The Significance Of The Prison Tree To Aboriginal People

First People Then And Now


The Significance Of The Prison Tree To

Aboriginal People



Boab Tree (The Prison Tree)


To the south of Derby in Western Australia there is a large boab tree which has been standing for 1500 years. The boab tree, also known as the Prison Tree, is a iconic image for the region.

The boab tree is sometimes called a “bottle tree”.

Boab trees take hundreds of years to grow before they become the impressive specimens that we know today.

The tree at Derby is listed in the State Heritage Register of Western Australia as the “prison boab tree”.

The mythology surrounding the boab tree near Derby is that in the 1890s it was a place for holding Aboriginal prisoners overnight as they were being escorted to town for sentencing.

Because the trunks eventually become hollow with age there is enough room inside to hold several people.   The story goes that Aboriginal prisoners who were being taken from their country to Derby in chains  were imprisoned in the hollow trunk or if there were too many to be held inside some would be chained to the trunk outside.

The hollow tree trunk could accomodate about 30 prisoners at a time.

But controversy surrounds this boab tree with researchers saying it was never used as an overnight prison for Aboriginal prisoners – that this was the story served out to tourists. Researchers Kristyn Harman and Elizabeth Grant have 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.

This is not to say that other boab trees were the same. It is likely that other boab trees could have been used to lock up Aboriginal prisoners.

Elizabeth Grant, of the University of Adelaide, does say, however, that the boab tree has special significance for Aboriginal people as boab tree  were used like a morgue or even a tomb – dead bodies were kept there.

Boab trees provided a staple food source for Aboriginal people their seeds being very high in Vitamin C.  Aboriginal artists used the boab nuts for their art work. The artists would scratch away the dark surface to reveal the lighter colour underneath.

Resistance wars


The Derby boab tree and others in the region must have witnessed the bloody dispossession of land from Aboriginal people in the Kimberley in the 1800s. The Aboriginal resistance wars started in the east of the continent and continued to all parts of the Australian continent.

In Western Australia, when hostilities broke out with the British in the 1830s, Yagan a resistance leader in the tradition established by Pemulwuy in the east emerged.


Yagan’s story is about the invasion of Nyungar lands in the West by the British and how Aboriginal people fiercely defended their rights and their lands.

In the 1890s another resistance leader, Jandamarra, defended Bunuba lands. He led the insurrection against the British invaders in the Kimberley region in the far north of Western Australia.

Aboriginal cultures of the west like eastern Australia bore the full brunt of the British occupation of their lands. What took place in eastern Australia was repeated throughout the continent. There was no discussion with Aboriginal people, no treaty, and tragedy continued to unfold.

Before the invasion by the British, Aborigines of Australia had defined territories and knew the boundaries of their traditional lands. They knew its physical features, its geography, animals, birds, fish and plants. They looked after their lands and ritually cared for their country with ceremony, songs, stories and art.

But with the invasion and the taking over of traditional lands for farming, Australian Aboriginal cultures were almost destroyed. They fought to defend their country from the north to the south and from the east to the west.

The Boab trees witnessed and were silent testimony to the devastation, the killings, introduced diseases and dispossession of the local cultures.



Harman,Kristyn  and Grant, Elizabeth  “Dark tourism, Aboriginal imprisonment and the ‘prison tree’ that wasn’t   The Conversation, 2017

Mills, Vanessa and McLennan, Leah    “Kimberley’s iconic ‘prison tree’ never used as holding cell for Aboriginal prisoners”  ABC Kimberley, 2017.


Marji Hill

Author: First People Then And Now: Introducing Indigenous Australians.

Art work: Marji Hill  c. 2017