Robert Knox - captive in the Kandyan Kingdom
by Aryadasa Ratnasinghe
DN- Thu Jun 19 2003
Robert Knox was a captive in the Kandyan kingdom for 20 years (i.e. from March 1660 to October 1679). He was taken prisoner by king Rajasinha II (1635-1687), and on his return to England, he published his work 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon' in 1681.
This book was later translated into Dutch, German and French, and came to be internationally recognised as a book dealing with the Kandyan kingdom, its inhabitants and his experience concerning the socio-economic history of the island. The book inspired to a certain extent as one of the best-known works of the English fiction 'Robinson Crusoe' written by Daniel Defoe.
In February 1660, an English vessel (the Ann) was put into the Kottiar Bay, and it remained there for some time until repairs to it were completed. It was caught in a severe storm which disabled it to proceed its journey and, therefore, directions were given that it should take some cloth and proceed to Kottiar Bay for trade, until it was able to resume its journey.
King Rajasinha, having heard of the arrival of the vessel and lying anchored at the Kottiar Bay, which was in his territory, sent a Dissawa (Kandyan chief), to bring and produce them before him, hoping to open negotiations with the English East India Company (EEIC), founded by charter in 1660, to which was granted the monopoly of trading in the East. As the sailors were recalcitrant to carry out the orders of the king, 16 of them were arrested and detained indefinitely within the king's territory. Among them were Robert Knox and his father Robert Knox snr.
These English captives enjoyed the privilege of the king, and no Kandyan chief ever dared to punish a single sailor, even for the most trivial offence. The sailors being aware of this solidarity and favouritism, even went to the extent of plundering the villagers of their crops, and stealing their cattle to procure beef, which they ate with great relish. Not only the king offered asylum to the captives, but also gave permission to marry local women, and to trade in whatever they liked.
Each captive was a charge on the village in which he was detained, and received food free, without having to work. Knox says, "We had our provisions brought to us, twice a day, and the food was good. Most of the captives took to knitting caps and were sold at six pence each. The supply soon exceeded the demand. Many took to husbandry, ploughing ground and sowing rice and keeping cattle and it became easy to those who had married Sinhalese women. A few captives were taken to king's service."
Drinking liquor was taboo to Buddhists, but Knox says: "Drunkenness they do greatly abhor, neither are there many that gave themselves to the habit". The captives soon took to distillation and sale of spirituous liquor (arrack) for their livelihood.
"Drunkards behaved in the most disorderly and ugly manner, but they were not punished by the king for their conduct and behaviour, nor did the chiefs took them to task, in order not to anger the king."
Knox observes, that the captives were "allowed to follow husbandry, trading about the country, stilling rack (distilling arrack) and keeping tavern by which they earned good money, insomuch that wine is as natural to white men as milk to children". The local Sinhalese did not know the art of distillation process. In East Africa, the Portuguese distilled 'araq' from the sap of the date palm. Arrack is a corruption of 'araq'. The art of distillation was introduced to the island by the Portuguese who came to the country in 1505.
With the passage of time, Knox was given asylum at a place known as 'Bonder-Coos-Wat' (Bandaracoswatta in the Four Korales near Warakapola). Many English captives, who were likewise settled, died of malaria and Knox too often fell ill of the ague. He soon became very familiar with the villagers and helped them in whatever way he could, and the villagers, in turn, built him a wattle and daub house, to carry on his business of knitting caps, which were sold at reasonable prices, depending on the quality. He also began to rear pigs and poultry to enhance his income.
In 1664, a letter was received by the king from Sir Edward Winter, governor of Fort St. George (Madras), pleading for the release of the English captives. This was, later followed by the arrival of the Dutch Ambassador Hendrik Draak to discuss, over the same issue, with the king.
Both these events pleased the king considerably, and all the captives were summoned to appear before him. While the captives were in the city, a rebellion broke out against the king. After crushing the rebels, the king was in no mood to release the captives, and ordered that they be sent out again, but to new villages. Knox was sent to "towns called Accrareagull in the country of ... Handapandown (probably the modern village of Etiriyagala in the division of Handapanduna in Deyaladahamuna Pattuwa, South-East of Kegalle), where he remained for two years.
