Jørgen Iversen: A rough life as the first Governor on St. Thomas

The first years of the Danish colonization of the West Indies was a rough period. Danish Jørgen Iversen was the first Governor of St. Thomas and ruled the island with an iron fist. However, he ended his life at the bottom of the sea – thrown overboard during a mutiny.
Contemporary broadsheet telling the story of the dramatic voyage of “Havmanden”.
Contemporary broadsheet telling the story of the dramatic voyage of “Havmanden” and the conviction and execution of the mutineers in Copenhagen in 1683 (The Royal Library).

Jørgen Iversen was born in 1638. As a very young man, he travelled in the 1650s to the West Indies as an indentured servant. Here, he soon entered into a partnership with English and Dutch merchants. In 1671, the Danish West India Company wanted to colonize the uninhabited St. Thomas, and Iversen was appointed Governor. In May 1672, he arrived on the deserted tropical island with a small group of settlers. It was a motley crew with quite a few convicts and “immoral women” whom the authorities in Denmark had seen fit to dispose of in this fashion. They ran up the Danish flag and started building a fort, clearing the dense vegetation, and cultivating the island. Lumber became one of the most important exports in the early days. Later came cultivation of tobacco, cotton, and the sought-after sugar as well. New settlers came along, most from the other Caribbean islands and many of them Dutch.

Fort Christian, new road, and establishment of commerce

To keep this motley crew in check, Jørgen Iversen dispensed very strict justice, especially concerning the enslaved laborers, who from the very beginning were an indispensable part of the work force. One individual had his foot chopped off after an attempted escape. There were only a few Europeans on the island, and mortality was high. Thus, Iversen had to assume a colossal workload himself, primarily office duties but also pastoral duties and many other practical tasks. He also operated plantations and private commerce himself. Iversen met quite a lot of opposition from other plantation owners and he began to develop a drinking problem. Still, Iversen managed to get Fort Christian built, build a road with surrounding plantations, and establish commerce with the surrounding islands. In 1680, a weary Iversen travelled home to Denmark.

The mutiny of “Havmanden”

Iversen’s replacement as Governor turned out to be incompetent, and Iversen was persuaded to travel back out to govern the colony. But the trip out there became the end of Iversen. Along the way, a mutiny erupted among the crew and convicts on the ship “Havmanden”, and Iversen and several of the ship’s officers were killed and thrown overboard. The mutineers later stranded on the Swedish coast. The nine ringleaders were executed in Copenhagen as a deterrent.