The Pirate King of Iceland

In 1809, a British merchant ship carrying the former Danish pirate Jørgen Jørgensen arrived in Iceland, a Danish dependency. The pirate overthrew the Danish governor without bloodshed and proclaimed himself king of an independent Iceland. Two months later, a British warship arrived, arrested Jørgensen, and restored the Danish governor – even though Denmark and Britain were at war! It’s a wild story, and it’s great material for your RPG campaign!

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Jørgensen’s privateer ship being captured by the British ship HMS Sappho

Jørgen Jørgensen came of age working on sailing ships all over the world. He even helped found Hobart, the Tasmanian capital. In 1807, as part of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain blockaded Copenhagen and bombarded the city. In retaliation, Jørgensen became a privateer. (So technically not a pirate, but talk about a distinction without a difference!) He enjoyed some success capturing merchant ships belonging to nations on the British side. In 1808 his ship was captured by the British warship HMS Sappho. As an officer, Jørgensen didn’t have to wait out the war locked in a prison hulk. Instead, he got to wander England as long as he promised not to leave the country. He met important people and made connections.

Jørgensen caught the attention of the merchant Samuel Phelps who had an ambitious scheme to help some people and make some money in the process. Far-off Iceland was in the midst of a famine. As a Danish dependency, only Danish and Norwegian ships (the two countries were not separate) were permitted to land there. And since Britain was at war with Denmark-Norway, Iceland’s ships were fair game for British raiders, as were ships bringing food to the beleaguered island. Phelps sought to outfit a ship, the Clarence, to bring food to Iceland, sell it in defiance of Danish law, help the people there, and make some cash. Jørgensen was just the sort of daring go-getter Phelps wanted to have along. This was also a violation of British law – Jørgensen couldn’t leave – but Phelps wasn’t bothered and neither was Jørgensen.

The Clarence reached tiny Reykjavik to find the ‘city’ of 300 permanent residents was populated almost entirely by Danish loyalists. These weren’t the starving farmers who both needed food and were willing to pay top dollar for it. They were the Danish merchants who profited off the status quo. Still, Jørgensen was willing to threaten violence and the Danish governor was out of town, so after a fair bit of intimidation, the merchants reluctantly agreed to break Danish law and buy Phelps’ food – albeit at prices too low for the expedition to turn a profit.

Phelps needed to recoup his losses, so he and Jørgensen organized a second expedition, this time using a ship named the Margaret and Ann that carried cannons. When the two returned to Reykjavik, they found the situation had changed. The Danish governor, Count Trampe, was back – and he was livid that anyone had done business with Phelps. He refused to let Phelps land any food. So Jørgensen prepared to do away with him.

On a Sunday morning, Jørgensen issued muskets to either eight or twelve sailors and landed in Reykjavik. Because it was Sunday, no one was in the streets. Jørgensen marched to the governor’s mansion unopposed. He stationed half his sailors before the mansion and half behind and gave the order they should shoot anyone who interrupted. He entered the house armed with a brace of pistols (if you’re gonna be a pirate, gotta embrace the classics) to find Count Trampe lounging on a sofa, too important for church. Jørgensen grabbed Trampe and marched him back to the Margaret and Ann. He seized the treasury (a single iron chest) and proclaimed himself King of Iceland. The Icelanders, milling about after leaving Sunday services, had no idea what to make of it.

The revolution concluded without firing a shot. Jørgensen later bragged in his memoirs that “I am not aware… that any revolution in the annals of nations was ever more adroitly, more harmlessly, or more decisively effected than this.” He was not a modest man. Regardless of how popular or unpopular Jørgensen’s takeover may have been with the starving farmers in the hinterlands, the Danish loyalists in Reykjavik couldn’t do anything as long as they were under the guns of the Margaret and Ann.

