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
Date Written: May 30, 2017
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: Suggested Citation