Sarojini Jayawickrama’s Book on Robert Knox

Nira Wickramasinghe: reviewing Sarojini Jayawickrama’s Writing that conquers. Re-reading Knox’s Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, (Social Scientists Association, Colombo 2004)


Among academic historians in many parts of the world there exists an almost pathological fear of contamination by literary studies via the linguistic turn which manifests itself in the display of fierce criticism of authors of postmodern or cultural studies especially those interested in ‘discourse’ or textual analysis. This is an indication of how centred professional historians still are in the historicist and implicitly empiricist models which are responsible for their material and political hegemony in academia as well as in the public sphere.

In Sri Lanka even more than fear, it is ignorance that prevails: rare are the occasions when new and old narrative forms of history writing simply engage in either dialogue or confrontation. There are many reasons for this situation: practitioners of ‘real history’ remain chiefly interested in ‘political outcomes’ and as a result the kinds of textual analyses performed by feminists and others in the field of gender and cultural history are not considered useful. Furthermore since History’s real concern is perceived as ‘change over time’, it is believed by the majority of historians that cultural history’s contributions can only be limited. This type of belief is often articulated without any serious knowledge and understanding of the methods and aims of the ‘other’s writings and for this reason it is important for critiques as well as practitioners of textual/ethnographic approaches to read the ‘other’s production and accommodate historical techniques instead of urging that one should displace the other. The book under review is an example both of the richness of new techniques of recovering and interrogating the past and of the weaknesses of such approaches.

In ‘Writing that Conquers’, a book based on a University of Hong-Kong doctoral thesis, Sarojini Jayawickrama’s offers us a complex and nuanced re-reading of a book that has in Sri Lanka acquired a near canonical status. Knox’s Historical Relation is indeed regularly plundered by students in search of evidence to prove virtually any hypothesis, by advertisers in search of quotable quotes that will help give legitimacy to products of dubious quality and even by the occasional literate politician trying to display his/her erudition. If Knox says it.. it can’t be wrong! Nationalist scholars of a sort dismiss it totally as a book of little significance written by a seventeenth century ‘sailor’ of the East India Company who misread local customs.

The title of the book under review, ‘The Writing that Conquers’ refers to the hegemonic power of the discourse of historiography to appropriate and transform the space of the other. The French historian Michel de Certeau used this term when analyzing Amerigo Vespucci’s encounter with the New World, where the conqueror used the New World ‘as if it were a blank, ‘savage’ page on which Western desire would be written. The historiographer, he argued, like the conqueror bearing the European weapons of meaning will ‘write the body of the other and trace there his own history’.

Avoiding the conundrums of the false and the true in history, Jayawickrama’s book is an exploration of a European encounter with the ‘Other’, its confrontation with a society that was remote from Europe on cultural, moral and political planes. She analyzes the way this encounter is mediated through representation, the politics of this representation and the relations of power embedded in it. Her book is an essential read for anyone eager to understand the importance of new historicism as a methodology to explore one’s past.

In her first two chapters Jayawickrama sketches the historical milieu of the work and locates the text within a particular type of writing, the discourse of travel as a colonial enterprise. The author sets down her project which is to consider Knox’s text within a multiplicity of discursive practices embedded in a variety of documents from political documents that form an integral part of colonial administration to contemporary writings in the local language . She then gives a succinct and useful summary of the process by which the maritime provinces of Ceylon came under the colonial domination of the Portuguese and the Dutch. The pages that follow analyse Knox’s text as a travel narrative where the self of the narrator is involved in a process of redefinition as the antithesis or negation of the East. The travel writer assumes the persona of the ethnographer who, as a ‘captive’ in the Kandyan Kingdom, a ‘forbidden city’ to all Europeans, writes from a neutral perspective, representing the unfamiliar in a coherent and credible fashion for western readership, but as Jayawickrama demonstrates his writing is always partial.

Particularly fascinating is the comparision made with the writings of Oviedo in 1535 (General and Natural History of the Indies) on the New World, the better known account of Las Casas about the Indians, or Columbus’s ‘Letter of 1493 to Luis Santangel’. The dehumanizing strategy is present in these texts as in Knox’s classification of the natives of Ceylon: ‘Of these Natives, there are two sorts, Wild and Tame…. For as in the Woods there are Wild Beasts, so Wild Men also’.

The second chapter explores the links between Knox and the East India Company and the Royal Society . More interestingly it analyses the autobiographical notes made by Knox at a later date. Knox was employed by the East India Company as an advisor on the feasibility of opening up plantations and in that capacity procured slaves for St Helena from among the inhabitants of Madagascar and was sometimes involved in piracy. His autobiography helps trace his spiritual wanderings and progression from alienation to redemption.

Chapter 3, entitled ‘Writing that Conquers’ looks at Knox’s representation of the people of Ceylon, especially women linking it to religious, racial and moral discourses of the seventeenth century. The chapter discusses how the colonial discourse is mobilized in an act of representation that produces the Other and differs for instance from the discursive production of Amerigo Vespucci. The uncritical use of framing devices such as ‘contact zones’ (Mary Louise Pratt) or Foucault’s notion of ‘heterotopia’ , a counter site where ‘all the other sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted’, or Fernando Otiz’s transculturation is often cumbersome to otherwise subtle analyses. For the historian familiar with the literature on 18th century Sri Lanka the description of the way in which the relations of power were inverted in Kandy through the symbolic stripping of the powers of the ambassador who is made to dismount his horse and enter the city by foot seem very similar to Tikiri Abeysinghe’s analyses.

Jayawickrema’s analysis of Knox’s representation of women is pointed and well supplemented by recent feminist literature on the subject. Less convincing is her attempt to show ‘how the women of Kandy found a space for resistance through a carnival subversion of the mores that regulated marriage and property rights’ purely on the basis of the text by Knox. The social historian needs more evidence before speaking of resistance or agency, that cannot be gleaned solely from a reading of the interstices of Knox’s text. In the same way more evidence is needed to substantiate her contention that ‘the people of the island looked upon the Kandyan king as their monarch.’ (p. 107). There investigation sometimes falters for want of a firm grounding in the political and intellectual context.

Chapters 4 and 5 look at the king Raja Sinha II’s use of language and ritual practices and interrogates their effectiveness as strategies of ‘resistance’. For this the author relies on the correspondance between Raja Sinha II and the Dutch governors. King Raja Sinha II who ruled in Kandy from c. 1629-1687 succeeded in thwarting the ambitions of the Portuguese and the Dutch to control the entire island. The analysis of the different ways in which the king endeavoured to improvise an image of imperial kingship through speech and action so as to counter colonial power is very convincing. The use of the concept of self-fashioning that relates to the way he fashioned his own identity as that of a cakravarti would however be more suitable than the term “resistance” that the author sometimes uses: indeed it seems a little incongruous since the concept is generally associated as the weapon of the weak, with revolts of peasants or subalterns against dominant groups. The titles the king used in his first communication with the Dutch give an idea of his language:

‘I Raya Singha, Emperor of the Island of Ceylon, King of Candy, Zetivaca, Dambadany, Anorayapore, Jafnapatam, Prine of Ove, Mature, Dinavaca, The Four Corlas, Grand Duke of the Seven Corlas…..’ (p. 163)

The fifth chapter is a wonderful account of the rituals and other symbolic acts that were used by the king to constitute power. It studies the architectural features, spatial organization and landscape of the city as manifestations of the king’s majesty. The analysis of the king in audience, there ‘both to see and be seen; to gaze and be gazed at, from a distance’ provides a new perspective on kingship and its modes of legitimacy. The ambassador had to climb seven levels of steps before reaching the inner courtyard of the Hall of Audience. The King was veiled by seven curtains, that symbolized the seven mountain rings that encircle Mount Meru. The veil was signaling that the king was like a god in a temple shielded from the view of worshippers.

Chapters 6 and 7 are a comparative and critical reading of Knox’s text and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The final chapter sums up the impact of the colonial encounter on Knox. Sarojini Jayawickrama concludes thus:

‘In re-reading Knox’s An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, I have sought to inflect the fissures in the colonial discourse that underpin the text. Knox’s homogenising colonial history, which naturalized hierarchical relations and polarities of colonizer and colonized, self and other, civilized and uncivilized, has been interrogated through an exploration of alternative and heterogeneous sources of knowledge, which are seen to destabilize and resist the power of the colonial history to impose its authoritative discourse, which erases ‘other voices’ and privileges one’ (p.287)

No reader of this book will ever read Knox as he/she read it before, so in more ways than one the author has succeeded in her endeavor to prise open the fractures in the narrative and read it differently while deciphering hidden relations held in the discourse of other times.. Coming from a different discipline and with an interest in material issues as well as in representation it seems to me important to reflect on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s signaling of ‘asymmetric ignorance’ whereby non-Westerners must read ‘great’ Western scholars to produce the good histories, while the Western scholars are not expected to know non-Western works. This is not in any way a condemnation of works that belong to the tradition of cultural theory but a display of fatigue with the tidal waves of intellectual fashion that has left a landscape of strangely similar and often uninventive works on colonial representation and colonial discourse. The more I read them the more I feel that these new methods – to read texts against the grain, to read the silences and omissions or the marginalia – have long been deployed by many historians preoccupied with a close and critical reading of texts and the unremitting awkwardness of archival evidence but who do not openly articulate their theoretical position. After all is not the appreciation that knowledge, the definition of its scope and manner of its creation, is ingrained in the imperatives of its political context integral to the historian’s craft?

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One response to “Sarojini Jayawickrama’s Book on Robert Knox

  1. Chandra Maliyadde

    Great.Thanks for the enlightenment. Knox is knocked out by the decision of the current regime to transform agriculture from inorganic to organic overnight. The current regime in Sri Lanka brought the farmer from Robert Knox’s royalty to a span clad dependent shouting on highways.

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