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Derby Local History

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The Local History of Derby, Western Australia

Derby is a town in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, situated on the banks of the Fitzroy River. It is the largest town in the area and serves as the administrative center for the Shire of Derby-West Kimberley. The town has a rich history that dates back to the 1880s when it was a bustling port for the pearling industry.

The Pearling Industry

The pearling industry was one of the main economic activities in Derby during the 19th and early 20th century. The town was a major port for the industry, with the pearl luggers bringing in their hauls of pearls from the surrounding waters. The pearling industry employed many local Indigenous people as well as migrants from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia and the Philippines.

The pearling industry was not without its challenges, including the risk of divers being attacked by sharks or suffering from the bends. In 1906, the industry was also impacted by a cyclone that destroyed many of the pearling luggers and caused significant damage to the town.

The Coming of Railways

In the early 20th century, the government of Western Australia began to invest in the construction of railways to connect the Kimberley region with the rest of the state. The first line reached Derby in 1885, heralding a new era of economic growth for the town. The railways enabled the transportation of goods and resources to and from the area, including cattle, gold, and other minerals.

The railway also played a key role in the evacuation of civilians from the Kimberley during World War II. In 1942, Japanese forces invaded nearby Broome and began to bomb the town and its airfield. Civilians were evacuated by train to safer areas in the south of the state.

The Boab Prison Tree

One of the most famous landmarks in Derby is the Boab Prison Tree. This tree is estimated to be around 1,500 years old and has a tragic history. It is believed that Indigenous people were once held in the tree as a form of imprisonment by European settlers. The tree still bears the scars of the chains and bolts that were used to secure prisoners.

The Boab Prison Tree is a powerful reminder of the injustices that Indigenous people suffered during the colonial period in Australia. The tree has become a symbol of resistance and resilience, and visitors to Derby can learn more about its history at the nearby boab prison tree museum.

Recent Developments

In recent years, Derby has seen significant development in the areas of tourism and agriculture. The town is home to a number of tourist attractions, including the Horizontal Falls, which are caused by the tidal movement of water through two narrow gorges. The town also has a thriving agricultural sector, with cattle and mangoes being two of the main products.

Despite these developments, Derby remains a town that is deeply connected to its history and culture. The town has a strong Indigenous population, and cultural tourism is an increasingly important part of its economy.

"Derby is a town with a rich and complex history. It has been shaped by the pearling industry, the railways, and the colonial period, and it continues to evolve and grow in response to the changing economic and social landscape of Western Australia."

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Derby Boab Tree thanks to Martin Kraft CC BY-SA