Iceland celebrates its national day on the 17th of June, the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, one of the heroes of the Icelandic independence movement. Independence Day itself is the 1st of December, when the 1918 Act of Union with Denmark recognised Iceland as a sovereign state in its own right. It was in 1944, with Denmark occupied by Germany, that Iceland dumped the Danish monarchy and became a republic.
But it could have been so different. Iceland’s national day could have been the 26th of June, or even the 11th of July, if Iceland’s short-lived and largely forgotten revolution had been successful.
In 1808 a Danish adventurer by the name of Jørgen Jørgensen washed up in Iceland. He had already had a colourful career, having joined the British navy as a young man and had sailed as the mate of a whaler and skipper of a sealing ship, before becoming caught up in the war between Denmark and England during which he and his ship were taken captive.
The British allowed him free on parole, while he was seen as a traitor in his native Denmark for allowing his ship to be captured. The paroled Jørgensen convinced an English soap merchant, Samuel Phelps, that he had connections in Iceland, and sailed from Liverpool to Hafnarfjördur where he found that in spite of the dearth of provisions due to the war and no Danish ship having come to Iceland, the law that forbade trade with foreigners was enforced. The ship returned to England, but the following year, undeterred, Jørgensen sailed with a second expedition, this time from Gravesend in a ship called the Anne & Margaret.
The Danish governor in Iceland, Count Trampe, had recently seen a British warship depart, having promised its commanding officer that Jørgensen and Phelps (who had this time joined his own expedition) would be able to trade. But when the Anne & Margaret dropped anchors off Reykjavík in June 1809, Trampe still refused to allow them to do business.
To begin with, Iceland’s brief revolution was less about ideals and freedom than it was about soap, as Phelps’s interest was to buy tallow to manufacture soap. Jørgensen had Count Trampe arrested and incarcerated on board the Anne & Margaret, while he issued a proclamation of his own on the 26th of June, eleven clauses that were posted on walls in Reykjavík, stating that weapons should be handed in to the new authority and that the people of Iceland should not engage in trade or business with Denmark.
On the 11th of July, Jørgen Jørgensen issued a further proclamation, signing it as ‘Alls Íslands Verndari og Hæstráðandi til Sjós og Lands’ – ‘All Iceland’s Protector and Supreme Authority by Sea and Land.’ He pledged to reinstate Iceland’s Parliament, the Althing, just as soon as Icelanders could govern themselves, and designed a new national flag, a blue background decorated with three pearly-white split salt cod, which was Iceland’s chief export.
The intention was to establish a liberal republic, much in the image of those emerging in north America and parts of Europe, but the party was short-lived. Icelanders clearly had little appetite for revolution and the fervour for independence was still a generation or two away.
In August HMS Talbot returned to Iceland and Captain Jones had little sympathy for the revolutionaries. Jørgensen returned to the Anne & Margaret, from which Trampe had managed to make his escape, while ashore Jørgensen’s proclamations were publicly annulled. Anne & Margaret (now with Trampe on board) and Trampe’s ship, Orion, with Jørgensen on board, were dispatched to England and sailed south until Orion’s crew, prisoners on board the Anne & Margaret, set fire to the ship, which was lost in spite of Jørgensen’s valiant attempts to save it.
Returning to Reykjavík, Phelps and Jørgensen again set sailed in the Orion for London and Trampe was taken against his will to England on board HMS Talbot, arriving in England two weeks later, when Jørgensen was arrested for having broken his parole rather than for having started a revolution in Iceland.
This didn’t improve for him. There was a spell in prison hulk and he was released in 1811. He drank to excess, gambled to even greater excess, racked up some magnificent debts and was thrown back into prison when angry creditors caught up with him after he returned from travelling to Spain and Portugal. He even served in intelligence and spent much time in France and Germany towards the end of the Napoleonic wars and despite being well paid by the British for his efforts, he was repeatedly forced to flee gambling debts across Europe until he wound up once again in England and eventually found himself in Newgate prison. He was released on condition that he leave England, but delayed his departure until he was again arrested and sent back to Newgate where he narrowly escaped a sentence of death.
This time he had to go and was transported to New South Wales and from there to Van Diemen’s Land, now better known as Tasmania, where he spent the rest of his life in the colony he had been involved in establishing.
Ironically, as a young seaman he had been one of the crew of the Lady Nelson that had established that a strait separated Australia from Tasmania, and had sailed as the Lady Nelson’s mate when it was used to transport prisoners from England to Van Diemen’s Land.
He married an Irish woman who had also been transported, served as a police officer for a while, and drank, was pardoned at some point on the condition that he never returned to England, but stayed in Tasmania and died in Hobart in January 1841.
Jørgen Jørgensen’s revolution in Iceland and his modern liberal society had lasted a mere two months during the summer of 1809, at just this time of year. He’s still remembered fondly in Iceland as Jörundur Hundadagakónungur, Jørgen the Dog-Day King, as his reign lasted just the short time that the dog star is bright in the night sky.
It makes you wonder what could have happened if there had been a greater desire for independence among Icelanders at the time; or if HMS Talbot’s commanding officer, who could presumably have done so, had decided to uphold the revolutionaries’ position. England was, after all, at war with Denmark at the time. Could it have been disapproval of the idea of a French-style republic that would have been anathema to a loyal officer of the King? Or did he have another reason for cutting short the experiment with independence? Could Iceland have been an independent republic in its own right more than a century earlier? It’s easy to speculate, and it’s an interesting notion that Icelanders could be celebrating their independence on the anniversary of Jørgen Jørgensen’s proclamation instead of on Jón Sigurðsson’s birthday – and that the Icelandic flag might have looked something like this: