On Boabs and the Prison Tree

About Boabs

Boab’s are amazing trees – the only one species from this group of large, bottle-shaped trees found in Australia – the others are all located in Africa and Madagascar.

Lined up like sentinels in the main street through Kurrunurra

The rounded, swollen trunks, devoid of leaves during the winter dry season, leaf bare branches thrusting arm like into the sky and give these trees a human, even if ogre-like silhouette against the bright northern skyline. They are found across the top end of the north of Western Australia from Derby to Victoria River Crossing.

Silhouetted against the dawn sky at Lake Argyll

Boabs will put on leaf when they are grown in well watered conditions like in town parks

There are two famous “Prison Trees” – one outside Wyndham on the north coast and the other one outside Derby on the West. Boabs can get a girth of 20 metres,meaning they are wider than they are tall, and are often hollowed out by termites. These two trees have narrow slashed entrances into the trunk and a large room like areas inside.

I, probably along with a lot of others, thought that this was the local lockup for some drunken stockmen after a big night out. The truth is a lot more sinister. A common practice to control the “unruly” elements amongst the aboriginal tribes was “black birding”. The local stockholders would complain about stock being raided or other lawless activities amongst the blacks and a police party would be sent out – usually an armed police office and a couple of aboriginal trackers on horseback to round-up the trouble makers, walk them shackled 100’s of km to the coast, where they would be sold as labourers, often to the pearlers who used them as divers. Those rounded up included women as well as men (women were often preferred as divers for many reasons). The two prison trees were the last stops before the ports where the group of maybe twenty aboriginals had their finaL night before enslavement, chained together at the base of that tree.

The Prison Tree outside Derby is now fenced off, because it’s association with the imprisonment of so many,

makes it a sorry site for local indigenous people

The old cemetery in Derby contains more than 500 graves, about 400 of them unmarked. From the memorial plaque place by the local Aboriginal Council

“There are only 73 headstones but over 500 burials recorded in the existing burial register. There are many other graves of people whose names were not recorded. Most belong to aboriginal people. Many were from the stations and communities around Derby and as far away as Sunday Island. Buried in a strange custom and in a strange country, their relatives were unable to fulfill their traditional mortuary rites

— When people were buried in the ground in a strange place it caused much more upset than the death itself. Sometimes people bin crying for two years, mourning. …. It was a strange thing. It was a white persons way. Old people used to be buried in a cave. It was strange .. new culture. Strange to the old people.. Our people …. Today we commemorate the lives of all those buried here.”

“Who was killed by blacks at Lillmalloora Station 31st October 1894 while in the execution of his duty –

Erected by the members of the West Kimberley Police

The cemetery also contains another sad side to the same story. The Police were, of course, only carrying out the policy of the governments of the day, which reflected the views of the time. Anti slavery campaigners were considered “do-gooders” who would impede the development of the North where labour was badly needed.

Bathing Boabs enjoy the sprinklers in the evening light

Police Constable William Richardson was such a man who had worked for many years with a highly experience tracker called Pigeon. Trackers were not usually asked to bring in their own people but there was an urgent job, Pigeon argued with the constable and later shot him dead rather than imprison his own clans people. He then became an outlaw, was wounded and bought in, but later returned to duty as a tracker for many years. While there are almost no graves for the hundreds of aborigines buried in Derby, there is a prominent memorial for the unfortunate Constable Williamson.


One thought on “On Boabs and the Prison Tree

  1. Hi,
    Yes very unusal trees, and I have seen these type of trees in different areas in Australia. They seem to carry their own type of beauty in a way, being totally different than most other trees you see.

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