A Tale of Two Worlds
The captivating relationship between William Dawes, a British Astronomer, and Patyegarang, a Gadigal Woman from Sydney, Australia. Both the subjects of Fintan Magee’s latest work and our cover image - Patye and William (Carriageworks, Eveleigh).
William Dawes was an astronomer, linguist, and officer of the Royal Marines who played a significant role in the early settlement of Sydney. His interactions with the Indigenous people of the area, particularly Patyegarang, have become a subject of interest for historians and linguists alike. Their relationship has been the subject of books, plays, and even an opera, as it highlights the importance of cultural exchange and the complexities of the first colonial encounters in Australia.
William Dawes arrived in Sydney in August 1788 as a passenger on The Sirius – the flagship of the First Fleet. He was one of the few members of the British expedition interested in learning about the local Indigenous people and their language. Dawes established a rapport with the Gadigal people, whose traditional lands spanned from South Head to Petersham in the west and from the Harbour to Botany Bay in the south. He learned their language and recorded their words and phrases, creating one of the earliest written records of an Australian Indigenous language.
It was during his work with the Gadigal people that Dawes met Patyegarang. She was a young woman from the Eora nation, which inhabited the land we now refer to as Newtown. Patyegarang was also interested in learning English and soon became Dawes' teacher of the Eora language. They spent time together, sharing knowledge about their respective cultures and languages. Their conversations were documented in Dawes' notebooks which are catalogued in the NSW State Library.
Their relationship was more than a mere exchange of language. Patyegarang's intelligence and beauty entranced Dawes, and he wrote about her in his journals in a way that suggested a romantic interest on his part. Patyegarang saw Dawes as a friend and teacher. She was not interested in a romantic relationship with him but appreciated his interest in her people and culture. Their interactions were cut short when Dawes was recalled to England in 1791. Patyegarang disappeared from the historical record, and there is, unfortunately, little known about her life after this period.
William Dawes and Patyegarang's story is an integral part of Australian history and a reminder of the complexities of the colonial encounter. Their relationship highlights the power of language, cultural exchange, and the need to preserve Indigenous languages.