William Dawes – truly a Heavenly visionary

Lieutenant William Dawes was a marine in the Royal Navy and in 1788, with the blessing of the British Board of Longitude and charts from the astronomer royal under his arm, he boarded the Sirius as part of the First Fleet and sailed with Arthur Phillip for Port Jackson to become the first official astronomer of the colony of New South Wales.

Immediately on sailing into Port Jackson, Dawes cast his telescope to the skies at a spot near the Harbour Bridge at what is now called Dawes Point and for three years kept time for the colony and observed the wonders of the southern skies. 

However, two years into his sight-seeing, Governor Phillip fell out of favour with Dawes when he ordered him to train his sights along a gun barrel on an Aboriginal instead. Phillip ordered Dawes, who was still a marine, to join a party to enact justice on an Aboriginal accused of causing the death of Phillip’s gamekeeper. Sceptical of the circumstances, Dawes at first refused to go, in direct defiance of his captain’s order, but he relented on persuasion. However, when Dawes expressed a wish to settle in the colony, Phillip imposed two conditions, one of which was that Dawes apologise for initially refusing the order, which Dawes did. Dawes published an apology for having been “persuaded to comply with it” and promptly sailed back for Britain.

In 1791, Dawes returned to Britain and after several years as Governor of Sierra Leone, alongside the great humanitarian, William Wilberforce, he fought for the abolition of slavery.