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William DAWES (c. 1758 - 1836)

William Dawes was born in England. He entered the navy and was given a commission as second lieutenant, royal marines, and in 1787 requested that he might be appointed to serve with the marines going to Botany Bay with the first fleet. He went as commanding officer of the party ordered to embark on the Sirius.

Dawes had been furnished with some instruments by the board of longitude and in Sydney did astronomical work on the point which now bears his name (Dawes Point, adjacent to Sydney Cove). He was also a skilled surveyor, and was employed in laying out streets for the new town of Sydney and in building a battery.

In December 1789 he led a small expedition which made the first attempt to cross the Blue Mountains.

When Dawes was ordered to go on a punitive expedition against the aborigines he obeyed orders but afterwards informed the governor that he would not go on similar expeditions in future. This was practically mutiny, but Phillip thought in the interests of the colony it would be best to take no action. In November 1791, Lord Grenville suggested that Dawes might be usefully employed as an engineer. Phillip then told Dawes that he would overlook his former conduct if he would apologize, however Dawes refused to do so, as his sentiments were unchanged, and was accordingly sent back to England with the marines in December 1791.

In August 1794 it was suggested that Dawes should be sent to New South Wales as a schoolmaster. He had, since his return, to England been sent to Sierra Leone as governor, but his health would not stand the climate and he had returned to England in March 1794. A position was found for him as a teacher of mathematics at Christ's hospital school and he was in this position in 1799, but in the early months of 1801 he again went to Sierra Leone as governor.

Dawes' opposition to the slave trade led to his being involved in a skirmish during which he was wounded in the leg and incapacitated for some time. In 1813 he went to Antigua where he worked against the slave trade, and in December 1826 while still there he addressed a memorial to the secretary of state for the colonies making claims for extra services rendered in New South Wales. His old friend Watkin Tench, who had been in New South Wales with him, was now a lieutenant-general and supported his claims, which were however unsuccessful. This left Dawes in "circumstances of great pecuniary embarrassment."

Towards the end of his life Dawes established, with his wife, schools for the education of children of slaves, and he died at Antigua in 1836. He married (1) Miss Rutter, who died young, and (2) Miss Gilbert who survived him with a son and a daughter by the first marriage. The son, William Rutter Dawes (1799-1868), had a distinguished career as an astronomer and he was able to help his father to have reasonable comfort in his declining years.

It was unfortunate that Dawes became opposed to Phillip because he was just the type of man most needed in the colony. He was a surveyor, an engineer, an astronomer, a botanist. He was the first to make astronomical observations in Australia, he constructed the first battery, and he was the first man to realize that punitive expeditions against the aborigines would only make the position worse. Zachary Macauley spoke of his "undeviating rectitude", and in another place he 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". From Dictionary of Australian Biography.


Updated 27 November 2012