Saturday, June 18, 2016

Boab, Baobab, Bottle Tree

The Boab Prison Trees of Australia
he Boab Prison Tree in Derby. Photo credit: Marie-Luise Klaus/Flickr  Kaushik Saturday, June 18, 2016 

The Australian baobab tree, a relative to the baobabs of Madagascar and mainland Africa, is a large tree with a big swollen trunk that resembles a bottle. So sometimes they are also called "bottle trees". Because of their unusual shape, and the fact that they are one of the longest-living life forms in Australia, baobabs have always attracted sightseers. Some baobabs have drawn more tourists than others.

There is one such baobab on the King River road just south of Wyndham in Western Australia. The tree is about 15 meters in circumference and the trunk is hollow. On its hollow trunk, a door was cut to give access to its roomy interior. The story goes that once a police patrol, in the nineties of the 19th century, was leading a group of aboriginal prisoners to Derby for sentencing, when they halted at Wyndham for the night. The patrol team noticed that the tree was hollow, and so they cut a small opening and put the prisoners inside. 

This continued for sometime and people started calling the tree the “Hillgrove Lockup”. Occasionally when the group of prisoners was large and there wasn't room for everybody inside, some of the natives would be chained to the trunk outside. The cell on the inside is about 9 square meters, and is said to have accommodated 30 prisoners at a time.
There is another baobab south of Derby that is rumored to have served the same purpose. The hollow is 6 meters high and has two natural holes for ventilation.

Many historians have dismissed these stories as nothing but folklore. There is no evidence that baobabs were ever used as prisons. The one near Derby, in particular, is so close to the town (only 16 km away) that there was no need to remain holed up in a tree for the night when the police could have just continued on their way. 

The Boab Prison Tree in Wyndham. Photo credit: Djambalawa/Wikimedia

Reports about these prison trees started appearing in newspapers in the 1910s, and pretty much each publication repeated the same story using “very similarly-worded information”. Some claimed that the Wyndham baobab tree had a huge bolt fastened into it for chaining prisoners to. In those days it was not uncommon for early police stations to chain prisoners outside to strong trees or heavy logs, but there are no contemporary mentions of the inside of the tree being used. Even fairly descriptive articles about Derby and Wyndham in the 1900s make no mention of the prison trees. 

“The boab is particularly conspicuous by its absence from a 1905 state government report on the appalling treatment of Aboriginal prisoners in the area, despite the report giving a very detailed and damning account of the gaols and the transportation of prisoners to Wyndham and other local towns,” writes Chris Dawson, who made a very detailed analysis of the urban myth.

The Derby Prison Boab Tree in 1959. Photo credit: Philip Schubert/Flickr

Myth or otherwise, both baobabs are very popular among tourists. The local tourist industry has also exploited the story to promote tourism to these areas. The trees are now fenced off to prevent people from climbing into them and carving their names in the bark.

Inside the Wyndham Boab Prison Tree. Photo credit: Jon Connell/Flickr

Sources: Wikipedia / Life & Death in the Sunshine State
Baobabs in Madagascar, summer. Image credit Ahaano

Just in case you, like me, were confused by the seemingly interchangeable terms “boab” and “baobab,” I looked it up. It seems that a boab of Australia is one of nine species of baobabs, worldwide.

Adansonia gregorii, commonly known as the boab, is a tree in the family Malvaceae. As with other baobabs, it is easily recognised by the swollen base of its trunk, which forms a massive caudex, giving the tree a bottle-like appearance. Endemic to Australia, boab occurs in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and east into the Northern Territory. It is the only baobab to occur in Australia, the others being native to Madagascar (six species) and mainland Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (two species). Boab ranges from 5 to 15 meters in height, usually between 9 and 12 metres, with a broad bottle-shaped trunk. Its trunk base may be extremely large; trunks with a diameter of over five metres have been recorded. A. gregorii is deciduous, losing its leaves during the dry winter period and producing new leaves and large white flowers between December and May. 

Baobabs in Madagascar, winter. Yoshikatsu Naito on

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