The dreaming of William Dawes

Last September, I read Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, a fictionalised account of William Dawes, Sydney’s first astronomer, and his friendship with an Aboriginal girl, Patyegarang. There was something in it that caught me, made me want to find out more about the man, their friendship, the story. The only trouble is that such knowledge is rather scant.
As with Arthur Stace, the ‘Eternity man,’ (another of Sydney’s key dreamers), it seems no history of Sydney is complete without mentioning Dawes, his little observatory on the headland now buried beneath the southern pylons of the Bridge, his brief relationship with Patyegarang, the Aboriginal girl who taught him fragments of her language.

Delia Falconer, in her rhapsodic Sydney, calls Dawes “the city’s first, and most likeable, dreamer;” a man who was obsessed by numbers and patterns, the heavens and the myriad of secrets and patterns within it that could be unlocked through the careful and diligent application of knowledge. In 26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove, 1788-1791, Ross Gibson proposes that Dawes himself, whilst being the fledgling colony’s astronomer and engineer, was also like a refracting mirror – his image and self splitting into myriad parts, each almost as intangible as his observatory is to us today; parts which barely make sense when viewed as a whole yet, when viewed in isolation, make prefect sense. It is a masterly if mindboggling work, yet it helps us to understand this man who has been swallowed and largely overlooked by history, helps us to understand (however briefly) the kind of man Dawes was, who he could have been. Dawes pops up again in Ashley Hay’s The Body In The Clouds, a book about three men (and women) whose lives are all interlinked with the act of witnessing a person falling from the sky, off the Bridge and surviving. At first I thought it was contrived, a bit too forced, but as I read on, the book worked its magic on me and by the end of it I was a blubbering mess, but that could also have been the personal emotional connection to it. Hay’s book reminds me of the flight of bumblebees – trails of thought and story buzzing around each other, overlapping, cross-pollinating from-into each other, intersecting, looping back over themselves before finally drawing together in a rhapsodic kind of fugue; in fact, the whole book is a kind of fugue, in a way.
For a number of years now, I’ve often gone into the city just to be in the city, to lose myself in its comforting bustling humming rhythm, to become a part of the great unintelligible machine that is Sydney. Sometimes, often when I’m least expecting it, I end up in one of two places – either the Botanic Gardens, down by Farm Cove, or up on Observatory Hill. If you let yourself go, just for a moment, you can block out the buildings and the Bridge and the opera house, the paths and roads and houses, the ferries and the quay and the tourists, and repopulate it with trees and scrub, as wild as it ever was; if you let yourself, just for a moment, you can almost imagine it as it would’ve been for centuries, for the Aboriginal people. And a question, more startling and alarming than anything else in that place, a question I always get whenever I fly in to Sydney: what on earth would it have been like to have sailed through the Heads in 1788? What would it have looked like to someone standing on the cliffs watching the ships sail in from the ocean? It is these questions, as profound and unanswerable as anything, that lie at the heart of the story of William Dawes in all its facets and guises.
Likewise, it’s not hard with a little poetic license, to relocate Dawes’ observatory to the place of the modern one on Observatory Hill, high above Walsh Bay, and dream of what he must’ve seen from his hut each day, how it must have been when Patyegarang first approached him, their thirsts for knowledge the fast stuff from which friendships are made. The little wooden hut, with its stone floor, canvas-tented dome, and scant possessions, the little hut on the headland away from the rest of the settlement, closer to the heavens, closer to the land, the Aboriginal people, a connection to the land, closer to an understanding of culture than we are today; how different we might be as a nation today had Dawes stayed in Sydney Cove longer, had he not fallen foul of Governor Philip.
Reading the story of William Dawes, particularly the version found in Grenville’s The Lieutenant, I imagine the story playing out as if Jane Campion had directed it as a film, the inherent poetry and humanness ever present, almost overwhelming, explicit, as in Campion’s films The Piano and Bright Star; the respective worlds of Dawes and Patyegarang colliding and resounding and hymning within the greater cosmos…

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