The English Dane

By Sarah Bakewell
2.3.2009
Words by Ian Watson
On 25 June 1809, the Danish governor of Iceland, Frederik Trampe, was arrested in his home on Aðalstræti in Reykjavík, marched under armed guard to the harbour, and imprisoned on the British ship Margaret & Anne. The next day Iceland was proclaimed free and independent of Denmark, and Jørgen Jørgensen, a Dane who had lived for some years in England, was appointed acting governor. Chapters four and five of The English Dane, a fine biography of Jørgen Jørgensen, tell the story of his brief “reign” as protector of Iceland in 1809. I had only a vague knowledge of the story, and had been under the mistaken impression that Jørgensen was some kind of deranged sailor who acted alone in proclaiming himself sovereign of an unprotected Iceland. In fact, there was a whole group of adventurers involved, Jørgensen was not even necessarily the ringleader, and no less prominent a figure than Sir Joseph Banks was in on the plan. The episode had not only to do with the power vacuum in Iceland after the Danish military was disabled in 1807, but also with British interests in breaking the Danish trade monopoly in Iceland. Jørgensen lived an eventful life. He was born in Copenhagen in 1780, into a well-connected Danish watchmaking family. He had already sailed around the world on British ships before his Icelandic caper. Afterwards, he spent several unhappy years in Britain, ending in bankruptcy, a theft conviction for pawning his landlady’s mattress, and ultimately, in 1826, transport as a convict to Tasmania. There he worked as a police constable, what we would now call a freelance journalist, and as a hired explorer, mapping trails through the wilderness of western Tasmania. Jørgensen is a troubled figure, swinging between debt, depression, drink, and gambling on the one hand and great energy, generosity, organisational skill, and prolific writing on the other. He had a talent for messing up his life, and sometimes my stomach churned with embarrassment at the scrapes he got himself into. There are many high points, such as the banquet he attended on Viðey island on 27 June 1809, and many low points, not least his narrow escape from a death sentence. The book is meticulously researched and referenced, but all the footnotes are kept out of the text and the narrative is pretty lively and fast-moving. A few sections may go into a bit too much detail for the casual reader, but overall this book, which is also available in an Icelandic translation, gets my thumbs up.

Most recent art and cultures articles:

From our sponsors