Knox soon had two houses built and settled down to his business and going about the country selling his finished products. The Dutch built a fort at Arandara, and Knox had to leave for safety to Legundeniya (now in the Kandukara Pahala Korale of the Uda Palatha Division of Kandy District), few miles from Gampola. The place very much dismayed Knox, because the king used "to send male-factors to be cut off".
So, about the year 1669, Knox left Legundeniya temporarily for handapanduna and began his trade in knitting caps. Out of the savings, he bought a piece of land at Elledat (Eladatta) in Udunuwara in the Kandy district. After completing the house, he left Legundeniya for Eladatta, where he settled down with three other captives, as freeholders. He planted fruit trees and reared goats, pigs, and opened up poultry farms and was able to make good money.
The three bachelors who shared the house with him were Roger Gold, Ralph Knight and Stephen Rutland. They agreed very well and helped each other whenever necessary. The prohibition of women into the house was to prevent all strife and dissension, and to make all possible means for keeping up love and quietness among themselves. The regulations against women were too strict. However, the companions separated, with Roger Gold and Ralph Knight marrying Sinhalese women from the neighbourhood, leaving Knox and Stephen Rutland to remain bachelors.
Knox, although he was not inclined to marry, adopted a girl (a child of one of the mixed marriages of his countrymen) to be of assistance in his old age, when he grows old and feeble in captivity. The girl was Lucea, and she was taught his own language and religion, without the aid of a teacher. Her aptness, ingenuity and company delighted Knox very much. Lucea was about 7 years old, when Knox escaped from captivity in 1679, and he took pains to leave a Last Will bequeathing her his prosperous immovable property at Eladatta.
On his way to England, at Cochin, Knox wrote a letter to Lucea, enclosing a photograph of himself, in the form of a portrait, expressing his sorrow for leaving her alone. He wrote "You are the girl I brought up when in captivity, I still love you, and have no cause to hate you. I will never forget you until I die. I could not take you with me, and the reason for which you know. I was an escapee at the risk of my life and, hence, there was no chance to take another with me".
Knox, though prospering at Eladatta, yet could not forget his native country England. Escape was always in his mind, and with this idea in view, he thought of making the great escape. In 1673, he began the life of a petty trader, moving about the country peddling with his wares. This occupation had two advantages for him. One was to get used to the different places in the country, to which he had never been before, and the other was to explore the possibility of finding an escape route.
He realised that the easiest way was to travel to the North, that part of the land being mostly uninhabited, which would make his plan a success. With this plan in view, he frequently made many trips to the North and studied how he could escape from the Kandyan kingdom.
As his companion, he selected Stephen Rutland and both made ostensible peddling mission to the North, via Anuradhapura and along the banks of the Malwatu-oya to the Dutch fort at Aripu.
At Aripu, Knox and his companion were very courteously received by the Dutch, who sent both of them to Mannar, from where they came to Colombo, the headquarters of the Dutch Government ruling the maritime settlements of the island. In Colombo, they were received by the Dutch Governor Ryckloff van Goens, Jr., and shortly afterwards, he sent them to Batavia (now Jakarta).
At Batavia, Knox was introduced to the Dutch Governor-General Ryckloff van Goens Sr., who questioned him closely on conditions in Kandy.
Knox admitted the tyranny of king Rajasinha, though paradoxically, he also said that he "thought much of him who was always tactful. From Batavia, Knox was sent to the English factory at Bantam, from where he sailed for England on the ship Caesar, arriving in London in September 1680, having spent 19 years, 6 months and 17 days in the island as a captive.
On June 19, 1720, Knox died at Peter le Poer, London. It is said that his death is recorded in the Parish Registers and he was buried at Wimbledon Church five days after.
Knox was a Puritan but he was not a dissenter.
His knowledge of Sri Lanka was so deep that he was even able to find excuses for what would appear failings to the casual observer.