Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project

School of Oriental and African Studies

Aboriginal Affairs NSW

Aboriginal Affairs NSW

William Dawes

William Dawes (1762–1836) was born in Portsmouth, England. At the age of seventeen he joined the Royal Marines. Two years later he was wounded on board HMS Resolution in the battle of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, during the American Revolutionary War, which ended in a strategic victory for the French.

Prior to arriving in Sydney, Dawes had become a recognised astronomer and was recommended by the Astronomer Royal to join the ‘First Fleet’ to New South Wales. Dawes was assigned to make astronomical observations during the voyage and, upon arrival, to set up an observatory to monitor a comet that was expected to appear in the southern hemisphere in 1788. Once in Sydney, Dawes built his observatory, in a hut on what is now known as Dawes’ Point, under the south pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There, he made many observations, although the comet itself never appeared.

Dawes’ observatory, from a sketch by Rod Bashford, in R.J. McAffee William Dawes: Australia's first ‘meteorologist’

From today’s perspectives, William Dawes was a pioneer. He was the first to make extensive written records of any Australian language, and the first to do so using ‘an orthography which indicates he had some level of training’ (Attenbrow 2006). Unlike others who collected simple wordlists for newly encountered items like weapons and animals, Dawes recorded conversational snippets that tell of the cultural and social contexts, personalities, and the actions and the feelings of the people he interacted with.

Dawes was a member of the 1791 expedition party to the Hawkesbury River which came to understand – for the first time amongst Europeans – that the languages and cultures of Aboriginal people differed in each area (Wilkins and Nash 2008). Previously, the colonists had assumed that words collected earlier in north Queensland would also be used by the peoples of Sydney and indeed throughout the continent (see Troy 1994 for further information).

Dawes was the first European to be recorded as defending Aboriginal rights. His refusal to join a punitive expedition against Aborigines ordered by Governor Phillip in December 1790 was most likely the first example of a ‘European act of conscience in defence of Aboriginal interests’ (Jones 2008:342). In retribution for the death of his game keeper, Phillip had ordered several marines, including Dawes, to capture two Aborigines from the Bideegàl tribe (who lived on the peninsula at Botany Bay) and to sever the heads of ten males. Dawes‘ senior officer and friend Captain Watkin Tench managed to convince Phillip to reduce the toll to the capture of six men, or, if they could not be captured, then shot. Initially Dawes refused to participate, but after being arrested for disobeying the order, and after talking with Reverend Richard Johnson, he finally consented to take part. Fortunately the expedition failed to find any Aborigines. Dawes subsequently declared to Phillip that he regretted having been persuaded to take part, and afterwards refused to make the apology demanded by Phillip. These incidents poisoned their relationship and prevented Dawes from fulfilling his long-held wish to continue living in the colony.

Despite his repeated requests to remain, Dawes was not granted leave to remain as a settler in New South Wales and he was sent back to England in December 1791.

At Sydney Cove, Dawes had acquired a reputation as a scholarly, scientific and conscientious ‘gentleman’ – a reputation which stayed with him after he left Sydney. Soon after his departure, he became involved in the international campaign to abolish slavery; its leader, William Wilberforce, wrote of Dawes in 1794: ‘I don’t believe there is in the world a more solid, honest, indefatigable man, more full of resources and common sense.’

Dawes made many contributions in the fields of astronomy, meteorology, surveying, mapping and exploration of early Sydney, but none of these achievements surpassed his unique and enduring documentation of the language of Sydney and its people.



Attenbrow, Val. 2006. Aboriginal placenames in Sydney Harbour, New South Wales, Australia – a dual naming Project. Paper Presented at the Forum UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar “Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century” Newcastle upon Tyne, April 2005 [Link]

Jones, Philip. 2008. Ochre and Rust. Adelaide: Wakefield Press

Wilkins, David and David Nash. 2008. The European ‘discovery’ of a multilingual Australia: the linguistic and ethnographic successes of a failed expedition, pp. 485–507, Chapter 18, in The history of research on Australian Aboriginal languages, edited by William McGregor. Pacific Linguistics 591.