Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

William Dawes: Deep flaws and sparks of brilliance

Richard de Grijs
Sydney, Australia

William Dawes, 1830s. Miniature oil painting, artist unknown (Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart; ref. AG6048; out of copyright).

Most Sydneysiders will have heard of William Dawes (1762–1836), although they may not know exactly who he was. Dawes Point, the promontory supporting the southern pillars of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is named after him, as are Dawes Creek and Dawes Ridge in the nearby Blue Mountains National Park.

William Dawes mustered as a second lieutenant of the British Marine contingent on HMS Sirius’s voyage as flagship of the “First Fleet” from England to Australia in 1787–1788. He had been recruited by Britain’s fifth Astronomer Royal, Dr. Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), as the convoy’s shipboard astronomer. In that role, he was tasked with geographic position determination at sea and instructed to establish a permanent astronomical observatory on arrival in New South Wales.1

By all accounts, Dawes led an eventful life, frequently almost reaching his full potential before plummeting to new depths in the social order of the day. Between significant achievements as de facto surveyor, artillery officer, and chief engineer in New South Wales (1788–1791); three-time Governor of Sierra Leone (1792–1803); Commissioner of Inquiry into the state of the slave trade along the West African coast (1808–1812); and Superintendant of Sunday Schools in the West Indies (after 1813), time and time again he fell afoul of the prevailing social hierarchy. This often rendered him penniless and desperate for a patron to support a reversal of his ill fortune and facilitate his next ascent up the social ladder.

In the context of his era, Dawes was exceptional, perhaps far ahead of his time and an unrecognized genius, a great mind of the early modern world. Yet, he did not quite grasp his place in the rapidly changing world around the turn of the nineteenth century or the politics at play around him, occasionally even lacking a minimum of common sense or a considerate, diplomatic touch.

A genius or a polymath, a theorist par excellence yet lacking enough doses of savvy and pragmatism, his politically woefully inept worldview—combined with (at times) an abrasive personality, unmovable and alienating stances, and religious convictions set in stone—eventually rendered him a mere footnote in history, fading away from almost all opportunities to make a tangible, real-world impact. A full understanding of the man requires a careful unpeeling of the many layers that made up his personality, complete with deep flaws and sparks of brilliance.

In our recently published biography, we highlighted why Dawes should have become famous, what his most important achievements were, and why he became an ardent supporter of Abolitionism. Yet, his legacy is mostly defined by what is absent from the historical record, by all the exciting opportunities to make a real impact that he somehow managed to miss, or which he simply did not recognize.

Instead, while witnessing the rise to prominence of many of his contemporaries, Dawes butchered his chances, lost his allies and supporters, and grew old and disgruntled in a remote corner of the British Empire. Nevertheless, in recent decades we have seen evidence of a minor revival of studies into the man’s achievements, with increased emphasis on his complex personality and character traits. In turn, this renewed focus has resulted in the suggestion that his obsessive compulsion might have been a symptom of Asperger’s syndrome, shaping a high-functioning, autistic personality.2

Let us unpack that suggestion and offer supporting evidence. At the time of the departure of the First Fleet, Dawes was clearly aware of the need to treat his fellow travelers respectfully. Writing about his interactions with the Sirius’s captain, Arthur Phillip (1738–1814), Governor-designate of the new colony in New South Wales, he wrote to Maskelyne:

I am well convinced of the Propriety of paying every proper respect and Attention to Capt.n Phillip, and shall on all Occasions endeavour to make my self as serviceable to him as possible, and am well aware that in Case of difference of Opinions on any subject: if cool reasoning and fair Argument have not the desired Effect, a more harsh Method of proceeding whether with Superiors or Inferiors cannot by any Means do Good but may do much Harm.3

Yet, when Phillip’s orders interfered with his own moral principles, Dawes readily abandoned all caution and repeatedly challenged his superior—despite their increasingly fraught personal relationship.4 It appears that Dawes felt that he was unreasonably held back in his scientific aspirations,5 whereas juggling the young settlement’s safety, security, and practical day-to-day operations was at the forefront of Phillip’s mind. Their mutual dislike and disagreement came to a head by the end of 1790. Governor Phillip’s charges of insubordination and “unofficer-like behavior” were, however, just the latest manifestations of a long list of minor and some major grievances that had affected the men’s relationship over the years.

Perhaps surprisingly, given his self-professed high morality, Dawes was accused of illegally trading in vast quantities of flour with the garrison’s baker, a convict, at face value a serious breach of duty and rightfully considered an act against the good of the settlement. Dawes did not deny the accusation, but his account6 of November 6, 1791 suggests that he attempted to reinterpret the regulation from his own rather unusual perspective, resorting to semantics rather than embracing the spirit of the regulations. He readily admitted to having purchased provisions from a convict; trading rations with the colony’s detainees was strictly forbidden. However, he asserted that all officers must have known that the baker received a weekly allocation of flour “… as the just perquisite of his business, which I therefore presumed became his own property, and as such was deemed by everyone to be entirely at his own disposal.”7

