The so-called Boab Prison Tree is a 1,500-year-old boab a few miles south of Derby in Western Australia. It’s an impressive specimen, with a girth of almost 50 feet and a large, hollow trunk. According to an oft-repeated story, the tree served as a temporary jail for indigenous Australian prisoners on their way to Derby. That, however, is almost certainly a myth, and one that has drawn a fair amount of criticism.
The Boab Prison Tree near Derby has been a popular tourist attraction for decades, and is protected under Western Australia’s Register of Heritage Places. For a long time, it has been presented as an example of the harsh treatment of prisoners during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No evidence exists, however, to suggest that the tree was ever used as a lockup.
According to Kristyn Harman and Elizabeth Grant in the Palgrave Handbook of Prison Tourism, released in April 2017, the Derby prison tree myth began in 1948. At the time, a well-known artist, Vlase Zanalis, had been camping around Derby and became particularly interested in the local boab trees. One of his paintings was later exhibited in Sydney, and the Albany Advertiser described it as the Derby tree, and that it was once “used as a prison of a temporary nature until it was possible to transfer the prisoners to a more permanent abode.”
The painting, however, was of the supposed “prison tree” in Wyndham, more than 300 miles to the northeast of Derby. The history of the Wyndham boab had therefore been mistakenly transposed to the Derby boab, and the story stuck (and, according to Harman and Grant, there’s no evidence of Aboriginal imprisonment in the Wyndham tree, either).
So… it’s all a bit of a mess. Doubts about the tree’s history had been raised as far back as 1960, when an article in Australian Women’s Weekly stated that the boab “was probably never used as a prison.” Nonetheless, the Derby tree is still officially known as the Boab Prison Tree by the State Heritage Office, and many tourists visit with that in mind. Whether it classifies as “dark tourism” is perhaps debatable, but there are obvious problems connected with this almost certainly false label.
Not skirting around the issue, Harman and Grant call the false marketing “sickening” as 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.”
Furthermore, boab trees like the one near Derby are often sacred to the Aboriginal people, and are considered as individual entities with their own personalities. The Derby tree was one such sacred place, used by indigenous people as an ossuary. The anthropologist Herbert Basedow found bones in the Derby boab in 1916, likely ancestral remains stored quite deliberately in the tree (the bones have since disappeared and their location is unknown).
With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why the incorrect labeling of the Derby boab as a prison tree—arguably for increased tourism and little else—is problematic. Today, however, the sign at the tree, as well as the information given at the onsite Boab Prison Tree Interpretive Pavilion, does at least mention the greater significance of the site. The sign now refers to the “reputed” use of the tree as a temporary prison, after which it mentions “its prior but less publicly known connection with Aboriginal traditional religious belief.”