William Dawes: Practical astronomy on the ‘First Fleet’ from England to Australia

Richard de Grijs, Andrew P. Jacob

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    2 Citations (Scopus)


    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.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)7-40
    Number of pages34
    JournalJournal of Astronomical History and Heritage
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


    • William Dawes
    • longitude and latitude
    • First Fleet
    • K1 chronometer
    • tent observatories


    Dive into the research topics of 'William Dawes: Practical astronomy on the ‘First Fleet’ from England to Australia'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this