From the very earliest beginnings of our modern day Australia the exploration and scientific study of the southern skies became always a significant priority. Before any real European contact, the native Aboriginal population understood the importance of the southern skies and stars which was mainly done towards continuing their own myths and stories of the Dreamtime - their view of the cosmological creation of the World. Much of this local mythology varied significantly between each of the tribes, whose allegorical stories were verbally passed down through the generations. Many of these myths often reflected upon the general or specific moral cultural values of the Aborigines, but were also created to connect between those who occupied either the heavenly and earthbound realms. In doing so it gave some general explanation of the various kinds of sky phenomena or of the stars, constellations and planets. Like most ancient cultures, the stars had real and practical uses as well. For example, general knowledge of the complicated Australian seasons - like the division of the northern “dry and wet”. Furthermore this useful information allowed the Aboriginal people to know when or where to hunt, especially when search for certain seasonal foods and in establishing the onset of various subtle and important weather patterns.


Our modern story of Australia history really starts in 1769 with the important first voyage of discovery by the renown English ocean explorer, Lieutenant, then later ranked, Captain James Cook (1728-1779). Unlike many of his 18th Century contemporaries, Cook proved to be both a diligent and capable navigator, being personally keenly interested in the exploration and continued advancement of natural history and science. He was soon assigned converted 370-tonne coal collier ship, HMS Endeavour, which was compliment with a crew of ninety-four that included several scientists and three artists. Included on the voyage was the famed 18th Century amateur naturalist and botanist, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who had paid for his entourage and own passage, along with the famous Swedish botanist, Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus) (1707-1778). Assigned as the recognised astronomer for the voyage was Charles Green (1735-1771), who was formally appointed by Royal Society in London in 1768. During this long sailing voyage they recorded and collected new specimens of the various flora and fauna they found, and carefully document the entire voyage.

One of Cook’s most important priorities including an undisclosed mission (that was sealed on departure) which was to investigate New Zealand and determine the true existence of the suspected great Southern Continent - claiming the territory for the United Kingdom.

Setting out from England in 1768, Cook soon crossed the equatorial and southern Pacific Ocean, he spent six months circumnavigating the two islands of New Zealand, in so doing, proving this wasn’t part of this presumed lost continent. Leaving New Zealand 1st April 1770, Cook as ordered continued travelling westward until he reached land, which he came across three weeks later finding the southern tip of the Australia continent on the 19th April. He then proceeded northwards in the next four months and successfully mapped and studied the eastern coast. Cook returned to England in 1771 with great fanfare, immediately establishing his reputation as an capable seaman, navigator and explorer. His discoveries and land claims of Austraia and New Zealand for Britain was ultimately made 18 years later with the selection of Botany Bay to established the founding of the Colony of New South Wales in 1788.

Cook own passion towards natural history and science was the main reason that he was selected to undertake this exploration voyage. Here he was assigned another equally important task - the observation of the rare Transit of Venus from the South Pacific island of Tahiti. This he successfully accomplished on 03rd June 1769, under very difficult conditions, especially as some of the observational equipment was stolen by the local inhabitants and the day of the transit being unbearably hot. Here both Cook and Green were required to obtain, on behalf of the astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the much needed accurate timings of the four main planetary contact points - the ingress and egress points - during the transit. These were required to accurately measure the value of the solar parallax. (See my Article Transit of Venus for a more detailed explanation of this.)

These observations were ultimately to precisely measure the true distance between the Earth and Sun - the astronomical unit (A.U.) - a physical quantity not well established at the time. Expeditions in the earlier 1761 Transit of Venus had gained only modest results, therefore the second 1769 transit became considered of even greater importance - else they would have to wait for the chance again in the late 19th Century. It was soon realised that the obtained values were far too diverse to be used for any definitive value for the solar parallax. Ie. 9.44±0.58 arcsec (8.28 arcsec to 10.60 arcsec.) being some 7.4% too large. Considering that Edmond Halley predicted that the transit could be predicted to 0.015 arcsec, so dutifully the number of expeditions had to be doubled.

The First European Colony

After Cook, an English follow-up voyage to Australia was started during 1787. This was to establish the first Colony on the island continent to claim our distant land for ‘king and country’. Command and leadership for this First Fleet fell under the direct control of Captain Arthur Phillip (1738-1814), whose flotilla of ten ships set sail from Portsmouth on 13th May 1787. After stopping for additional supplies at Tenerife in the Canary Islands (3rd June), Rio de Janeiro (05th August) then the Cape Town (13th October), the expedition finally set off for Australia on 11th November. All the convicts and voyagers arrived from England to their ultimate Australian destination on 20th January 1788. The Colony henceforth was known as New South Wales, where Phillip immediately assuming the role as its first Governor.

Capt. Arthur Phillip’s command was directed from the HMS Sirius being the largest among ten other ships. However, some two weeks after leaving Cape Town, he transferred to the faster ship the HMS Supply taking with him William Dawes. The reason for this splitting of the ships was so that a suitable place could be patrolled and ascertained prior to the arrival of the main fleet. HMS Supply arrived only two days ahead on the 18th January 1788. Phillip quickly rejected the quite unsuitable and too open Botany Bay, being the originally site selected by Cook some eighteen years earlier. A quick reconnaissance of the nearby foreshores was found 20 kilometres further north being the entrance of the vast and spectacular Sydney Harbour also known as Port Jackson. Cook amazingly had sailed past the entrance - missing out on one of the most important harbours along Australia’s eastern coast and one of the very best in the whole world. Phillip immediately saw the advantage of Sydney Cove and immediately ordered the First Fleet to sailed there. On arrival, he formally proclaimed the newly established Colony on 26th January 1788 - now celebrated as Australia Day.

Six transport ships of the flotilla originally containing some 717 convicts - 564 men and 192 women, however the voyage also did included many children. Also on the voyage were an additional 290, consisting of 16 Officers, 24 Non Commissioned Officer (NCO’s), 160 Marines and an additional 40 free women. Only 15 people, mainly convicts, died on the whole eight-month journey. Three ships of this flotilla were dedicated stores ships that were adequately stocked with sufficient short provisions, along with livestock, sheep and suitable basic construction equipment. One of the main reasons for selecting the ideal site for the Colony was the Tank Stream, which provided decent and plentiful fresh water. The area selected also had a large and heavily wooded area of tall white gum trees that provided enough initial building materials and some suitable cover.

The first few years were fraught with many difficulties, including conflict with the native aboriginal inhabitants and in establishing food production using inadequate European methods for the climate. Several seasons of agricultural failures lead to almost complete starvation within the early Colony, almost ending it before it was started. The soils and terrain for the most part was poor, but after much local exploration, new communities were established some 25km further west near today’s Parramatta. After some ten years, around 1800 AD, the new Colony of New South Wales was properly established and began to thrive.


To the west of Sydney Cove, Captain Phillip soon established two portable canvas observatories under the auspices of the specially selected surveyor and engineer, Lieutenant William Dawes (1762-1836). One of these observatories was located on a suitable rocky outcrop covered with brush wood at Dawes Point along Sydney Harbour’s foreshore a five hundred metres west of the main Camp on the shores of Sydney Cove. This is near the most northerly point of the area now popularly known as “The Rocks”, being today’s favoured tourist destination for those wishing to visit places of old colonial Sydney. This point on the harbour was once named by Lt. Dawes as Maskelyne Point, after the English Royal Astronomer of the time, Rev. Dr. Nevil Maskelyne (1732-1811) who was loyal supporter and friend to Lt. Dawes. Later the site it became named West Point, Cattle Point or under the original aboriginal name Tarra (Tárrá), yet Dawes Point has remained its popular name.

Oddly, this observatory may not have been the first on Australian soil. Only days after Captain Phillip’s arrived to establish the new Colony, the French explorer and navigator, Captain Jean-Françis Galoup, Comté de La Pérouse (1741-c.1788) (or sometimes simply as Lapérouse) sailed into Botany Bay on the 24th February 1788, being some twenty-two kilometres south of Sydney. It is said La Pérouse first set up some kind of temporary observatory with a small stockade for about four weeks during February and March, on the northern side of Botany Bay. The French expedition had stopped here to look for supplies of wood and water. The only results in the first week of observation were determining the latitude and longitude of Botany Bay, which were later show to be as precise as Captain Cook, who had first discovered the bay.

After this, none of the letters or observations made by the French were to survive after they departed Botany Bay, as both Pérouse’ ships; the 500-ton Boussole and the sister ship the L’Astrolabe, were tragically lost with all crews, during a severe Pacific tropical cyclone that they encountered during late-March or early-April 1788. For many years these ships were lost without trace, until both shipwrecks were found in 1826 on the reefs off Vanikoro Island in the New Hebrides. What really happened during these tragic events is still an unsolved nautical mystery. Some is believe that if any had survive the storm, they wold have been immediately killed by the hostile local indigenous island population. Much our knowledge of this lost expedition of La Pérouse, including many maps and letters before his arrival in Botany Bay were fortunately passed directly to Capt. Phillip for safe keeping. These documents were subsequent returned to Europe and later published. (See either Andre Engels’ Article or the free download book at Project Gutenberg “Laperouse” and “Australian Discovery by Sea” by Ernest Scott (1867-1939))

Among the aims of Dawes Point Observatory was to observe the predicted southern return by Edmond Halley (1656-1742) of the arrival of possible periodic comet that was expected to return in about 1790. (This was not the famous Halley’s Comet as some common references often state). Again this had been requested by the then Astronomer Royal, Dr. Maskelyne, who had submitted directly to the Naval Board that Lt. Dawes be properly supplied with suitable telescopic equipment to observe the comet.

Throughout 1788, Dawes had searched without luck in finding this predicted comet, eventually writing his disappointing failure to Dr. Maskelyne on the 17th November 1788. The later explanation for this missing comet was that Edmond Halley had incorrectly assumed that the original comet observed in 1532 was the same as the one discovered by the German astronomers Peter Apian (or Appian or the Latin name, Aphrodisius) and Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) in 1661. Halley had based this on the similar orbital elements of both apparitions of these two comets, calculating the long orbital period of 128.25 years. The next predicted appearance happened to be in either 1789 or 1790. This was never observed, but was later calculated to have presumably to have really returned in 1835. Probably the errors in the celestial initial positions made by Apian were the likely cause of the miscalculations in the cometary orbit, though significant perturbations caused by the outer planets are possibly the main contributing factors to the error.

Another astronomical outcome for Dawes was also to establish the Colony’s longitude and latitude and towards local timekeeping. His position was calculated by the end of April as; Longitude; -151o 20′ and Latitude; 33o 52′ 30″ South. Lt. Dawes first observations were also importantly used to reset the ships’ chronometer that were needed for navigation purposes upon the flotilla’s eventual return to England. Dawes found, for example, that the main chronometer on the HMS Sirius was losing about five seconds per day.

Another of Dawes scientific works was also of meteorological observations made between 1799 and 1791. These unpublished series of observations was lost until they were accidentally rediscovered in 1977 at the Library of the Royal Society in London.

We know little of the construction of these observatories, except from a two-page letter with drawings written by Dawes to Maskelyne on 30th April 1788. The location of much of this site now lies just north of the southern pylon of the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, and remained inaccessible until the archaeological dig of 1995 undertaken by Wayne Johnston. (See Page Royal Society of NSW.) Although any remains of the canvas-roofed observatory is now non-existant, the site still has the remains of the fort known as the Dawes Point Battery.

Little observational astronomy, however, was made at this location, which began in September 1788. No astronomy related observational records exist, except for several letters and various snippets of meteorological observations. As previously said, one of the main functions was to fix the latitude and longitude of the Colony. This was acheived with sufficent accuracy using the stars in 1789 by Captain Hunter and Lt. William Bradley at the observatory site. The lack of astronomical work was not surprising, especially as the new arrivals were struggling to provide locally grown food and a regular supply of drinking water, which all but failed in the early stages of the Colony. Lt. Dawes duties was also to be in charge of the small Garrison and in his extended duties often required actively participating in exploring and surveying the whole Sydney area, including Parramatta and the eastern edges of the Blue Mountains. He also established a lexicon of the local aboriginal language. The existence of this observatory was last recorded during August 1795.

As an interesting footnote, Lt. Dawes, once had invited La Pérouse’s French equivalent, M. Joseph Lepaute Dagelet, to inspect the Colony’s new observatory being constructed at the time of his visit. Dagelet had to decline, due to possible ill-health from the journey in reach the Sydney Colony, but a conversation by M. Charles Fantin de Boutin, had told Dagelet of Dawes’ plans. Correspondence about the two astronomers appears in a letter written on 3rd March 1788 to Lt. W. Dawes (See on-line Letter Transcript). This letter reads like a friendly conversation between two people passionate about there similar scientific interests, and discusses recent astronomical problems faced at the time. A article on how this letter was found appears in The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper of 15th August 2005

For other Astronomical Historical Information see;


1. Haynes, R., Malin, D., McGee, R. “Explorers of the Southern Sky: A History of Australian Astronomy” Pub. Cambridge University Press (1996)
2. Kerr, J.S..; “Sydney Observatory : A conservation plan for the site and its structures” Pub. Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (1991)
3. Laurie, P.S.; “William Dawes, and Australia&#A8217;s first observatory.*”; QJRAS., 29, 469-482 (1988)
4. Orchiston, W; “William Dawes: Australia&#A8217;s First Meteorologist.*”; QJRAS., 30, 359-360 (1989)

Some Related On-Line Articles

1. Dawes, B. Lt. William Dawes, First Fleeter”
2. Dawes, Lt. W., A map of all these parts of the territory of New South Wales which have been seen by any person belonging to the settlement established at Port Jackson... National Library of Australia; MAP NK 2456/126.
3. Johnston, W. “Archaeology and New Perspective on the Settlement of Sydney: the Excavation and Reconstruction of the Dawes Point Battery, Sydney’s Earliest Fort”.
4. Kerr, J., “The Architecture of Scientific Sydney. J.RSNSW, 118, Pt.3&4. (1986)
5. Saunders, S.B, Sir Thomas Brisbane’s legacy to colonial science: colonial astronomy at the Parramatta Observatory from 1822 to 1848.”
6. Zillman, J., “Federation and Meteorology : Australia’s Meteorological Pioneers.” Site: Australian Bureau of Meteorlogy (2001);


Last Update : 05th August 2006

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