As her old friends died around her – King Billy, Mary-Ann – the grief of Trugernanna was terrible. And with her bereavement came the fear of what would happen to her body when she was gone. One day, she asked the reverend to sew her up in a bag with a rock inside it and have it thrown into the deepest part of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel when she was gone. Just to make sure.
Mr. and Mrs. Dandridge had become friends with Trugernanna at Oyster Bay and when the Aboriginal settlement closed there, they took her in. The year was 1869. Trugernanna suffered from chronic bronchitis, although she still smoked about a solid amount of tobacco. The Dandridges served her two pounds of meat per day, along with bread and vegetables. She drank the occasional ale, particularly savouring hot ginger beer in the evenings before bed.
Trugernanna had some degree of celebrity thrust upon her in these days. She met the Governor of the day, Charles Du Cane, who described her as ‘a very quaint looking little old lady’ who was shorter than four feet high ‘and much the same measure in breadth’. Trugernanna had a laugh at the expense of Governor Du Cane’s girth too, though. One day she laughed gleefully at him and announced to anyone listening, “This fellow, he too much jacket!”
Folks later remembered her from these last days sitting on the steps of the Dandridges’ house, turning the pages of illustrated London newspapers, or simply smoking her pipe and watching the world go by. But what Trugernanna’s true pleasure was to make excursions across the channel to her country, the north of Bruny Island, where she grew up. The childhood gambols on the beach – occasionally interrupted by the auspicious occasions of white sails drifting across the water – must have seemed like a dream, perhaps in another life; but Trugernanna was transported back to those times as she walked in the sand, collecting shells and seaweed on the isthmus or around Adventure Bay, camping in the bush there.
The physical transportation was the responsibility of John Strange Dandridge, who learned how to row in order to get the little old lady to her country. Mr. Dandridge had been the empathetic superintendent of the mission – a rare breed. Rowing was not his usual vocation. He was the son of an Oxford minister, who had married Matilda Prout, the daughter of one of Tasmania’s most significant artists.
It was Mrs. Dandridge who was with Trugernanna when she died. On May 3 1876, Trugernanna told Mrs. Dandridge that her family had appeared to her in a dream and that this meant she would soon die. The old woman had been crook for a while; for a few days she slipped in and out of consciousness, but on the evening of May 8, she cried out, “Rowra catch me!” Rowra was one of the powerful spirits of Trugernanna’s country. The end was near.
But on that day, she regained consciousness again for an hour or two; and in that final conversation with Mrs. Dandridge and her doctor, Trugernanna made one more plea for her body to be treated respectfully once she had died. “Don’t let them cut me, but bury me behind the mountains,” she begged.
She was instead buried in Hobart, and her body was exhumed after two years and placed on display at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
It was only a century after her death that her ashes were at last scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, which she had looked upon as a girl, too many years ago.
One writer remembers a night with Trugernanna by the river.
Last week we recounted 1982's famous World Ploughing Championships.