Inventing a Colonial Dark History: The Derby Boab 'Prison' Tree

Grant, E. and Harman, K. (2017). Inventing a colonial dark history: the Derby Boab 'Prison' Tree, In Wilson, J., Hodgkinson, S. Piché, J. and Walby, K. (eds). Palgrave Handbook of Prison Tourism, London: Palgrave McMillan: 735-759.

25 Pages Posted: 7 Jun 2017

See all articles by Elizabeth Grant

Elizabeth Grant

University of Queensland - Indigenous Design Place; University of Canberra - Faculty of Arts and Design

Kristyn Harman

University of Tasmania

Date Written: May 30, 2017

Abstract

A large hollow boab known as the “prison tree” just outside the small town of Derby in Western Australia is a major tourist attraction, visited by thousands of people annually. It is represented as a historic site, where Aboriginal people were incarcerated for opposing “heroic” European pastoralists attempting to found a modern Australia. To understand the “prison tree,” it is vital to comprehend the impact on the Aboriginal traditional owners of the expansion of pastoralism to the Kimberley region in the 1880s and 1890s. Within European concepts of exclusive use of land, Aboriginal people were driven from their lands, forced to work on the newly established stations, incarcerated or killed.1 Aboriginal people resisted pastoral settlement by burning pastures and livestock and by making spearheads of glassand iron to fight police and pastoralists. Deprived of traditional food sources, Aboriginal people killed sheep brought in by the settlers. A series of droughts and the introduction of cattle compounded conflict between white settlers and Aboriginal people of the region.

One of the roles of the police force was to protect Aboriginal people from exploitative colonisation. At the same time, police were expected to prosecute those who interfered with property or stock in what became known as “depredations.” Following complaints from pastoralists, police travelled often for hundreds of miles over several weeks to arrest alleged offenders. The Aboriginal “offenders,” regularly accompanied by Aboriginal witnesses, were chained by the neck (Harman and Grant 2014) and marched back to either Halls Creek or Wyndham (and later Derby) gaols, with police purportedly utilising boab trees located outside of Wyndham and Derby as temporary prisons for their Aboriginal captives while en route to the townships.

The chapter calls into question claims that the boab tree on the outskirts of Derby was once used as a temporary prison for Aboriginal prisoners. It examines Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal uses and significances of boab trees to provide a contextual backdrop against which the documentation regarding the Derby “prison” tree is considered in detail, and to highlight the multifaceted uses of the tree that are elided through its being promoted solely as a site associated with colonial conflict and the punishment of alleged Aboriginal offenders. Evidence suggests that the boab tree outside Wyndham was utilised as a temporary holding cell. Over time, the usage of this tree for that purpose has become conflated with stories of the tree near Derby. The incorrect attribution of “prison tree” to the boab near Derby has never been corrected. The authors suggest that claims as to the tree’s colonial significance as a “prison tree” have instead been perpetuated and embellished as a means through which tourists can continue to be attracted to visit what has been manufactured as a dark tourism site.

Keywords: Prisons, Australian Aboriginal peoples, Segregation, History, Boabs, Colonialism

Suggested Citation

Grant, Elizabeth and Harman, Kristyn, Inventing a Colonial Dark History: The Derby Boab 'Prison' Tree (May 30, 2017). Grant, E. and Harman, K. (2017). Inventing a colonial dark history: the Derby Boab 'Prison' Tree, In Wilson, J., Hodgkinson, S. Piché, J. and Walby, K. (eds). Palgrave Handbook of Prison Tourism, London: Palgrave McMillan: 735-759.. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2977277

Elizabeth Grant (Contact Author)

University of Queensland - Indigenous Design Place ( email )

Brisbane
Australia
0404365833 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://researchers.uq.edu.au/researcher/21192

University of Canberra - Faculty of Arts and Design ( email )

Australia
0404365833 (Phone)

Kristyn Harman

University of Tasmania ( email )

French Street
Sandy Bay
Tasmania, 7250
Australia

Register to save articles to
your library

Register

Paper statistics

Downloads
16
Abstract Views
112
PlumX Metrics