Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Life in the Kingdom of Kandy as seen by Robert Knox (1660-1680)

Robert Knox (1660-1680)
Robert Knox (1660-1680)

(An extract from a chapter of Ceylon of the Early Travellers by H. A. J.Hulugalle first published in 1965.)

Early in the century I often spent my school vacation in a Kandyan village near Kurunegala. From a reading of Robert Knox’s well known book, "An Historical Relation of Ceylon", I have since realised that village conditions had hardly changed in the two hundred years between his enforced sojourn in the Island and my own school days. They have, however, changed immeasurably thereafter, as a result of free education, the adult franchise, the abolition of the headman system, bus travel, newspapers, the radio and the cinema. Money has almost completely replaced barter, and politics vies with religion.

Knox lived in the Kandyan kingdom for nearly twenty years the life of a villager. He built himself a modest house and cultivated a garden, ate the food of the country, and for a living peddled knitted caps when he was lending paddy to his fellow villagers at fifty per cent interest. He also raised chickens, goats and hogs while his companions in captivity distilled arrack and ran taverns. He spoke Sinhalese fluently, and when the time came for him to set down his impressions he was able to paint a faithful picture of the country and the people among whom he lived. He says: "I have writ nothing but either what I am assured of by my own personal knowledge to be true... or what I have received from the inhabitants themselves of such things as are commonly known to be true among them." Describing the King’s palace, he says: "I will not adventure to declare further the contents of his treasuries, lest I may be guilty of a mistake."

Racial prejudice

Knox had no racial prejudice. He does not attempt to exalt a way of life or form of government that he did not find in Ceylon. He is not concerned to preach a gospel although he was sustained in his captivity by a deep religious faith. Frequently robbed and exploited by his Kandyan neighbours, he bore them no grudge. Harassed and held in captivity by Raja Sinha II, he is anxious to give that old tyrant his due.

The King loved animals, was a good swimmer and horseman, did not persecute Christians although he was not free from some of the vices of the Roman emperors. His mother was a Catholic, his father an ex-Buddhist priest and his wife, from whom he lived apart, a Hindu. Raja Sinha was a firm and able ruler or he could not have kept his crown for fifty two years. He was fighting or negotiating with the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Danes at various times. The fact that he was able to set one against the other and preserve his kingdom intact shows that he was a match for them as a shrewd tactician. As he grew older he became disillusioned and whimsical. Having aided the Dutch to dislodge the Portuguese he complained that he had "given pepper and got ginger." He detained and even imprisoned the European ambassadors, and sometimes played strange tricks on them.

One of the Dutch ambassadors he kept at a village not far from his palace at Hanguranketa. "During which time," writes Knox, "a Chingulay and his wife falls out, and she being discontented with her husband, to escape from him flies to this ambassador’s house for shelter. The woman being somewhat beautiful, he fell greatly in love with her. And to obtain her, he sent to the King, and proffered him his service, if he would permit him to enjoy her company. Which the King was very willing and glad to do, having now obtained that which he had long aimed at, to get him into his service.

"Hereupon the King sent him word that he granted his desire, and withal sent to both of them rich apparel, and to her many jewels and bracelets of gold and silver. Suddenly after, there was a great house prepared for them in the city, furnished with all kinds of furniture out of the King’s treasure, and at his proper cost and charges. Which being finished, he was brought away from his mountain into it. But from henceforward he never saw his wife more, according to the customs of the court". Dignitaries in the King’s service were not allowed to bring their wives to live in the city! But this was not the end of the ambassador’s troubles. A letter was intercepted from him to the Dutch government. Saying that " he serves me for fear and them for love", the King ordered his execution, which was duly carried out.

Ambassadors around him

Raja Sinha liked to have his ambassadors around him. "The King careth not that any should talk with ambassadors, but himself, with whom he taketh great delight to have conference, and to see them brought before him in fine apparel, their swords by their side, with great state and honour, and that the ambassadors may see and take notice of the greatness of His Majesty. And after they have been there some time, he gives them both men and handsome young maids, to attend and also to accompany them: often causing them to be brought into his presence to see his sports and pastimes, and not caring to send them away; but in a very familiar manner entertaining discourse with them."

