By Sarah Bakewell
This is the true story of Jorgen Jorgenson (originally Jørgen Jørgensen), a nineteenth-century Danish adventurer who ran away to sea at fourteen and began a brilliant career by sailing to establish the first colony in Tasmania.
Twists of fortune then found him captaining a warship for Napoleon before joining a British trading voyage to Iceland, where he staged an outrageous coup and ruled the country for two months as Protector. He founded his own army of native Icelanders (eight of them), designed a new flag featuring three cod against a blue ocean background, and declared the country independent from its colonial ruler, Denmark.
The revolution was overturned by the British, who sent Jorgenson back to London as a prisoner. More escapades followed, from confinement in violent prison hulks to patronage by Joseph Banks and travels in Europe as a spy. But Jorgenson was dogged by his own excesses, and ended up transported as a convict to Tasmania - the very colony he had helped to found. Here he reinvented himself as an explorer, and, despite his sympathy for the people, was caught up in the terrible Aboriginal clearances, about which he wrote vividly in the last years of his life.
The English Dane tells the story of Jorgenson’s life, and uses his own manuscripts and letters to build up a portrait of an unforgettable character living in fascinating times.
Chatto & Windus 2005. ISBN: 0701173408
Vintage paperback 2006. ISBN: 0099438062
Buy Icelandic edition from Bóksala Stúdenta (Iceland)
Buy English edition from Saxo (Denmark)
To buy in the U.K. or elsewhere, please click on Amazon link (above right)
“Sarah Bakewell tells this dramatic story with pace and clarity ... hugely readable.” The Times Literary Supplement.
“Precise, amusing and intriguing." The Daily Telegraph.
“An almost flawless portrait of a man in tune with his times but overwhelmed by them.” The Australian.
“Her account of the world encountered by Jorgenson is as rich and nuanced as her description of his life, as his story becomes a way of exploring the changing reality of the early 19th century.” The Independent.
“Such zest propels the prose that one is enthralled by Jorgenson’s rise and fall, and moved by Bakewell’s vivid portrait of a man whose flaws bulldozed his talents at all the wrong moments.” The Daily Telegraph (paperback).
“Sarah Bakewell has a fine story to tell, and she is its skilled servant ... wonderful, intelligently told.” Thomas Keneally, The Guardian (Book of the Week, 16 April 2005).
Early on the second day out from Reykjavík, at about six or seven o’clock in the morning, the passengers on the Margaret & Anne woke to the smell of burning. They ran out on deck, and there saw thick smoke billowing out of the hatchways. Panic ensued. The ship was so overloaded that the boats would not have taken all the passengers, and in any case the crew could not launch them properly in the rough seas. Sheets and sails were wetted and thrown over the flames, but the fire devoured them. All on board faced a terrifying death: a choice between burning or drowning.
Just as the passengers were losing hope, they saw a welcome sight: the sails of the other vessel, the Orion, rising over the horizon. While those on the Margaret & Anne continued fighting the flames and trying to launch its boats, the Orion made its way alongside, and Jorgenson himself leaped aboard the burning ship.
According to Jorgenson’s own account, nothing had been done properly by those “two boobies”, the Captain and First Mate of the Margaret & Anne. They hadn’t worked the pump or applied proper hoses to put out the flames, and they had made a mess of evacuating the ship. “All was consternation and dismay. Nothing was attempted, and even the boats were not hoisted out. Twenty minutes more, and all would be too late.” It was already too late to extinguish the blaze, but Jorgenson immediately set the crew to work launching boats and rescuing the passengers and crew; he even managed to remove the various cats, dogs and sheep on board. “When I saw all living creatures secure from harm I left the vessel, and took them on board the Orion.”
Jorgenson’s account might seem arrogant, but the naturalist W.J. Hooker – always willing to give credit to others - was in no doubt that he had saved their lives, and he praised Jorgenson as their single, fearless rescuer, a whir of activity who helped everyone across to the other ship in relays.
Most of the passengers’ possessions were lost, except what they could carry. Hooker lost almost everything, including his natural history specimens and most of his journals. But he knew they were lucky to be alive. “We were but too happy to escape with our lives and with the clothes upon our backs, and even for this we were ... indebted to the extraordinary exertions of Mr. Jorgenson at a time when nearly the whole of the ship’s crew seemed paralysed with fear.” Jorgenson was the man of the hour. This was typical of him. In a crisis he revealed himself to be a cool thinker and a man of almost crazed courage. It was only in the ordinary business of life that he tended to make wrong choices and go to pieces; in emergencies he knew how to act.
Just as they had all reached safety, the wind fell, so the Orion was becalmed and had to stay watching the final slow destruction of the Margaret & Anne for the rest of the day. The flammable cargo of wool, tallow and oil kept the ship burning for many hours, the wool acting as wicks, and the oil and tallow as fuel - the whole thing became one giant lamp. As it burned, the ship’s guns started going off, nearly shooting the Orion. As Jorgenson remembered: “what with the crackling of the masts, the firing of the guns, the sails burning fiercely, the sight was truly sublime”. Hooker described how the burning tallow and oil boiled over and ran in cataracts of fire down the sides of the vessel; the clouds of smoke were greater than the steam from Iceland’s Geyser.
Even after the breeze got up and ushered the Orion away in the evening, they could still see the Margaret & Anne burning from miles away. Its copper bottom floated on the water “like an immense burning cauldron, long after the shades of night had come on.”