Odds and quads

The notebooks of Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836), part of the special collections at Soas, University of London, are a major source of information about one of the many indigenous languages of Australia.

July 25, 2013

Born in Portsmouth, Dawes joined the Royal Marines at 17, fought in the American Revolutionary War and gained recognition as an astronomer. He was recommended by the Astronomer Royal to join the “First Fleet” to New South Wales and monitor a comet expected to appear in the southern hemisphere in 1788.

Once he had reached Sydney and built his observatory, Dawes began to record the local Aboriginal language, Eora. His notebooks go well beyond simple lists of words and include many snippets of conversation that are highly revealing about the cultures, social contexts, personalities and feelings of the people with whom he interacted.

Digitised in 2009, with additional funding from the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and Aboriginal Affairs NSW, the notebooks have since been consulted by several novelists as well as a playwright who is writing a work about Patyegarang, the young woman who helped Dawes document the Eora language.

Send suggestions for this series on the treasures, oddities and curiosities owned by universities across the world to matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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