Article ID: CBB079817226

William Dawes: practical astronomy on the ‘First Fleet’ from England to Australia (2021)


On 13 May 1787, a convict fleet of 11 ships left Portsmouth, England, on a 24,000 km, 8-month-long voyage to New South Wales. The voyage would take the ‘First Fleet’ under Captain Arthur Phillip via Tenerife (Canary Islands), the port of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Table Bay at the southern extremity of the African continent and the southernmost cape of present-day Tasmania to their destination of Botany Bay. Given the navigation tools available at the time and the small size of the convoy’s ships, their safe arrival within a few days of each other was a phenomenal achievement. This was particularly so, because they had not lost a single ship and only a relatively small number of crew and convicts. Phillip and his crew had only been able to ensure their success because of the presence of crew members who were highly proficient in practical astronomy, most notably Lieutenant William Dawes. We explore in detail his educational background and the events leading up to Dawes’ appointment by the Board of Longitude as the convoy’s dedicated astronomer-cum-Marine. In addition to Dawes, John Hunter, second captain of the convoy’s flagship H.M.S. Sirius, Lieutenant William Bradley and Lieutenant Philip Gidley King were also experts in navigation and longitude determination, using both chronometers and ‘lunar distance’ measurements. The historical record of the First Fleet’s voyage is remarkably accurate, even by today’s standards.

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Authors & Contributors
Grijs, Richard de
Hilster, Nicolàs de
Morfouli, Meropi
Gall, Céline Le
Wells, William
Köberer, Wolfgang
Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage
Mariner's Mirror
Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences
The Mariner's Mirror
Medieval Encounters
Imago Mundi: A Review of Early Cartography
Tinta da China
Presses Universitaires de Rennes
Oxford University Press
Johns Hopkins University Press
Brepols Publishers
Instruments, navigational
Nautical astronomy
Longitude and latitude
Maritime science
Poleni, Giovanni
Picard, Jean-Françoise
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm von
La Hire, Philippe de
Lacaille, Nicolas Louis de
Galilei, Galileo
Time Periods
18th century
17th century
Early modern
19th century
16th century
Atlantic Ocean
Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Indian Ocean
Mediterranean region
Royal Observatory Greenwich
Great Britain. Royal Navy
Académie des Sciences, Paris

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