He attempted to justify himself, explaining that “It does not appear to me that I was guilty of any impropriety in purchasing goods from a convict, as I had every reason to suppose it was no part of his ration.”8 Dawes’ defense appears weak and self-centered. Although he may not have violated the law in the strictest sense, his actions certainly contributed to further pressure on the colony’s starvation economy. The garrison’s officers were expected to adhere to and enforce the prevailing regulations, not trample on them in an attempt to change the moral boundaries and evade legal consequences. The entire episode reflects poorly on Dawes’ grasp of the bigger picture. It shows him as self-absorbed and self-righteous, and it highlights a character flaw of being unable to accept that he had breached any orders, conventions, or requirements.9

In fact, Dawes’ personality and his moral outlook frequently caused him significant difficulties—not only during his younger years in New South Wales. Following his second term as Governor of Sierra Leone, his successor, Zachary Macaulay (1768–1838), provided further first-hand insights into Dawes’ character and personality in a letter of May 17, 1796 to his (Macaulay’s) fiancée in England:

Dawes is one of the excellent of the earth. With great sweetness of disposition and self-command, he possesses the most unbending principles.10

Macaulay’s letter offers additional insights into Dawes’ qualities and shortcomings, including11 his (emotional) “coolness”; his extreme focus on details in the present moment and his habitual self-absorption; his tenacity; his vagueness or complete lack of concern around issues that do not fall within his own definition of things worth considering12; and his inability to read the politics of a situation and to finesse the complexities for his own quick benefit.

Although these character traits frequently led to strained personal relationships, Dawes’ single-mindedness was also a blessing in disguise. For instance, he applied a method resembling the maritime technique of “dead reckoning” to his exploration of the western expanses of the Sydney Basin, systematically counting, remembering, and mapping every single step. His closest friend, the marine Watkin Tench (1758–1833), was duly impressed:

Our method, on these expeditions, was to steer by compass, noting the different courses as we proceeded; and counting the number of paces, of which two thousand two hundred, on good ground, were allowed to be a mile. At night when we halted, all these courses were separately cast up, and worked by a traverse table, in the manner a ship’s reckoning is kept, so that by observing this precaution, we always knew exactly where we were, and how far from home; an unspeakable advantage in a new country, where one hill, and one tree, is so like another that fatal wanderings would ensue without it. This arduous task was always allotted to Mr. Dawes who, from habit and superior skill, performed it almost without a stop, or an interruption of conversation: to any other man, on such terms, it would have been impracticable.13

Meanwhile, Dawes’ obsessive single-mindedness also made him strive for perfection. However, it was exceedingly difficult to gain his confidence, as we learn from a letter he wrote from the Sydney settlement to his father. In that letter, he admitted that his primary reason to seek a second term in the colony was:

… the uncertainty of any other person being appointed to succeed him in the astronomical way, and the great loss, in his opinion, it would be to the science were the opportunity to be missed of making proper use of those valuable instruments.14

On balance, William Dawes cannot simply be pigeon-holed as a “good” or “bad” historical character. Like most other people, his personality contained many layers, some “good,” some flawed, ultimately revealing a rather vulnerable man underneath a tough exterior persona. His apparent autistic traits ultimately proved more of a hindrance than an advantage in a life defined by uncertainty, stubbornness, and anxiety channeled through unbending moral principles and devout religiosity.


  1. de Grijs, R., and Jacob, A. William Dawes. Scientist, Governor, Abolitionist: Caught Between Science and Religion (Springer, 2023). https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-031-38774-6
  2. Gibson, R. 26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove 1788–91. (Perth, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 2012), 50–51.
  3. Dawes, W. Letter to Nevil Maskelyne, dated 20 May 1787. Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) 14/48, folio 261r.
  4. Dawes, W. Letter to Nevil Maskelyne, dated 17 November 1788. RGO 14/48, folios 290–292.
  5. Ibid., folios 291v–r.
  6. Britton, A., and Bladen, F.M. (ed.) History of New South Wales from the Records. Vol. II: Phillip and Grose, 1789–1794. (Sydney: Charles Potter, 1894), Section 13.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Barton, G. B., 1889. History of New South Wales from the Records. Vol. I: Governor Phillip. Sydney: Charles Potter. Pp. 1783–1789; Gibson, 2012, op. cit. 176.
  9. Barton, 1889, op. cit. 543–546.
  10. Macalay [sic], Z. Letter to Selena Mills, dated 17 May 1796. In: Knutsford, Viscountess, 1900. Life and letters of Zachary Macaulay. London: Edward Arnold. 135–136.
  11. Gibson, 2012, op. cit. 7.
  12. House of Lords Sessional Papers, 1714–1805. Evidence of William Dawes. Minutes of Evidence taken on the Second Reading of the Bill. In: An act to Prohibit the Trading for Slaves on the Coast of Africa, within Certain Limits (Vol. 3).
  13. Tench, W. A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson Including An Accurate Description of the Situation of the Colony; of the Natives; and Of Its Natural Productions. (London: G. Nicol and J. Sewell, 1793), 133.
  14. Bladen, F.M., and Britton, A. (eds) Historical Records of New South Wales, 2. (Mona Vale, NSW: Lansdown Slattery & Co., 1893).

RICHARD DE GRIJS, PhD, is an astrophysicist and an award-winning historian of science at Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia). He has a keen interest in the history of maritime navigation. Richard recently published the first comprehensive biography of William Dawes (Springer, 2023), Sydney’s first resident astronomer.

Winter 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.