The seafaring and piratical activities of medieval Vikings are legendary but no 9th Century Norseman sailed so far, or led such a varied life, as Jorgen Jorgenson. Though he was born in Copenhagen (in 1780) the 15 year old Dane first went to sea aboard a British ship and he spent the next four years travelling to the remote corners of Britain’s growing empire. In 1799 he sailed to Cape Town and in 1800 he visited Port Jackson (Sydney) in Australia and Ridson Cove in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).

The young Jorgenson was also something of a scholar who corresponded with such scientific luminaries as the botanist Joseph Banks but his cordial relationship with the British soured during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1807 he witnessed the Second Battle of Copenhagen, during which his home city was bombarded by a British fleet, and soon afterwards he joined the Danish Navy. In 1808 Jorgenson fought a battle with HMS Sappho but he was defeated, captured and taken to England.

Though he was a prisoner Jorgenson was not imprisoned. In return for giving his parole (a solemn promise not to escape) he was allowed to go where he pleased and in 1809 he formed a scheme with several British businessmen to trade with Iceland. At first Jorgenson’s intentions were peaceful but this approach failed because Iceland was a colony of Denmark and the Danish governor was, unsurprisingly, loathe to trade with the British. Undeterred Jorgenson tried again.

In the summer of 1810 Jorgenson returned and, with the help of his largely British crew, led a coup d’état which deposed Iceland's Danish governor. After declaring independence, Jorgenson gave himself the title of Protector and though he insisted that Iceland was now a republic in the image of the United States of America he was soon christened the Dog Days’ King* by the sceptical Icelanders. The British, who were still fighting Revolutionary France, also took a dim view of Jorgenson’s republican ideals and sent HMS Talbot to arrest him. The maverick Dane was duly captured and returned to England but Jorgenson was charged with breaking his parole not with staging a revolution!

Jorgenson spent a year in prison but this was not the end of his adventures. Following his release from jail in 1811 he began to drink and incurred enormous debts. To escape his creditors he fled to Spain but on his ill-advised return to England he was immediately cast into a debtor’s prison. In desperation Jorgenson contacted the British Foreign Office and volunteered his services as a spy; incredibly he was recruited, released and sent to France.

This latter day Viking continued to work for British intelligence until 1820 when, once again, he was imprisoned for debt and theft. This time Jorgenson was facing the death penalty but his valuable work as a spy meant that the sentence was commuted to transportation for life. In 1826, a quarter of a century after his first visit, Jorgenson found himself back in Tasmania but once again he earned his release by acting as a spy for the authorities.

After breaking up a forgery racket, Jorgenson was given a conditional release (known as a ticket of leave) and he led several expeditions to explore the island’s interior. Sadly, there is some evidence to suggest that he took part in the infamous war that exterminated Tasmania’s aboriginal peoples. Jorgensen married an Irish convict named Norah Corbett in 1831 and was granted a full pardon in 1835. Though he could now leave Tasmania, he chose to remain and he died there in 1841.

*Dog Days – an ancient term referring to the hot summer months when Sirius (the Dog Star in the constellation Canis Major) is visible in the night sky.

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