The Dog-Days King

Jørgen Jørgensen, the Dog-Days King
1780 - 1841
There are a lot of blogs out there about Iceland, and foreigners’ experiences in Iceland. All the obvious names are taken. So I had to go with something a little more obscure. On first inspection ‘The Dog-Days Queen’ might seem to you an inexplicable choice which has nothing to do with Iceland. But that is because you are probably not as cool as I am.

Basically, the blog is named for my favourite character from Icelandic history, and very possibly my favourite character from all history: Jørgen Jørgensen.  In 1809, with a winning blend of optimistic naivety and megalomania, he staged the most charmingly farcical revolution ever and declared Iceland independent of Denmark, naming himself sole ruler and protector. It’s a great story. He was a Dane himself, then a prisoner of war on parole in Britain after being captured by the British navy at the battle of Copenhagen (1807). He suggested to his friend Samuel Phelps, a soap-merchant, that lucrative trading and cheap tallow could be had in Iceland. Thanks to the trade monopoly, you see, and the fact that the dastardly Danes were too busy trying not to die in the Napoleonic Wars to bother sending ships to Iceland, the Icelanders were in desperate need of essential imported goods (like food). However, this trade monopoly, and the fact that Britain was still at war with Denmark, made things a bit awkward.

Phelps and Jørgensen’s first trip to Iceland was a complete failure, but in 1809 the two set off together in the Margaret & Anne for another try (along with the naturalist William Jackson Hooker, incidentally, who was off to Iceland to look at plants and rocks). On their arrival in Reykjavík the Danish governor, one Count Trampe, warned the Icelanders that breaching the monopoly and trading with the visitors would be punishable by death. Four days later Phelps and Jørgensen arrested (or abducted) Trampe and bundled him aboard the Margaret & Anne, where he was kept prisoner for nearly two months. Phelps, who mostly wanted to get on with his trading, put Jørgensen in charge of the uprising. Conceiving of himself in the mould of a French revolutionary, Jørgensen issued a proclamation. The first point was: “All Danish authority is ended in Iceland”. Other points commanded Danes, and agents representing them, to stay in their houses, forbidden to communicate with each other. All weapons, all keys to public and private warehouses and all money claimed by the king of Denmark were to be surrendered. He assured the Icelanders that this was all for their own good, and that so long as they complied with his instructions they could expect to be treated in the best possible way. A few proclamations later and he was writing “that we, Jörgen Jörgensen, have taken to us the rule of the land as its representative, until a regular government is decided, with full power to make war and negotiate peace with foreign rulers”. The whole thing clearly appealed to Jørgensen's sense of romanticism, and stoked his undeniable egomania. Meanwhile Phelps was in charge of defending the new republic, and had set up a fort (with six rusty cannon), over which flew the new flag designed by Jørgensen - three white cod on a blue field.

Cod flag
My favourite part of the story is that all this was met with stark indifference on the part of the Icelanders. By the 1840s and 50s the Icelandic independence movement was in full swing, but the Icelanders of 1809 could hardly have cared less. They did not, as Jørgensen seemed to believe they would, gratefully embrace their freedom and join with him, their heroic liberator, to form a new Icelandic government. They just went about their daily lives and mostly ignored him. He did manage to rustle up a small army. A very small army. It consisted of a few inmates of Reykjavík prison (in a sort of parody of the storming of the Bastille, Jørgensen had released the prisoners) and two bored farmers who apparently had nothing else on, bringing him up to a grand total of eight. Of course the end of this revolution, if so it can be called, was inevitable. Another British ship came to Hafnarfjörður two months after Jørgensen had seized power. The crew heard what had happened, liberated the no doubt apoplectic Count Trampe, informed the Icelanders that all Jørgensen's proclamations were void, and took the whole mess back to Britain to sort things out. Jørgensen was sentenced to prison for a year, not for his misdemeanour in Iceland but for breaking his parole.

Count Trampe: Furious
All this took place in high summer, the so-called dog-days. Jørgensen has been known to the Icelanders ever since as Jörundur hundadagakonungur (Jörundur the Dog-Days King). Now I’m not saying that my plan on arrival in Iceland is to take Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson prisoner, put him on a boat and declare myself ruler of Iceland, but I do strangely admire Jørgensen. The rest of his life, by the way, was not uneventful. The man had so many adventures it beggars belief.

According to the entry by James Dally in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (oh yeah, he ended up as a famous local 'character' in Tasmania, married to a violent, alcoholic convict from Ireland):
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 [...] He would merit little attention had not the whole formless, headlong rush of his life been marked by such wild spirit.
What a hero.

For more information on Jørgensen, see the article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. I can also whole-heartedly recommend Sarah Bakewell's biography of him, The English Dane, first published 2005.

1 comment:

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