Jorgenson revealed himself in a rare moment of objective candour: 'I … fully determined to seize the first opportunity to strike some blow to be spoken of … It was not love of liberty … which influenced me on this occasion … I have in the course of my life been under the malignant influence of other passions besides play'.

Apart from his writings Jorgenson's explorations in 1826-27 have been considered as the most permanent contributions of his Australian years. But the judgments and conclusions of his journals were questioned as early as 1829 and these doubts are now largely confirmed. As for Jorgenson's published works they were numerous and diverse, and included religious works, travelogues and histories.

There are two known likenesses of Jorgenson. The first, an oil painting by C. W. Eckersberg, probably done in 1808, is in the National Historical Museum, Hilleröd, Denmark. The second, a small grotesque-humorous oil painting in the National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik, is regarded as a self-portrait or self-caricature.

Select Bibliography

  • H. P. Briem, Sjálfstaedi Islands 1809 (Reykjavik, 1936)
  • R. Davies, Sea Urchin (Lond, 1940)
  • F. Clune and P. R. Stephensen, Viking of Van Diemen's Land (Syd, 1954), and for partial list of Jorgenson's publications
  • W. J. Hooker papers (Egerton MS, British Library)
  • Sir George Arthur papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • S. M. Franks, Land Exploration in Tasmania 1824-1842 (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1959)
  • CSO 1 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

James Dally, 'Jorgenson, Jorgen (1780–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jorgenson-jorgen-2282/text2935, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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