If you happen to be down around the Harbour Bridge this month and see the projections on the south pylon as part of Vivid, you may be wondering who those two people dancing up there are meant to be.

The dancers represent the naval officer and Australia’s first astronomer William Dawes and his Aboriginal muse and teacher, Patyegarang, soon to be on stage as part of the Bangarra Dance Company’s next production. Theirs is one of the most intriguing and important stories of the first years of the European colony and provide a great ‘what if’ scenario for historians.

Dawes had arrived on the First Fleet working as a surveyor, explorer and our first astronomer. His observatory was on the western point of Sydney Cove, known to Aboriginal people as Tarra, separated from the main camp by a dark track along the waterfront.

Sydney Cove looking west.  Dawes' observatory has the large flag on the right.  SLNSW artist unknown
Sydney Cove looking west. Dawes’ observatory has the large flag on the right. SLNSW artist unknown

As well as look at stars, Dawes was keen to learn and understand Aboriginal language, possibly motivated by drop in visitors that his isolated observatory seemed to attract. As part of this process he kept notebooks, rediscovered in England in 1972, that detailed the Sydney language. These differed from other First Fleet linguistic records in that Dawes recorded not just individual words, nouns and verbs, but also conversations, phrases, questions and their answers, providing a more comprehensive grammar set from which to work from.

His first teacher was a young woman he called Boorong. Dawes had hoped to teach her some aspects of his religion in return for learning hers, but her ‘levity and love of play’ defeated his efforts. It is here that Patyegarang enters the story.

The relationship between the two reads in the notebooks as being close. Their exchanges go beyond the banal and capture instead, moments of intimacy, real friendship and fun. She tells him, when naked in front of the fire, that she warms quicker that way; she explains the phrase for warming your fingers in front of the fire then squeezing the fingers of another gently, a scar Dawes notices she says is Kálabidyáŋa betúŋi bogidwȧ´ra or Cut by an oyster shell while bathing.

Dawes also recorded the names of places, animals, plants and landscape features that have transferred into Australian English like dingo, waratah, corroboree, kurrajong and cooee. Place names like Tarra, Warrane (Sydney Cove) and Parramatta. Tarra and Warrane have been resurrected in the dual naming of places project in Sydney.

Dawes was also a champion for Aboriginal protection. He at first refused, and then reluctantly took part, after consulting the chaplain, in a punitive expedition to kill or capture six Aboriginal men for the killing of some Europeans. The expedition never saw their quarry and Dawes told the Governor he would never obey such an order again.

His good intentions saw his stay in NSW cut short. Although he had elected to stay, after 3 years he was ordered to leave. As Inga Clendinnen said (in her book Dancing With Strangers), his departure cost us as historians, access to the Sydney language at the time of contact and who knows what would have played out in terms of those early relationships between Europeans and Sydney people if he had of stayed.