Daily Bulletin

The Conversation

  • Written by Elizabeth Grant, Senior Research Fellow (Indigenous Architecture), University of Adelaide

An ancient boab tree with a girth of 14.7 metres stands near the town of Derby in remote Western Australia. Boabs’ massive trunks and spindly branches create the rather intriguing illusion that the trees are growing upside down. They look like their roots are sticking up into the air.

The Derby boab has stood stoically for around 1500 years, a witness to Aboriginal life and the much more recent colonial incursion onto country. As boab trees age, their trunks eventually become hollow. Several people could easily stand inside one of them.

image A road sign pointing to the tree. Author provided

The trees’ size, coupled with their colonial association as stopping places for police and groups of Aboriginal prisoners chained together by the neck, has fed into the notion that boabs like the one outside Derby - and another near Wyndham, nicknamed the “Hillgrove lock up” - were used as prisons within which Aboriginal people were incarcerated.

The Derby boab tree has become a major attraction - visited by local and international tourists - protected under WA’s Register of Heritage Places. The statement of the site’s significance says, in part, that the tree “represents the harsh treatment prisoners often received in the north of Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century”.

image The tree’s gnarled trunk. Author provided

But our research has found that the Derby boab was never used as an Aboriginal prison, a holding area or as a staging point. There is no evidence that anyone was imprisoned in the tree.

We have traced the prison tree myth back to its inception in 1948. Around that time, a prominent artist Vlase Zanalis spent eight months camping in and around Derby. Zanalis became intrigued by the region’s extraordinary boab trees. When one of his resulting art works of a Boab “prison tree” in Wyndham was later exhibited in Sydney, the Albany Advertiser described it as the Derby tree and wrote that in its “earlier days” its trunk was

used as a prison of a temporary nature until it was possible to transfer the prisoners to a more permanent abode.

In short, what was understood to be the “history” of the Wyndham tree (for which there is also no evidence of Aboriginal imprisonment) was transposed to the Derby boab. Over time, the myth of the Derby prison tree has been so often repeated that it has coalesced into a “fact” that is simply not supported by available evidence.

This myth has not gone unchallenged. In the 1960s, for example, the Australian Women’s Weekly reported that the boab outside Derby “was probably never used as a prison” tree. However, preserving the myth of the prison tree became important to the town in attracting visitors engaged in “dark tourism”. Coined in late 1960s America, this term was initially used to describe the phenomenon of tourists flocking to the place where the late President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It is now used to describe visits or pilgrimages to places with “dark” or sinister pasts including concentration camps, massacre sites, and prisons.

Given that the Derby boab tree stands in for aspects of Australia’s dark colonial past and acts as a touchstone of sorts for the retelling of these troubling histories - as well as attracting tourists – does it matter that it is not an authentic prison tree?

We argue that is does. The marketing of the tree as a site of “colonial conquest” is sickening. It fails to tell any coherent story of the bloody dispossession of land from Aboriginal people in the Kimberley, a process with ramifications resonating into the present. For example, Indigenous suicide rates in the Kimberley are seven times the national average.

It fails to tell of the insurgences, resistance and resilience of Aboriginal people, portraying them as passive prisoners. Aboriginal people in the Kimberley were criminalised, disenfranchised and dehumanised in the invasion of their land.

image An information board telling the ‘history’ of the tree. Author provided

Representing and marketing the Derby boab as a prison tree also elides its deep cultural significance to Aboriginal people. Boab trees have considerable mythological significance and are regarded as cherished individuals with unique personalities. Some trees are sacred.

In addition, the Derby tree was used by Indigenous people as an ossuary – a place for keeping bones. Ancestral remains were commonly stolen and illegally exported outside Australia until the late 1940s, causing considerable suffering to Indigenous communities. The location of human remains seen at the tree by early visitors such as anthropologist Herbert Basedow is a mystery. Could they be in a collection somewhere? Could some redress for past atrocities be made by laying these Indigenous ancestors to rest respectfully on their own country?

Tourists have desecrated and continue to desecrate this sacred site. Although the heavily graffitied tree is fenced off, many people breach the fence and take a trophy photograph of themselves in the tree.

In an area with such high suicide rates, where Aboriginal people are massively over-represented in the prison population, the agency for this sacred site has been removed by colonisation and replaced by a myth. It is time to recognise this fact and ask: Who really owns the Derby boab tree’s story?

The Derby ‘Prison Tree’ is covered in depth in a chapter entitled ‘Inventing a colonial dark history: the Derby Boab ‘Prison’ Tree’ in the Palgrave Handbook of Prison Tourism to be released in April 2017. It also featured in the March edition of National Geographic. Grant and Harman have researched historical precedents of prison environments for Indigenous people in detail for an upcoming book entitled: Aboriginal Prisons: The places of incarceration of Australian Aboriginal People.

Authors: Elizabeth Grant, Senior Research Fellow (Indigenous Architecture), University of Adelaide

Read more http://theconversation.com/dark-tourism-aboriginal-imprisonment-and-the-prison-tree-that-wasnt-75203

Writers Wanted

Kylie Moore-Gilbert has been released. But will a prisoner swap with Australia encourage more hostage-taking by Iran?


Ancient Earth had a thick, toxic atmosphere like Venus – until it cooled off and became liveable


Not just hot air: turning Sydney's wastewater into green gas could be a climate boon


The Conversation


Prime Minister Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

BEN FORDHAM: Scott Morrison, good morning to you.    PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Ben. How are you?    FORDHAM: Good. How many days have you got to go?   PRIME MINISTER: I've got another we...

Scott Morrison - avatar Scott Morrison

Prime Minister Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

KIERAN GILBERT: Kieran Gilbert here with you and the Prime Minister joins me. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.  PRIME MINISTER: G'day Kieran.  GILBERT: An assumption a vaccine is ...

Daily Bulletin - avatar Daily Bulletin

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Business News

Nisbets’ Collab with The Lobby is Showing the Sexy Side of Hospitality Supply

Hospitality supply services might not immediately make you think ‘sexy’. But when a barkeep in a moodily lit bar holds up the perfectly formed juniper gin balloon or catches the light in the edg...

The Atticism - avatar The Atticism

Buy Instagram Followers And Likes Now

Do you like to buy followers on Instagram? Just give a simple Google search on the internet, and there will be an abounding of seeking outcomes full of businesses offering such services. But, th...

News Co - avatar News Co

Cybersecurity data means nothing to business leaders without context

Top business leaders are starting to realise the widespread impact a cyberattack can have on a business. Unfortunately, according to a study by Forrester Consulting commissioned by Tenable, some...

Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable - avatar Scott McKinnel, ANZ Country Manager, Tenable

News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion