Lieutenant William Dawes is one of [Sydney’s] first, and most likeable, dreamers. … Street grids and measurements were Dawes’s day job, the stars and Eora language his night-work. Almost as soon as he landed, he began to build an observatory near where the southern stanchions of the Harbour Bridge now stand. … Dawes spent as much time as possible camped out, making his observations, to the point that colonist Elizabeth Macarthur described him famously and, one think, fondly as, ‘so much engaged with the stars that to mortal eyes he is not always visible.’ In this rare verbal portrait, Dawes appears as a dreamy, gentle man. … Certainly Dawes’s curiosity, or a quality of kindly stillness, must have allowed him to form a relationship of trust, the exact nature of which remains uncertain, with the teenage Patyegarang. In fact, a large number of Eora companions appear to have shared the bluff with Dawes; he names sixteen in his notebooks.
These ‘language notebooks,’ which are now regarded as among the most precious of our colonial records, remained virtually unknown until they were discovered at the University of London in 1972. The softness of night can be felt everywhere inside them. Like the stars, the Eora words Dawes recorded are fragments now of something grander, as suggestive and ungraspable as the far-off ice-light of other planets. From Patyegarang, Dawes learned the words meaning ‘snot’ and ‘hiccough’ and ‘the point of a spear’; but also more intriguingly intimate constructions such as ‘to warm one’s hand by the fire and then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person,’ ‘we shall sleep separate,’ and ‘to extinguish a candle.’ Many other words — ‘to embrace, to hug’ and ‘when will you be sick again’ — seem to wear a night-time mantle. It is impossible to guess, beyond the fellowship that radiates from these pages, what dreams the Eora held for the transmission of their words to Dawes as they watched the stars together. …
But Dawes’s notebooks are not dry grammars. Instead, as the academic Ross Gibson has noted, they became something more visionary, soon drifting away from Dawes’s table of nouns and verb declensions to record more complicated transactions. At one point in the notebooks, Patyegarang, or Patye as Dawes sometimes calls her, tells him that the Cammeraigal are fearful ‘because of the guns.’ At another, praising his ability to speak, she tells him he has a ‘good mouth.’ Other vignettes offer tantalising glimpses of lost moments: ‘My friend, he sings about you’; ‘My friend, let us (two) go and bathe’; ‘I am very angry’; ‘Take hold of my hand and help me up.’
Recently it has become possible to pull up Dawes’s notebooks on the internet, and track through the tidy, browning pages in order, an activity which has all the drama of a gripping poem, as the imagination jumps in to fill the gaps. What is the story behind the phrase, ‘Thou pinchedst’? Or ‘You beat her while she was alseep’? One has to imagine, too, how close to the city’s geological heart, to the raw edges of its harbour, Dawes must have felt as he watched the milky spread of stars above him, or watched the morning mist hang above the water. Like so many of the city’s visionaries who would follow, he opened himself up to this landscape, let it pour in; but, unlike so many others, he does not appear to have suffered any derangement, perhaps because he let it call to him in its own language. Scroll to the last page of his third notebook and you will find a kind of poem, each word on a separate line, which perfectly captures the future city’s mix of the grossly material and the stellar: ‘the Penis, hair, Scrotum, Testicles, Moon.’