Palawa people were prolific in numbers before white colonisation in Tasmania. The women especially, were superb swimmers and divers, having a special affinity with the ocean. They lived productive lives, hunting for what they needed from the sea.
All this changed when seal hunters arrived on the Tasmanian coastlines in the late 18th century. The fur trade was a lucrative one, so much so that seal populations were nearly destroyed after two decades of intense hunting.
Wauba Debar's grave at Bicheno, Tasmania. Photo Tirin
The seal hunters also had an impact on the local Palawa women, making it a habit to kidnap them for their personal use. Wauba Debar was from Oyster Bay's Paredarerme tribe and was one of the women stolen from her people to be made a slave to a seal hunter.
Slavery was still legal in the British Empire so random attacks on Indigenous groups, known as 'gin-raiding', were seen as commonplace. Wauba ended up with one hunter who was known as her husband.
It was a trip out on a boat on rough waters that saw Wauba's expertise come to light. Both she, her husband and another sealer had gone out to sea but the boat sank in the bad conditions. Both men were poor swimmers and were on the verge of drowning. Wauba could have left them there as she was able to swim to shore, but she chose to save them.
Wauba grabbed her husband and dragged him back to shore - a kilometre away. She then went back in the water and brought the second man in as well. Was it love? Was it honour that saw her save the lives of her captors? We may never know, but they survived.
Unfortunately, there was no one to rescue Wauba when she died, possibly at the hands of some sealers on a whaleboat sailing from Hobart to the Straits Islands. She was buried at Bicheno and her grave marked by a slab of wood with details carved on it.
But Wauba's story didn't end there. Today if you visit the spot where she was buried, you will find a white gated headstone that reads:
of Van Diemen's Land
Died June 1832
Aged 40 years
This stone is erected by
A few of her white friends
The headstone was paid for by public subscription. The problem is, Wauba's body no longer lies where she was buried. In 1893, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery dug up her remains in its quest to learn more about Aboriginal people. With the death of Truganini in 1876 and the belief that the Tasmanian Aboriginal people had died out, the bones of Indigenous people were becoming harder to find and study.
Locals were disgusted at this disrespect to one of their own and despite the local municipal council fighting for her right to remain buried, a news paper of the time, The Bendigo Independent, claimed the law wasn't interested in a person after death unless they were wearing clothes, as there is legal value in the garments.
'And as nobody could be found to prove that Wauba Debar wore clothes when she was despatched to the Museum, it is quite probable that no claim on her could be sustained.' said the paper.
And so Wauba stayed in her glass container, alongside the remains of others of her race until 1990 when her remains were returned to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community and cremated.
Despite the site being empty, locals still tend her grave and snowdrops are said to bloom there every spring.
'Hidden women of history: Wauba Debar, an indigenous swimmer from Tasmania who saved her captors', The Conversation, accessed online May 27th, 2021, Hidden women of history: Wauba Debar, an Indigenous swimmer from Tasmania who saved her captors (theconversation.com)
'Gruesome proceedings with an Aboriginal's remains', The Bendigo Independent, Saturday 23 September 1893, Page 2
'Wabau Debar's gravestone - 1855', Bicheno History Trail, the sign at the site of Wauba Debar's grave in Bicheno.