Australia in the 1780s


William Dawes and Patyegarang


Lieutenant William Dawes (1762–1836) was the Officer of Engineers and Artillery on the First Fleet. His daily task on the voyage was to be in charge of the flagship's chronometers. These clocks were vital to navigation because the accuracy of their timepieces allowed ships to measure their longitude. On the recommendation of Reverend Dr Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), the Board of Longitude provided instruments and books for an observatory and asked Dawes to watch for a comet that was expected in the Southern Hemisphere in 1788. Dawes built his observatory, the first in the Southern Hemisphere, in a hut at Point Maskelyne, now known as Dawes Point. Dawes made astronomical observations but the comet did not appear.

Dawes was an engineer and a surveyor and constructed the earliest batteries on the points at the entrance to Sydney Cove. He designed the government farm, and laid out the first streets and allotments in Sydney and Parramatta. Dawes was one of the few marines who wished to remain in the colony after his term had expired. But, after the governor's gamekeeper was killed, Dawes came into disfavour when he refused to join a punitive expedition against the Aboriginal people who were suspected of the crime. The gamekeeper was known for mistreating Aboriginal people. After this refusal, Dawes was not allowed to remain in New South Wales.

Patyegarang, a young Indigenous woman, befriended Lieutenant Dawes and each taught the other their first languages. Dawes was the first European to make extensive written records of an Indigenous Australian language. He captured not just wordlists, but phrases concerned with personalities, actions and feelings. Records of his conversations with Patyegarang reveal an increasing level of frustration by local Aboriginal people that the colonists were not moving out of their land.

William Dawes was one of the first colonists to appreciate that the languages and cultures of Aboriginal peoples differed in different areas. He also was one of the few who had genuine relationships with Cadigal people. He became a European authority on the language of the Eora people living around Sydney Cove.


A snapshot of 1788

  • January
    • Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet sailed into Port Jackson.
    • The wife of Sergeant Thomas Whittle of the marines gave birth to the first non-Indigenous child born in the colony.

  • February
    • The first female convicts arrived at Port Jackson.
    • The Court of Criminal Justice Jurisdiction sat for the first time in the colony.

  • March
    • Lieutenant Philip Gidley King took formal possession of Norfolk Island.

  • June
    • The last of the cattle that arrived on the First Fleet strayed from the settlement. Some of the animals were still being found seven years later.

  • November
    • A colonial settlement was established at Rose Hill.

  • December
    • Governor Phillip ordered the capture of Arabanoo, a Cadigal man, to find out about Cadigal language and customs.

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