Friday, July 26, 2013

The Dog Days King of Iceland

The hot, lazy days of late July and early August have been known since ancient times as "the dog days".  Although you can easily imagine a languid dog sleeping in the heat the name actually comes from  the Romans.  The hottest time of the year was also a time of sickness, which they felt to be under the influence of the star Sirius, largest in the constellation Canis Major (the large dog).

When double checking a few facts on the matter of "dog days" I encountered a remarkable biography, one I could not resist investigating further.  Here then is the bizarre tale of the "Dog Days King of Iceland".

Jorgen Jorgenson did not have a happy childhood.  Although quite bright he did poorly in school and was expelled at age 14.  Although he was Danish it was arranged that he would go to sea on an English merchant ship.  After the fashion of such times he was caught up by a press gang that delightful method of staffing the British Royal Navy by simply grabbing trained sailors from seaside taverns or directly off of their ships.

He spent a number of years in the South Seas, visiting Australia and New Zealand, before returning to his homeland just in time to witness first hand the Battle of Copenhagen in which Admiral Horatio Nelson attacked the anchored Danish-Norse fleet.  As there was no formal declaration of war involved, the phrase "to Copenhagen" was a term for a surprise attack long before Pearl Harbor came along historically.

Jorgenson was soon given command of a small naval vessel that sailed for France, but was captured by a British ship.  He was put "on parole", which mostly consisted of hanging around in England with nothing much to do.

News came to him that Iceland was short of food.  He talked a merchant into funding a single ship expedition to trade with Iceland.  His first attempt failed.  Despite flying false colors as an American ship, his vessel was determined to be British.  Probably noticing the current state of hostilities the Danish governor of Iceland refused to let any trading occur.

Returning to England the irrepressible Jorgenson launched another trade mission to Iceland, this time with two ships.  The Flora and the Margaret and Anne reached Iceland in June of 1809.

At this point the goings on start to sound like a cheaply written comic opera.

The governor of the island, Count Trampe, would still not permit trading.  So on Sunday when most of the population was in church, Jorgenson and his sailors surrounded the governor's house and arrested him.  Jorgenson proclaimed himself "His Excellency, the Protector of Iceland, Commander in Chief by Land and Sea".  Taxes were remitted.  Danish property given away. The salaries of clergy were increased.  There were promises of peace and cheap food.

It all was going so very well until a British ship turned up in August and deposed Jorgenson.  As his brief reign corresponded to the Dog Days of Summer he is remembered in Iceland as The Dog Days King.  It should also be noted that late summer in the newspaper business was once called The Silly Season, and this sort of tale would fit right in.

I recommend those interested in the later adventures of Jorgen Jorgenson to peruse this remarkable biographical sketch.  For those short of time I will simply say that his later career was no less eccentric.  At various times he was imprisoned for breaking parole, for bad debts and for pawning his land lady's furniture.  He found intermittent employ as a spy, an author, a surveyor, an editor, a drunkard and in one remarkable instance a rather successful ship's surgeon.  (While being shipped as a convict to Australia he was assistant to the ship's doctor.  When said individual died Jorgen just took over the job).

Once established in Tasmania, then called Van Diemen's Land, he served in the police force with some gallantry against the "Bushrangers", convicts who had gone into the wild as bandits.  Probably he was less gallant in action during The Black War, a genocidal campaign against the aboriginal inhabitants.

Oh, and he also married an ex-convict woman named Deborah Carbon in 1831, and managed to write two volumes of his autobiography before his death in 1841.

Two volumes was probably not enough.

More on The Dog Days King here.

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