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William Dawes
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William Dawes

William Dawes -1830 -Tasmanian Museum And Art Gallery


Lieutenant William Dawes was a pioneer and a Renaissance man. His talents included astronomy, engineering, botany, surveying, exploring and cartography, and he was also a linguist, anthropologist, abolitionist and able administrator. Having begun life as the son of a clerk he joined the Royal Marines, and eventually became the Governor of Sierra Leone. 

William Dawes was appointed as a second lieutenant of the Royal Marines in 1779. He saw action in the American War of Independence at the Battle of the Chesapeake and returned home wounded in 1781.

Dawes volunteered for service with the New South Wales Marine Corps on the First Fleet as an astronomer, to watch for a comet due in 1788 and conduct experiments which would help determine latitude. To this end he built an observatory on what became known as Dawes Point. Dawes’s skills as an engineer, surveyor and cartographer were invaluable to the new colony; under Governor Phillip he laid out town allotments, streets and farms both at Sydney Cove and Parramatta, and took part in explorations of the Sydney basin and Blue Mountains. As Artillery Officer he was responsible for the construction of batteries on both of the points framing Sydney Cove, and he also documented the local Indigenous language, creating the first comprehensive dictionary of words from Australian Indigenous languages.

In 1791 Phillip offered Dawes a position in the colony as an engineer, on the condition that Dawes apologise for two incidents. In the first incident, Dawes had purchased flour from a convict during a food shortage. Phillip claimed that the flour was part of the man’s rations, and therefore ineligible for trade; however Dawes argued that it was the man’s personal property, not rations, and that he had the right to sell it. The second offence had occurred in 1790 after the gamekeeper John MacIntyre had been speared, resulting in his death. Phillip, considering the attack unprovoked, ordered a ‘punitive expedition’ against the local Aboriginal people. Dawes, who knew the gamekeeper had a poor reputation with the local people, disobeyed orders by refusing to go. He was finally persuaded to take part by the chaplain, but later publicly stated that he regretted having given in to the persuasion. He was in the first group of Royal Marines sent back to England, in December 1791, and his repeated requests to return to the colony were unsuccessful. He was eventually appointed to the administration of Sierra Leone, where he became Governor.

Human rights advocate Zachary Macauley spoke of Dawes’s “undeviating rectitude”, and also said of him “Dawes is one of the excellent of the earth. With great sweetness of disposition and self-command he possesses the most unbending principles”.