Boab Prison Tree, Derby

The Boab Prison Tree, Derby is a 1,500 year old, large hollow Adansonia gregorii (Boab) tree 6 kilometres south of Derby, Western Australia with a girth of 14.7 metres.[1] It had been reputed to have been used in the 1890s as a lockup for indigenous Australian prisoners on their way to Derby for sentencing, but there is no evidence that it was ever used to house prisoners.[2][3]


Early useEdit

In the Nyulnyulan languages of the Western Kimberley, boab trees are called ‘larrgadiy’ (alt. spelling larrgadi) and have considerable mythological significance. The ancient trees are often regarded as cherished individuals with unique personalities.

Anthropologist Herbert Basedow was one of the first Europeans to document the Derby Boab Tree. In his 1916 expedition to the Kimberley region, Basedow photographed it and captioned the image as “the hollow trunk of a live baobab used by the aborigines as hut and burial place, Mayhall's well, King Sound”. Basedow (1918) also wrote that: “[t]he natives have long been in the habit of making use of this lusus naturae [freak of nature] as a habitation; it is indeed a dry and comfortable hut”. He found bleached human bones lying on the floor, which suggests that Aboriginal people had also used the tree as an ossuary for the dead. The human remains seen at the tree by Basedow and other early non-Indigenous visitors have disappeared, and may have been stolen.[4]

The 'prison tree'Edit

Kristyn Harman and Elizabeth Grant[5] traced the prison tree myth back to 1948. Around that time, an Australian artist called 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 titled ‘The Boab Tree’ was later exhibited at Sydney, the Albany Advertiser described the tree as having in its ‘earlier days’ had its trunk ‘used as a prison of a temporary nature until it was possible to transfer the prisoners to a more permanent abode’.

Harman and Grant concluded that the ‘history’ of another boab tree (located at Wyndham) was transposed to the Derby tree. Over time, this myth was repeated and became accepted as a ‘fact’, despite not being supported by the available historical evidence.[6] Kim Akerman also refuted the notion, on the grounds that Aboriginal histories do not support the story that this tree was used to imprison Aboriginal people (either by the Derby police force, or by blackbirders taking enslaved Aboriginal people to the coast).[7]

The tree todayEdit

The tree is now a tourist attraction.[8] It is protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

In recent years a fence was erected around the tree to protect it from too much human traffic, carving of initials etc., and compacting of surrounding soil by vehicles.

The Boab Prison Tree in 1960.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The wisdom of trees". National Geographic. March 2017.
  2. ^ "Derby boab prison tree a myth, say researchers". ABC News. 23 March 2017. Retrieved 25 April 2017.
  3. ^ Vincent Serventy, Nature Walkabout (A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1967)
  4. ^ Harman, Kristyn; Grant, Elizabeth (2017). Inventing a colonial dark tourism site: the Derby boab ‘prison tree’. Palgrave Macmillan.
  5. ^ "Dark tourism has grown around myth of prison tree". Retrieved 25 April 2017.
  6. ^ Grant, Elizabeth; Harman, Kristyn. "Dark tourism, Aboriginal imprisonment and the 'prison tree' that wasn't". The Conversation. Retrieved 25 April 2017.
  7. ^ Wickens, G. E.,. The Baobabs: Pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar and Australia. p. 44. ISBN 1-281-24238-1. OCLC 1126451501.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ "DANCE OF THE BOAB". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 2 February 1966. p. 26. Retrieved 11 January 2012.


Coordinates: 17°21′03″S 123°40′12″E / 17.3507°S 123.6699°E / -17.3507; 123.6699