Field Guide to Falling in Love in Tasmania

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  • Wauba, known as Wauba Debar

    Wauba, known as Wauba Debar

    In those days, it was common for the sealers and whalers to kidnap a few ‘gins’ to take with them – the black women weren’t only kidnapped to be used as paramours, but they were hunters and fishers and divers too. But late at night, they could escape from beneath the blankets they shared with the seafaring drunks who had taken them, and they could steal the kangaroo-dogs too. It was said that the Aborigines had a singular power to win the loyalty of the dogs: no small advantage in those days.

    Wauba had been taken, I suppose, in the same way – not by her own volition, and not without violence. What possesses a slave to save the life of her master, then? Is it love when a native girl is married against her will, and then goes and rescues him?

    There were three of them on that sealing vessel when the squall appeared on the east coast waters. The boat went under; the two men were poor swimmers, and looked set to drown beneath the mountainous grey waves. Wauba could have left them to drown, and swam ashore on her own. But she didn’t. First, she pulled her husband under her arm – the man who had first captured her – and dragged him back to shore, more than a kilometre away. Wauba next swam back out to the other man, and brought him in as well. The two sealers coughed and spluttered on the Bicheno beach, but they did not die. Wauba had saved them.

    Only a couple of years later, in 1832, Wauba died in another storm near Flinders Island. In 1855, ‘a few of her White friends’ erected a gravestone for Wauba Debar at Bicheno (pictured above), in memoriam of her heroic deeds. The surname is of the man she saved: her husband. Wauba’s bones are not beneath the gravestone, though. Her skeleton was taken for science, like those of many Aborigines, and is now probably lost.

    This is all that is known of Wauba Debar’s forty years of life.