We have in Knox’s work probably the best portrait in the round of a Kandyan king — "all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see", as Oliver Cromwell wanted in the portrait which Sir Peter Lely was painting of him. Knox was, however, shrewd enough to keep his distance from the King, or he might have shared the fate of some of his compatriots who were closer to the throne.

One reads Knox more for what he has to say about the lives and habits of the people than for the light he sheds on the government of the day which was an absolute monarchy. No writings by Sinhalese authors of the period can compare with Knox’s in accuracy, close observation and literary charm. What captured his interest was no doubt commonplace and obvious to them, and therefore not worthy of notice or comment. There were no diarists among them. The literary craft was practiced mainly by monks who were busy studying and writing commentaries on the sacred books. The poet sometimes took a bird’s-eye view of city and landscape, but in general he let his imagination run riot and made the picture unreal.

Though born in England, Robert Knox was probably of Scottish descent. He went to sea at fourteen and did not have higher education. "In time of my childhood" he writes, "I was chiefly up under the education of my mother, my father generally being at sea... She was a woman of extraordinary piety: God was in all her thoughts, as appeared by her frequent discourses and godly exhortations to us children to teach the knowledge of God and to love fear and serve Him in our youths". Of his schooling, he says that "when I was grown big enough I was sent to a boarding school at Roehampton, to Dr. James Fleetwood (my father then dwelling at Wimbledon in Surrey) who since was Bishop of Worcester."

I shall not attempt to tell the story of Knox and his travels and adventures even in summary form. There is no alternative to reading his book if one is trying to gain some knowledge of his life and work. The long Ceylon episode of his career begins with the arrival of the frigate Ann at Trincomalee. The ship was on a voyage from Madras to Pondicherry when, on 19th November, 1659, "being on the road of Matlipatan...happened such a storm, that in it several ships were forced to cut out main mast by the board, which so disabled the ship that she could not proceed in her voyage." Orders were received from Madras that the ship should take in some cloth and go to Trincomalee, there to trade while a new mast was fitted.

The commander of the ship was Knox’s father and Robert, who was nineteen years of age, was of the ship’s company. While ashore, together with fourteen others of the crew, they were taken prisoner by Raja Sinha’s men and removed inland. Knox Snr. died of acute malaria on 9th February, 1661. Father and son were living in "an open house, having only a roof but no walls" at Bandaracoswatte, a village thirty miles from Kurunegala.

"The evening before his death", writes Knox, "he called men to come near his bedside, and to sit down by him, at which time I had a strong fever upon me. This done, he told me that he sensibly felt his life departing from him; and was assured that this night God would deliver him out of his captivity, and that he never thought in all his lifetime, that death could be so easy and welcome to any man, as God had it to him, and the joys he felt in himself he wanted utterance to me."

Plagued with fever

Knox laid his father’s body in the grave which he helped to dig. Robert was plagued with fever and his only comfort in his loneliness were the two books he had brought with him from the ship, "A Practice of Piety" and "The Practice of Christianity". He continued to live at Bandaracoswatte and had a village boy to cook his food. "I had read my two books so often over", he says, "that I had them almost by heart. For my custom was after dinner to take a book and go into the fields and sit under a tree, reading and meditating until evening; excepting the day when my ague came, and then I could scarce hold up my head. Often have I prayed, as Elijah under the juniper tree, that God would take away my life, for it was a burden to me."

Shortly after this Knox was able to acquire a copy of the Bible in English. "It chanced as I was fishing", he writes, "an old man passed by, and seeing me, asked of my boy, if I could read in a book. He answered, Yes. The reason I asked, said the old man, is because I have one I got when the Portuguese left Colombo, and if your master please to buy it, I will sell it him." Knox spent a sleepless night wondering whether he would be able to clinch the bargain as his own funds were low at the time. Next day the old man accepted a cap knitted by him in payment for the Bible. The purchase undoubtedly made a great difference to Knox’s peace of mind. Constant readings of the King James version enabled him to develop the prose style which makes his book so readable.

Knox’s "Historical Relation of Ceylon" is now obtainable in a Sinhalese version and there is much in it which should be of special interest to a villager of today. Two oft-quoted passages will intrigue him:

"The inhabitants thereof are the chief and principal men: insomuch that it is a usual saying among them, that if they want a king, they may take any man, of either of these two counties (Udunuwara and Yatinuwara, around Kandy) from the plough, and wash the dirt off him, and he by reason of his quality is fit to be a king." And, "The Chingulays are naturally a people given to sloth and laziness: if they can but anyway live, they abhor to work; only what their necessities force them to, they do, that is, to get food and raiment. Yet in this I must a little vindicate them; for what indeed should they do with more than food and raiment, seeing as their estates increase, so do their taxes also."

Knox has much to say about food, raiment and the superstitions of the people. "They take great notice in a morning at their first going out who appears in their sight and if they see a white man, or a big-bellied woman, they hold it fortunate; and to see decrepit or deformed people, as unfortunate". "Neither man nor woman wears shoes or stockings, that being a royal dress, and only for the King himself."
Facsimile of title page of Robert Knox's 1681 edition
Facsimile of title page of Robert Knox's 1681 edition

A people are sometimes judged by their proverbs. Here are three from Knox’s collection of Kandyan proverbs:

"A beggar and a trader cannot be lost. Because they are never cut out of the way."

"The ague is nothing, but the headache is all."

"To lend another makes him become an enemy."

mixed marriage

After nineteen years, six months and seven days of captivity, Knox and his friend Stephen Rutland escaped to territory held by the Dutch where the people were surprised to see "white men in Chingulay habit." Knox had no qualms about leaving the Kandyan kingdom. He did not take a woman of the country for wife, as many of the European captives did. He never forgot that he was the Captain’s son. When he had his own house and garden at Eladetta, near Kandy, he entertained the English prisoners and their wives at Christmas, Easter and other festivals. He adopted the child of a mixed marriage and left his property to the girl, whose name was Lucea. The Dutch authorities treated Knox graciously, and he accompanied the Governor, Ryckloff van Goens Jnr. to Batavia, sitting at his table at meals during the voyage.

Returning to England he completed his book with the help of his cousin, the Rev. John Strype. The Court of the East India Company sanctioned its publication and the Royal Society sponsored it. The book was an immediate success when it was published in 1681 by Richard Chiswell of London. Dutch, German and French translations followed. The first edition did not have the well known portrait by Richard White. It was inserted in copies after 1695. One of the impressions of the picture had the following lines beneath it:

See Knox’ aspect here by White designed,

Peruse his book; thou’it better see his mind,

Captive, like Jacob’s offspring, long detained.

Like them at last by grace he freedom gain’d

Parting from spoils they Egypt’s jewels took.

He Ceylon’s left yet (strange) they’r in his book.

Several editions of the book have been published since 1681 but they are nearly all collector’s items. In 1958 the Ceylon Historical Journal reprinted the text of the 1911 MacLehose edition published in Edinburgh, with the autobiography and a useful introduction by the editor. The effect of Knox’s book was far-reaching. Professor E. F. C. Ludowyk says that "a great deal of what Defoe must have read in Knox goes into Crusoe, and the story of Alexander Selkirk added something to the amalgam of which Crusoe was compounded." The philosopher John Locke wrote that a reading of Knox’s book disproves any notion that "absolute power purifies men’s blood and corrects the baseness of human nature."

We do not always realise what a great legacy Knox has left to Ceylon. For making this possible one can almost forgive Raja Sinha for detaining him for twenty years. Knox’s life on the seas was resumed after his liberation and before he retired he had made altogether seven trips to the East. He was near eighty when he died.

A mature reader discovering Robert Knox’s "An Historical Relation to Ceylon" must feel something of the sensation described by John Keats when he opened Chapman’s Homer for the first time: " Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken."