MAAS Magazine

Under the night sky

Photo of the stars of the Milky Way showing the area around Eta Carinae, 1890.
Photo of the stars of the Milky Way showing the area around Eta Carinae, 1890.


Author Bruce Pascoe sheds light on the unique and complex relationship between Cadigal woman Petyegarang and Lieutenant William Dawes under the night sky of Observatory Hill. This is an extract from The Story of Sydney Observatory, which can be purchased online

Observatory Hill, the highest point on which the city of Sydney was built, offered Eora Aboriginal almost uninterrupted views of the vast harbour. Strategically, it has always been an important point for Aboriginal people from which to observe; the comings and goings of people, animals and fish and, importantly, the night sky.

When William Dawes, Lieutenant in the First Fleet, arrived at Sydney Cove he built an observatory a little lower down the hill than the present site, and was assisted in his observations by Petyegarang, a young woman of the Cadigal people. Within months of the arrival of Europeans one of their officers was peering at the night sky in the company of a young black woman. Dawes urged her to look through the telescope and share her stories.

Petyegarang told Dawes about the giant dark emu, which can be seen as a darkness within the Milky Way, the spirit that created the land and which also helps the people predict the seasons. The black duck Umburra, the heart of South Coast people, which appears low in the northern sky and gradually flies west as the summer progresses. And like many Aboriginal peoples, Petyegarang’s clan had a story for Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, a story that, strangely, is shared by many people around the globe. A wicked man chases the seven sisters across the sky. It is not a salacious story but a moral tale of caution and behavioural rules.

Well away from the main encampment of soldiers and convicts, Petyegarang and Dawes’ experience was poetic and philosophic. Their relationship was complex, influenced by their removal from the normally harsh environment of the camp, their obvious attachment to each other and, on a more prosaic level, their responsibilities to their own people.

Petyegarang explained local culture and he recorded both her stories and the language in which they were told. She also learnt from Dawes, perhaps under instruction from her Elders, to pass on strategic information about the invaders. This is an incredibly rare cultural exchange for Australia and that rarity continued for two hundred years. The closeness of these two individuals has almost no other equivalent in the entire colonial history of Australia.

The life of an astronomer requires a person comfortable with separation from the daylight world. Dawes, for instance, was removed from the routines of the First Fleet colonists but it suited his own inclinations. He was involved in the liberation of the British Empire’s slaves, and that alone may have influenced his treatment of Petyegarang. He was not your normal career soldier.

The original building collapsed or was demolished after Dawes left the colony. The first official Government Astronomer, William Scott, was appointed in 1856 and the present sandstone building was completed in 1858.

My family has had an involvement with the lighthouses of Bass Strait since 1954 and I can attest that light keepers are different, sometimes very, very different. Astronomers keep the same hours and social habits, awake and working while others sleep, their companions the stars, silence and owls. They watch the world’s slow rotation scroll across the face of the Universe, and such a life lends itself to the mind of a poet, even more so than that of a priest.

The Observatory is an island of calm above one of the world’s busiest cities, the trees are old and spread, remnants from a time when the town was new, the sandstone walls bask their faces in the sun and even after dark you can press your own face to them and feel the stored warmth. Sandstone, the colour and texture of tea cake warm from the oven. Wander here, touch the stone, stare into the great star tube, for there is nothing to do here but contemplate the Universe. A haven, a heaven, a garden of stars. But always remember the first astronomers because they never gave up this land and still consider it theirs. Their descendants live on the land below. They have not and will not leave, for Sydney is their home.


This is an extract from the MAAS publication The Story of Sydney Observatory, which details the evolution of the astronomical observatory to a working museum.

Purchase The Story of Sydney Observatory online or from MAAS Store and selected bookstores.


The Story Of Sydney Observatory book, published April 2018
The Story Of Sydney Observatory, published April 2018.

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