William Dawes (1762–1836) was an officer of the Royal Marines, an astronomer, engineer, botanist, surveyor, explorer, abolitionist and colonial administrator. He traveled to New South Wales with the First Fleet on board HMS Sirius.
William Dawes was born at Portsmouth, Hampshire, in early 1762, the eldest child of Benjamin and Elizabeth (Sinnatt) Dawes. He was christened there on 17 March 1762. His father was a clerk of works in the Ordnance Office at Portsmouth. He joined the marines as Second Lieutenant on 2 September 1779 and was wounded in action against the French Navy under the Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781.
Dawes volunteered for service with the First Fleet and, being known as a competent astronomer, was asked to establish an observatory and make astronomical observations on the voyage and in New South Wales.
From March 1788 Dawes was employed in the settlement as an engineer and surveyor, and built his observatory on what is now Dawes Point, under the southern approach to Sydney Harbour Bridge. In his several roles, Dawes made astronomical observations, constructed batteries on the points at the entrance to Sydney Cove, laid out the government farm and first streets and allotments in Sydney and Parramatta. Dawes took part in several explorations to the mountains west of Sydney, beyond the Nepean River and the Cowpastures; the first attempt to cross the Blue Mountains. Dawes’ skill in computing distances and map making were invaluable in the new colony.
Dawes was also interested in studying the local Eora people. He developed a close relationship with a fifteen-year-old native girl, Patyegarang (Grey Kangaroo). She stayed in his hut acting as his language teacher, servant, and perhaps lover. During his time in Australia he became an authority on Aboriginal language. Patyegarang is known to have praised his linguistic abilities, referring to him as “Mr. Dawes budyiri karaga” (“Mr. Dawes pronounces well” or “Mr. Dawes good mouth”).
He contemplated settling permanently in Australia. He intended to farm part-time, but wanted to have the security of an official position within the colony, as well. In Oct. 1791 he was offered a position in the colony as an engineer. Arthur Phillip made it clear that he would be awarded the position only if he apologized for two incidents that had offended Phillip. The first involved Dawes purchasing flour from a convict during a food shortage. Phillip stipulated that this was illegal, claiming the flour to be part of the man’s rations and, therefore, ineligible for trade. Dawes argued that the flour was the man’s personal property, not rations, and that he had the right to sell it.
The second supposed offence occurred in Dec 1790, after a British game-keeper died at the hands of an Aboriginal. The British authorities considered the attack unprovoked and planned to carry out a punitive expedition against the Aborigines. Dawes felt, for reasons that are unknown, that the game-keeper was to blame for the attack and refused to take part in the expedition, disobeying direct orders from Gov. Phillip. He was finally persuaded to take part by the chaplain, Rev. Johnson. Afterwards, he stated publicly that he regretted being “persuaded to comply with the order.” Phillip was incensed by what he viewed as a further act of insubordinance. Dawes refused to either retract his statement or to apologize for either incident, and was shipped off in December 1791 with the first group of Marines to return to England, sailing aboard the HMS Gorgon. At the time he told Dr. Maskelyne that he harbored hopes of one day returning to Australia and serving under different leadership. He applied at some point to return to the colony as a settler, but nothing came of recommendations that he be appointed as superintendent of schools or as an engineer.
It was unfortunate that Dawes became opposed to Phillip, because Dawes was just the type of man most needed in the colony. 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”.
He was given a letter of introduction by Rev. Johnson to William Wilberforce, whose acquaintance he made in early 1792. Wilberforce was impressed with Dawes, remarking that he was an “an avowed friend of religion and order.” Likely due to the influence of Wilberforce, Dawes was accepted into the Evangelical Clapham Sect. Just a few months later, in August 1792, he was then chosen to join John Clarkson in Sierra Leone, a colony founded as a home for freed slaves, where Clarkson was serving as governor.
His first term as governor wasn’t without problems. He upset many colonists when he insisted, on orders from England, that the colonists abandon the lots they currently occupied and move to new lots allocated to them by Dawes. This was only one of several of Clarkson’s actions that he was forced to countermand.
Dawes was motivated by a desire to help the people of Sierra Leone, but his religious zeal, his opposition to the local Methodist ministers, and what they considered his overbearing nature alienated him from many of the colonists and even from other colonial officials, like Thomas Clarkson.
His health suffering from both stress and the intolerable climate he returned to England in March 1794. Within a few months of returning he wed Judith Rutter at Portsea, Hampshire, on 29 May 1794. They had three children, a daughter and two sons, before Judith’s death.
In spite of his earlier difficulties with the colonists, Dawes was sent back to serve a second term as governor of Sierra Leone in January 1795, remaining until March 1796. In January 1799, he obtained a position as an instructor of mathematics at Christ’s Hospital school, a position he retained until November 1800. In the early months of 1801, he returned to serve his third and final term as governor of Sierra Leone, remaining there until February 1803. During his final term he was offered and rejected the governorship of the Seychelles.
Long an opponent of slavery, in June 1799 he gave evidence before a committee of the House of Lords, who were then considering a bill to regulate the slave trade.
After returning to England in 1804, he settled in South Lambeth, later moving on to Bledlow, where he trained missionaries for the Christian Missionary Society (1804-1808).
His wife, Judith, had died ca. 1800. William remarried on 25 May 1811, at St. Pancras Old Church, London, to Grace Gilbert. She would prove to be a devoted helpmate in his future work.
William was encouraged by the great parliamentarian and abolitionist, William Wilberforce, to continue his work against the slave trade in Antigua. The work would be arduous and unpaid, but he agreed to undertake it, and in 1813 he traveled to Antigua with his wife and daughter Judith. In spite of his frequently poor health, his endeavours met with great success. His main duties involved founding and operating schools for the children of slaves. He also worked as a correspondent for the Christian Missionary Society’s official paper.
Unfortunately, he had little to show materially for his years of dedicated service to the state and the cause of abolition. By December 1826, his financial situation had become so precarious that he petitioned the secretary of state for the colonies, making claims for extra services rendered in New South Wales on account of his being in “circumstances of great pecuniary embarrassment”. His claim was supported by his former comrade, Watkin Tench, now a lieutenant-general, but the petition was ultimately unsuccessful.
William Dawes died in Antigua in 1836. Dawes was described as “outstanding in ability and character.” Gillen states that “he was never given proper recognition, nor given financial compensation equal to the value of his work”.