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Exploring the Derby Boab Prison Tree – A Symbol of History and Heritage in Western Australia

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Home » Ancient & Remarkable Trees » Exploring the Derby Boab Prison Tree – A Symbol of History and Heritage in Western Australia

The historical significance of the Derby Prison Tree is rooted in its reported use as a makeshift lockup for Indigenous prisoners in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, as they were being transported to Derby for trial or imprisonment.

Despite its notoriety and the stories that have circulated about its use as a holding cell, there is no concrete evidence to confirm that it was ever actually used to house prisoners.

These accounts are part of the oral history and the lore surrounding the colonization period in Australia, reflecting the treatment of Indigenous peoples during that era.

Derby Boab Prison Tree in Western Australia
The Derby Boab Prison Tree in Western Australia

The tree itself, a majestic Boab, stands as a symbol of the complex and often painful history between European settlers and Indigenous Australians.

Today, it is recognized more for its cultural significance and the stories it represents rather than its historical function.

As such, the Derby Prison Tree is a significant landmark, offering insights into Australia’s colonial past.

Location

Situated approximately 6 kilometers south of Derby, Western Australia, near the King Sound, is the remarkable Boab Prison Tree, also known as Kunumudj.

Derby is part of the Kimberley region, a place celebrated for its extensive wilderness, dramatic landscapes, and important cultural heritage sites.

Accessible via road, this natural landmark draws visitors keen to explore its unique characteristics and delve into its historical and cultural significance.

Boab Tree in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia
Boab Tree in the Kimberley Region, Western Australia

Type of Tree

The Boab Prison Tree in Derby has a girth measuring around 46 ft (over 14 metres) and is a specimen of the Boab tree, scientifically known as Adansonia gregorii.

Boab trees are part of the Adansonia genus, which also includes several other species such as the famous baobab trees found in Madagascar, mainland Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula.

Adansonia gregorii is unique to Australia, predominantly found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and parts of the Northern Territory.

Boab Trees in Derby, Western Australia
Boab Trees in Derby, Western Australia (Kimberley Region)

Boab trees are known for their distinctive, bottle-shaped trunks, which can store large quantities of water, and their broad, spreading canopies.

These trees can live for hundreds, sometimes even over a thousand years, reaching impressive sizes.

The trunk’s girth is massive, allowing it to survive in arid conditions, and the tree produces large, white, night-blooming flowers and a fruit that is rich in vitamin C.

Fruit of Adansonia gregorii
Fruit of the Boab Tree – Image via Margaret Donald via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Indigenous Australian peoples have used various parts of the Boab for nutritional, medicinal, and practical purposes for thousands of years.

Is The Tree Still Alive

Yes, the Boab Prison Tree in Derby, Western Australia, is still alive. These trees are known for their remarkable longevity and resilience.

Boab trees, including the iconic Boab Prison Tree, can live for over a thousand years, and the tree in question is estimated to be around 1,500 years old.

How Old Is The Tree

Estimated to be around 1,500 years old, the remarkable tree located near Derby in Western Australia is an iconic example of the Boab species, known for their incredible lifespan.

Derby Boab Prison Tree During Wet Season
The Derby Boab Prison Tree During Wet Season – Image via Tony Bowden via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Conservation Efforts

Several conservation measures are in place to protect the iconic tree near Derby, including legal protections against vandalism and unauthorized development.

Protective fencing and informational signage help prevent physical damage and educate visitors about the tree’s historical and ecological importance.

Regular health assessments ensure any threats to its wellbeing are promptly addressed.

Managed tourism and active community engagement also play crucial roles in minimizing human impact, fostering a shared responsibility for its preservation and ensuring its continued significance as a natural landmark.

Are There Other Prison Trees?

Yes, there are other trees known as “prison trees” in Australia, besides the Boab Prison Tree near Derby, Western Australia. These trees have gained notoriety for their supposed historical use as makeshift lockups for Indigenous Australians by European settlers or police during the colonial period.

Wyndham Boab Prison Tree
Wyndham Boab Prison Tree – Images via Jon Connell via Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

However, the authenticity of some of these stories is debated among historians.

Here are a few notable examples:

  1. Wyndham Boab Prison Tree: Located in Wyndham, Western Australia, this is another large Boab tree reputed to have been used as a temporary holding cell for prisoners being transported to trial or jail. Similar to the Derby Boab Prison Tree, it has a hollow trunk large enough to contain people.
  2. Hillgrove Lockup Tree: In New South Wales, the Hillgrove Lockup Tree, a hollow tree near the historic gold mining town of Hillgrove, was reportedly used as a temporary lockup for prisoners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  3. The Boab Prison Tree, Victoria Highway: Situated near Timber Creek in the Northern Territory, this tree is another example often cited as being used for detaining Indigenous prisoners on their way to police stations or courts.

Legacy

Overall, the legacy of the Derby Boab Prison Tree is one of remarkable natural history, a reminder of historical truths, and a symbol of the journey towards understanding and reconciliation in Australia.

It invites reflection on the past while encouraging a forward-looking approach to cultural heritage and environmental conservation.

Want More?

If you found this article interesting you might enjoy reading about the Tree of Life in Bahrain, Charter Oak, Anne Frank tree or the Bodhi tree in India.

Note: The image at the top of this article is an artistic depiction intended to portray the Derby Prison Tree and its surroundings during the era it was purportedly used for incarceration.

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Fern Berg - Founder

Expert Gardener & Horticulturist in Training

Fern has planted and currently cares for over 100 different native and exotic fruit, nut, and ornamental trees. She also cultivates an extensive vegetable garden, several flower gardens and cares for an ever-growing happy family of indoor plants. Fern has a special interest in biodynamic farming, food production and closed loop agriculture. Fern founded Tree Vitalize to help guide others with an interest in tree planting, identification and care.