Lieutenant William Dawes, c 1830s
Artist unknown
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
Lieutenant William Dawes, c 1830s
Artist unknown
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart
Language notebooks of William Dawes, Sydney Cove, 1790-1791                                     PHOTO: Joy Lai, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney

Keith Vincent Smith

The inspired and inspiring language notebooks compiled by Marine Lieutenant William Dawes have returned to England a second time.

This precious cargo first sailed away with Dawes when he boarded HMS Gorgon, leaving Sydney Cove on 18 December 1791 and arriving at Portsmouth on 18 June 1792.

After a brief visit to Sydney for the Living Language exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney,  the notebooks are back at the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

Dawes himself never returned to Australia. ‘The Aboriginal people’, wrote Indigenous linguist Jakelin Troy, ‘lost one of their most valuable allies and the colony a fine scientist who had hoped to settle there and continue his research’. 

The bright shining stars of the exhibition for me were the two small notebooks in a glass case, dating to 1790-1791. They left Sydney in 1792 and returned briefly in the Living Language exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

This major exhibition was  built on years and months of research and consultation with many Aboriginal communities by the library’s Indigenous Engagement (IE) Branch. I was privileged to collaborate with both Ronald Briggs (Gamilaroi), Curator, Research & Discovery and Melissa Jackson (Bundjalung) in two exhibitions at the State Library: EORA in 2006 and MARI NAWI in 2010.

Damien Webb (Palawa), Manager, Indigenous Engagement and Marika Duczynski (Gamilaroi), IE Project Officer, were also involved in the exhibition, which was backed by the State Library of NSW Foundation.

Writing in the  Sydney Morning Herald (14 July 2019), Matt Bungard quoted Melissa Jackson:

Lieutenant Dawes was just really interested in not just the culture, but getting to know the people and their nuances. The notebooks are incredibly important to Aboriginal people because they retain the conversational context which is crucial for contemporary language revival work today.

When they first became widely known, after a lapse of 180 years, these handwritten records of the coastal Sydney Language by William Dawes caused great excitement.

In November 1790, one month after Woollarawarre Bennelong and the friendly Eora  began to frequent the English convict settlement at Warang / Sydney Cove, Dawes, a young marine officer from Portsmouth, took a small notebook and began to write down Indigenous words and  phrases given to him by his informants.

The first book, titled (in another hand) Grammatical forms of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney is catalogued as MS 4165 (a) in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

From internal evidence, Dawes began his second notebook, MS 4165 (b), Vocabulary of the Language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney in 1791. It is the only source for what is known about his relationship with his principal informant, an Aboriginal girl named Patyegarang (Grey Kangaroo).

Dawes’s notebooks were located by Australian librarian, later Mitchell Librarian, Phyllis Mander-Jones and included in her publication Manuscripts in the British Isles relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, ANU Press, Canberra in 1972.T\


Spoken words and sounds jotted down in English handwriting from his informants preserve Dawes’s earwitness account of their unwritten language through encounters, conversations, dialogues and exchanges of knowledge that remain, in the words of historian Paul Carter in The Calling to Come (Museum of Sydney, 1996) ‘a source of revelation’.

The trio of the two Dawes notebooks and a third wordlist kept by Governor Arthur Phillip and his aides, which I call the ‘Governor’s Vocabulary’ (Book C 1791), were soon in the hands of William Marsden (1754-1836), an associate of the influential Joseph Banks. Much later, they passed to the SOAS from Kings College, London.


Dawes often acknowledged his Indigenous informants – in his first book principally Warreweer (who provided names of Indigenous plants), then Bennelong (her brother) and  his second wife Barangaroo. In ‘Book B’ Patyegarang, who knew Dawes for just three months,  is mentioned more than fifty times, but also Colebee, his wife Daringa, a girl  named Gonangoolie, and others.

Dawes’s little language notebooks help to inform much of the ‘back story’ about this group, which fleshes out  and confirms details about their lives not found in First Fleet journals. How much would we know about the Gweagal man Wárungin, Wángubile (‘Botany Bay Colebee’) in the profile that follows without Dawes’s records?

You can see the Dawes Notebooks online at <> See also ‘The Language of Port Jackson’ under the heading Language in this blog.


The three SOAS notebooks were the basis of an accessible dictionary of cross-cultural communication in early Sydney by historian and linguist Jakelin Troy, first published in Canberra in 1993-4 in The Sydney Language.

Her work was the genesis of the revival of the classic language spoken by the Indigenous people who inhabited coastal Sydney.

Professor Troy writes:

The earliest and best records of the Sydney Language document the coastal dialect which was spoken in the immediate vicinity of the first British settlement at Sydney Cove, Port Jackson.

There are wordlists with phonetic translations for body parts, kin terms, language, mythology and ceremony, food, cooking and fire, weapons and artefacts (many illustrated in line drawings by Shirley Troy), water, elements, mammals, reptiles, birds, marine and aquatic life, plants and fruits and insects and spiders.

She points out that this wordlist

… is by no means a complete list of all the words in the Sydney language. It only contains the vocabulary which I was able to recover from the published and unpublished notes of known eighteenth and nineteenth century writers who recorded information about the Sydney Language.  … In spite of the limitations of the wordlist it is a window onto the world of the Aboriginal people of Sydney.

Indeed, these words, sentences and placenames reveal traces of the past, a cultural memory and insight into the way Indigenous people viewed their spiritual and physical life before (and during) European settlement. This includes words they invented to describe the foreign technology, for example na-muru  for a compass, from naa ‘to see’ and muru ‘the way, or a path’.

In September 1994 Dr. James Kohen, later my supervisor at Macquarie University, Sydney, gave me photocopies of these manuscripts taken from microfilm. I still have them, slightly out of focus and held together by rusty paperclips. Dawes’s words opened up new research possibilities. They were the stimulus that would take me through BA, MA and PhD degrees in Indigenous Studies and Anthropology.

The next year I was fortunate to obtain a copy of the first edition of The Sydney Language, which was reissued in June 2019 by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Studies (AIATSIS) in Canberra with the help of funds raised by the Australian band, The Preatures.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020


Kólbe (or)                           }
Wárungin, Wángubíle } 28
Kólbi                                   }
[William Dawes, Book A, 1790: 43.1-7]


Keith Vincent Smith

Wárungin, Wángubile Kólbi was the son of Mety,  headman of a family group of Gweagal (Fire Clan), based on the south shore of Kamay (Botany Bay).

He was known to the English colonists as ‘Botany Bay Kolbi’, having exchanged names with Colebee the Cadigal, who they called ‘Cadi Coleby’. David Collins explained: ‘The natives themselves, when distinguishing between this man and another of the same name at Botany Bay, always styled him Cad-i Cole-be; Cad-i being the name of his district’.

After a battle with his enemy Mety, the Wangal leader Woollarawarree Bennelong abducted Wárungin’s ngarángaliang or younger sister, Mety’s daughter Kurúbarabúla or Go-roo-bar-roo-bool-lo (‘Two Firesticks’), from Botany Bay in November 1790. She became Bennelong’s third wife and therefore Wárungin was his brother-in-law.

According to William Dawes, Wárungin Kolbi was aged about 28 in 1791 while his wife, with a string of names: Karangarang, Wadigabú Murianang Kurut Kurut, was about 25 years old. [Book B 1791:45.4-6]. It is likely that she had exchanged names with Bennelong’s sister Carangarang.

Warími wéllambáme? – – – From whence will you return?
This, to me by Tarabílang when going towards B. Bay [Botany Bay] with him, Kolbi & Beriwáni 13th Nov.r 1791.
[William Dawes Book B 1791: 26.29, School of Oriental and African Studies, London]

On 13 November 1791 Lieutenant William Dawes trekked from Sydney Cove to Botany Bay accompanied by his friend Captain Watkin Tench and three Aboriginal guides: Kolbi (probably the Gadigal, Cadi Colebee), Tarabílong (Terribilong), a Kameygal and Beriwáni (Bereewan), a Boorooberongal man Cadi Colebee had met in April that year on an expedition to the Hawkesbury River, who became his ally.

In his journal, Sergeant James Scott wrote:

Port Jackson – July – Sunday 17th [1791]
Lt. Daws. [sic] & party made an Excurtion
to. Georges.River &.c.—

Dawes had previously, but reluctantly, gone to Botany Bay in December 1790. At first he refused to join the punitive expedition commanded by Captain Watkin Tench ordered by Governor Phillip to capture the Bijigal garadji (doctor or clever man) Pemulwuy, who had speared his game shooter John McEntire (McIntire).

McEntire, who admitted he had once fired at Aboriginal people, died suddenly on 20 January 1791.

After a talk with chaplain Reverend Richard Johnson, Dawes agreed to go, but then changed his mind. Threatened with a court-martial by the governor, he told Phillip he was ‘sorry he had been persuaded to comply with the order’.

His refusal, wrote South Australian curator and historian Philip Jones in Ochre and Rust [Wakefield Press, 2007: 342] ‘may represent the first documented act of conscience in defence of Aboriginal interests’.

At Botany Bay the English troops met Cadi Colebee, who told them Pemulwuy had fled to the south and, said Tench, ‘eat, drank and slept with us, from ten o’clock until past noon’.

Native named Ben-nel-long                                                                                                                                           As painted when angry after Botany Bay Colebe was wounded.
‘Port Jackson Painter’                                                                                                                                             Natural History Museum, London

In his account Tench nowhere mentions using firearms. According to David Collins, however, the marines fired on Aboriginal people they saw ‘at the head of Botany Bay, but without doing them an injury’.

But the handwritten caption to the portrait by the unknown ‘Port Jackson Painter’, now in the Natural History Museum in London, refutes this view, stating ‘Native named Ben-nel.long As painted when angry after Botany Bay Colebee was wounded’ and points to another incident concerning Warugin Kolbi that was not recorded by the First Fleet authors.

Private John Easty provides some intriguing detail.

The Morning of the 24 [December] … we went Down the Beach for abought 3 miles whaare we Saw Several of the natives by thier fires.

‘Port Jackson Painter’
Mr White, Harris & Laing with a party of Soldiers visiting Botany Bay Colebee at that Place when wounded (detail)
Watling Drawing – No 25,
Natural History Museum, London

This might refer to another art work by the ‘Port Jackson Painter’, which seems to provide a pictorial sequel to the wounding of Botany Bay Kolbi. The watercolour is captioned ‘Mr. White, Harris & Laing with a party of Soldiers visiting Botany Bay Colebee at that Place when wounded.’

It shows the three English surgeons standing in a group of Aboriginal men and women who recline around their campfire by the sea, with a detachment of armed redcoats in the background.  At right, one Aboriginal man sits apart on a log, holding a spear. Written under the log in pencil is the word ‘Colebee’, probably denoting Cadi Colebee.

As Dr. Grace Karskens points out in The Colony [Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest NSW, 2009, page 396] Surgeon White, the tall figure, is nudging an Aboriginal person with his musket . That person, a woman, is nursing a man lying on the ground, who might be the wounded Wángubile Kólbi. A child peeks out behind the couple.

There is a problem here, because Surgeon’s Mate Edward Laing arrived in Sydney long after this incident, on 14 February 1792 aboard the convict transport Pitt, bringing Major Francis Grose, commandant of the New South Wales Corps. It makes me suspect that the artist, whoever he was,  might have painted this incident later, perhaps while returning to England by ship.

The ‘Port Jackson Painter’,  or whoever wrote the caption to this image, possibly substituted Laing’s name for surgeon’s mate John Lowes, who certainly took part in the punitive expedition. Watkin Tench wrote on Tuesday 14 December 1790:

At four o’clock in the morning … we marched … the detachment consisted  besides myself, of captain Hill of the New South Wales corps, lieutenants Poulden and Dawes, of the marines, Mr Worgan and Mr Lowes, surgeons, three sergeants, three corporals, and  forty private soldiers.

Lowes returned to England in 27 March 1791 on the chartered Dutch vessel Waaksamheid, bound for Batavia (Jakarta). Also on board were Arthur Phillip’s aide Henry Waterhouse, his game shooter Henry Hacking, Captain John Hunter, Lieutenant William Bradley, Surgeon George Worgan, the artist and midshipman George Raper, midshipman Daniel Southwell, Ship’s master James Keltie and crew members of the crew of HMS Sirius, which had been wrecked at Norfolk Island.

Henry (‘Harry’) Waterhouse was charged with Phillip’s gift of  ‘a Squirrel [possum] and parrot’, sent to Lady Chatham, Mary Elizabeth Townshend, daughter of Lord Sydney and wife of John Pitt, second Earl of Chatham. The ship reached Portsmouth in April 1792.


Probably through the good offices of Cadi Kolbi, William Dawes identified and recorded his family of ‘Gwíagals’ [men] and ‘Gwíagaliangs’ [women] living on the south shore of Botany Bay

William Dawes Book B 1791:45.4-6
Vocabulary of the language of N.S. Wales, in the neighbourhood of Sydney. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Gwíagals                                                 Gwíagaliángs
Kuíbal aged ———–  16                Karangarang, Wadigabú
Menamináng ————12             Murianang Kurut Kurut
Kólbi (or)                            }                    (this lady is wife to    } 25
Warungín, Wangubílyi}28              Warungín, W. Kólbi) }
Kólbi                                    }                    Kurúbarabúla ———17
Yálowe —————— 35

Dawes had been awaiting the departure of HMS Gorgon from Sydney Cove to England which was delayed until the arrival of Major Robert Ross from Norfolk Island. With Tench, Ross and other members of the First Fleet marine corps, Dawes boarded the ship, which sailed from Sydney more than a month later, on 18 December 1791, arriving at Portsmouth on 18 June 1792.
[See Keith Vincent Smith, ‘Death of a Game Shooter’, Chapter 12 in Bennelong, Kangaroo Press / Simon & Schuster, East Roseville, 2001, pages 81-90]

Dawes had applied to stay another three years in New South Wales. ‘Left to himself, I wonder if he would every have left,’ asked Inga Clendinnen. ‘His departure cost us access to the local language as it was spoken at the time of contact. It possibly cost us a brilliant ethnography …’
[Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2003, page 157]

His close friend Captain Watkin Tench wrote that Dawes had ‘advanced his researches beyond the reach of competition’.

‘Mr. Dawes knows something of the language of N.S. Wales’, wrote the anti-slavery philanthropist William Wilberforce to Henry Dundas in August 1794, when he recommended Dawes as the head of a school to educate both Aboriginal people and convicts in New South Wales. Dawes never returned.


In John Hunter’s An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson … (London, 1793, page 532), Governor Arthur Phillip tells the story of a soldier lost in the bush who was rescued by Wárungin, Wángubile Kólbi.

A soldier of the New South Wales corps, going from Parramatta with some of his comrades for the purpose of procuring sweet tea [Smilax glycyphylla], left them to go after a pattegorong [kangaroo], and lost himself in the woods. After roving about for some time, he saw a number of the natives, who fled on seeing his gun, except one that had frequently visited the settlement, and was known by the name of Botany-Bay Colebe. This man joined the soldier, and was followed by one of his companions. The soldier, to gain their good-will, and in hopes of inducing them to shew him the way to Parramatta, offered them some of his cloaths, which were not accepted. He made them understand where he wanted to go, but they were on the point of leaving him till he offered his gun, which the native, who was known at the settlement, took, and then conducted him to Sydney, making him understand that Parramatta was a great way off.
When they drew near Sydney, Colebe returned the soldier his gun, and, bidding him tell Beanah  (the governor) that he was Botany-Bay Colebe, he left him, without even taking what the soldier had first offered him as a present.

Copyright Keith Vincent Smith 2020