King Jørgen issued several decrees. He declared that Icelanders did not have to pay debts owed to Danes. He raised the pay of the Icelandic clergy, presumably to earn their approval at the pulpit. He instituted a new flag: three white stockfish on a blue background. He tried to restore the Althing, the old Icelandic parliament. He subsidized the sale of grain to lower prices. And he ended the Danish monopoly on trade. While his rhetorical style started out in an American or French style, with lots of references to democracy and liberty, his tone grew more monarchical. It was like what France saw under Napoleon, only greatly sped up. Small wonder from a guy who declared himself “His Excellency, the Protector of Iceland, Commander in Chief by Land and Sea”

The flag of Iceland under King Jørgen Jørgensen

Two months later, a British warship arrived in Reykjavik: HMS Talbot under the command of Alexander Jones. It’s not clear to me whether Jones was chasing Jørgensen or if this visit was just chance. Though Britain and Denmark-Norway were at war, Jones was freaked out by the idea of some random prisoner fleeing British law and overthrowing the lawful ruler of Iceland. Count Trampe somehow managed to get aboard Talbot to talk to Jones and told him a story of persecution and woe. Jones arrested Jørgensen for violating his parole and took him back to London.

Since there was no more need for the Margaret and Ann to remain in Reykjavik harbor to intimidate the town, Phelps raised her anchor and sailed after the Talbot. In Iceland, Phelps had purchased a great deal of oil and tallow. And wouldn’t you know it, the Margaret and Ann caught fire! Jøorgensen sailed out in a small boat from the Talbot and rescued the crew and passengers from the Margaret and Ann. But the cargo was lost and Phelps returned to London bankrupt.

Jørgensen went on to have lots more adventures. He was a spy, a gunboat seaman, an author, a newspaper editor, a prospector, and thrown in jail multiple times. He was forcibly transported to Tasmania for breaking another parole. There, he spent time as a prisoner in Hobart – the very town he’d helped found – and died penniless, the “convict king of Tasmania”.

Jørgen Jørgensen

When using a fictionalized Jørgensen at your table, the obvious application is that this dude is a PC. If you want, you can drop your party in some starving backwater dependency of a second-rate power squeezing its tiny population and see if the party can be as clever as Jørgensen. Drop some hints (“Hey, it looks like everyone’s at the fire festival, but you don’t see the governor anywhere…”) and see if they take the bait.

Another great use is to treat an NPC based on Jørgensen as a complication! Once again the PCs are in some starving backwater etc. on an unrelated mission. Maybe they need to talk to a merchant about a rare book in his collection or find the macguffin buried in the alien ruins under the spaceport. It’s all pretty straightforward – until this reformed pirate (or reformed bandit or whatever) with a massive ego and dreams of democracy arrives in town and easily overthrows the existing order. Force the PCs to engage with this – maybe the spaceport is off-limits now, or the merchant is under arrest. Do they get in with your Jørgensen-analogue and do him favors to get on his good side? Do they flatter him but keep their options open? And what do they do when the law arrives unexpectedly to put an end to his short-lived kingdom?

Next week, we’re going to talk about a concept from near the end of Jørgensen’s life: the forcible transport of convicts to Tasmania. We’ll look at it through the shocking and thrilling lens of the wreck of a convict ship off the Tasmanian coast!

I maintain a bed in a community garden near my house. It’s now July, which means it’s finally the time in the year where I can get fresh vegetables from my own plot. It’s not much, but it’s a great joy. This year I’m growing tomatoes (which are thriving), black beans, green beans (which the rabbits seem to love even more than I do), bell peppers, jalapeños, and parsnips.

When you get a bed in a community garden, the reason that bed is available is because its previous user abandoned it. If they abandoned it, that means they didn’t take care of it, so God only knows what problems you’re inheriting. I inherited soil infested with bacterial leaf spot, a tomato disease. To slow the spread, I have to prune the lower leaves of the tomato plants, giving them a weird tree-like look (left side of the image above). It’s a hassle, but to quote Guy Clark: “Only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.” In a few more weeks, they’ll start to ripen and summer can truly begin. What a pleasure it is to be alive!

Looking for material for your game tonight? My back catalog has hundreds of great posts, all searchable and filterable so you can find something from real history or folklore that fits exactly what you need! Posts older than a year are behind a very cheap paywall – only $2/month!


Vanished Fleets: Ships and Men of Old Van Diemen’s Land by Alan Villiers (1931)
Reading Museum. Jørgen Jørgensen: the King of Iceland. (2022)

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