DAWES, William (c. 1758-1836)


DAWES, William (c. 1758-1836)
pioneer and scientist
son of Benjamin Dawes, afterwards clerk of works at Portsmouth, was born probably about the year 1758. He entered the navy and was given a commission as second lieutenant, royal marines, in September 1779. He was on the Resolution in the action between Rear-Admiral Graves and the French fleet under the Comte de Grasse in 1781, and early in January 1787 requested that he might be appointed to serve with the marines going to Botany Bay. He was informed by the admiralty that he could not "go in any other manner than as commanding officer of the party ordered to embark on the Sirius". The first fleet sailed in May 1787 and arrived at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788. In July Dawes was discharged from the Sirius in order to fill a vacancy in the marines on land. This regularized work he had already been doing on shore. He had been furnished with some instruments by the board of longitude and did astronomical work on the point which now bears his name. He was also a skilled surveyor, and was employed by Phillip (q.v.) in laying out streets for the new town and in building a battery. In December 1789 he led a small expedition which made the first attempt to cross the Blue Mountains. It started from Parramatta and, after crossing the Nepean at a point not far from the present railway bridge at Penrith, a course was set generally west by north; but the party was compelled to return four days later. About a year later Dawes came in conflict with Phillip who had ordered him to go out on a punitive expedition against the aborigines. Dawes at first refused to go, but after obtaining advice from the Rev. R. Johnson (q.v.), obeyed orders. He 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. However, in November 1791, Phillip had to deal with the suggestion of Lord Grenville that Dawes might be usefully employed as an engineer. Phillip then told Dawes that he would overlook his former conduct if he would apologize. This Dawes refused to do, as his sentiments were unchanged. He was accordingly sent back to England with the marines in December 1791.
In August 1794 Wilberforce wrote to the Right Hon. Henry Dundas suggesting 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 returned to England in March 1794. A position, however, was found for him as a teacher of mathematics at Christ's hospital school. He was in this position in 1799, but in the early months of 1801 he again went to Sierra Leone as governor. A reference on page 287 of the Life and Letters of Zachary Macauley by Viscountess Knutsford suggests that he may have been there for some years, but no dates are available. His 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 (q.v.), now a lieutenant-general, supported his claims which were however unsuccessful. Dawes was then in "circumstances of great pecuniary embarrassment". Towards the end of his life he 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 (Dict.Nat.Biog.). 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".
G. Arnold Wood, Journal and Proceedings Royal Australian Historical Society, vol. X, pp. 1-14; Hugh Wright, ibid, vol. XII, pp. 227-30, vol. XIII, pp. 63-4; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vol. I; Historical Records of New South Wales, vol. II; Viscountess Knutsford, Life and Letters of Zachary Macauley.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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