Revisiting Robert Knox’s Experiences in the Kandyan Kingdom in the 17th Century

Padma Edirisinghe, in Sunday Observer, 2016, where the title runs “That wanderer among the Kandyan hills”.see note below **

Thirteen miles off Gampola, past sprawling tea estates nestling in the lap of luxuriantly foliaged mountains, lies Legundeniya. Here, the carpet of Lanka’s histRory rolls back and reveals a page of the history of Kande Uda Pas Rata, as it was 300 years ago.




The stone slab on a lofty desolate hillock tells us, that here lived Robert Knox, John Loveland, John Berry and William Day. That was in the late 17th century. The stone slab also looks neglected and forlorn, almost symbolic of the negligence of that remarkable man, Robert Knox, a monumental emblem of human endurance who served years of bondage under singularly trying circumstances to write what is described today as the most authentic historical source on 17th Century Sri Lanka.

The saga, ‘Historical Relations of Ceylon’ has always fascinated me, together with the character of its author. So, together with my family (while stationed at Gampola) I paid a visit to Legumdeniya where, according to his account, he, with four other Englishmen were brought and settled by the men of king Rajasinghe 11 when the Dutch attacked the frontiers of Hatharakorale ousting them from their earlier settlement.

Knox himself describes the place as one of the most dismal in the land where the king used to send ‘malefactors’ as he was reminded suddenly to cut off. The word, ‘dismal’ fits in even now and we had to drive miles and miles of hardly motorable road flanked by the neglected tea and coffee plantations, to trace the house of Pinhamy Kollara ,who, according to the headmaster of Legumdeniya School is a direct descendent of the custodian of Knox during his captivity. Knox’s book however, mentions no such specific custodian and mentions these custodians as men who had to provide their victuals.


Obsessed by the day-to-day problems of living with that of four grown up children, still unemployed, Pinhamy Kollara was hardly in a mood to warm himself to a topic as distant as Knox of the 17th Century. But later, he became quite vociferous of a stranger’s life in a Kandayn village in a far off island. There were however, embellishments as an attempt by his great grandfather and a pal, to kill Knox by tying him into a sack and throwing him into the Mahaweli. …….this part defaced ……..legible in the original.

“From what you have heard, what type of person was Robert Knox?” I inquired from Pinhamy. “He had been a regular nuisance and had disappeared for weeks, but while here he had been fully exploited. The aswedduma field and the adjoining chenas were cultivated by him”.

However, this account of bossing, jars with Knox’s own account.

“The king sent us a message when we were in Legumdenny, that we should not think we were malefactors but whom the king held in high esteem…”

However, that Knox had often disappeared is evident. These, according to him were to collect debts from old neighbours at Handapaduna in Hatharakorale, to visit Eladatte where he was planning to put up a house, and so on. It shows the intensification of the socialization he was undergoing though he admits of growing weary of Legumdenny.













Yet, he survived to go back to his country and tell a tale, strange, yet very academic, storing in him these facets of the Kandyan kingdom – the administrative and political systems, social and cultural traditions, system of justice, the fauna and flora. Did he plan to write a book on Kandea once he returned? Or was he positive about his plan to return? Together with a fellow mate he made several treks to the coast bound areas utilizing the selling of hats as a trade but was just hunting for a way of escape. Finally, he arrived at Arippu, got into a Dutch ship and went back home after 19 years, to the amazement of his family who were positive that he was stone dead. His beloved mom who taught him to read the Bible, everyday, had already passed away, despair gripping her as she waited for her son and husband, captain of the ill fated ship that got marooned in the island.

Going home, son Knox fought back for his land taken over by relatives and even resumed his post as a ship captain. Always suspicious of females, he never married, but went on to spend the rest of his life scouring the oceans and penning his book on Lanka that ended up a best seller in Europe for it gave a fantastic insight into the unknown world.

Hooke, Secretary of the Royal historical society who encouraged the book writes,

“It was as though Knox who, though could bring away nothing on his back or in his purse, did yet transport the whole of Conde Uda in his head”.

He, the rustic farmer of Kollara’s fields also later produced a map of Lanka, reckoned as one of the best. Once he got into the Dutch ship he wished to read and write but he had forgotten the two feats. So, he borrowed pen and paper from the ship captain, practised the English letters and began his memoirs and now, whole of Kandea gushed into his head.

These metamorphosed into, Historical Relations of Ceylon, one of the most famous books in the world.


The buffaloes he ran behind on Kollara’s fields, he himself shouting Jah Mah in typical local fashion were now forgotten. No, but they were not altogether forgotten, nor were the betel chew for captains who sailed to India, who were always reminded to bring him this victual.

At Arippu, the report to the Dutch officers about the two was, “Here have come two men, from the inlands , very fluent in Sinhala and clad in sarong and always chewing betel”.

Gone back, Lanka stayed firmly within the man. Nor was Maria forgotten.She was a product of a link between a local woman and a Euro mate of him(who was one of those captives who despairing for freedom had taken to wed village damsels). Knox was training her to look after him in his old age, if he were to die here. And, from across the seas he now sent his Will, bequeathing to her all his property in Kandea for he had become a wealthy man here through sheer perseverance.

It is interesting to note that in the frenzy of his new activities he had even attempted a glossary of Sinhala words while producing impressions for artistic presentations of Lankan life for his oncoming book, now to run into several prints. He had ended up a brilliant writer making rounds in the coffee houses of English literati, thirsty for adventures of this sort.

******  *********

** A NOTE, then in 2016: Padma Edirisinghe won the Columnist of the Year award recently for the columns she subscribed to Sunday Observer in 2015. Today, we publish excerpts from her first column to the same newspaper subscribed as early as 1975. (Same title as above – dated, 5 May, 1975, 41 years ago). Due to the passing of time the piece has been defaced in the last lines and in certain areas. The writer wishes to add, in that long- forgotten year, when she climbed the steps of Lake House and handed over the item to the then editor, he remarked that only articles of known writers are published, but later he had relented and published it, perhaps, thanks to Robert Knox, the central figure of the write-up. Less important matter from the excerpts has been left out in a few places, due to the defacement.



1 Comment

Filed under Aboriginality, ancient civilisations, authoritarian regimes, centre-periphery relations, cultural transmission, economic processes, heritage, historical interpretation, island economy, Kandyan kingdom, landscape wondrous, life stories, literary achievements, pilgrimages, politIcal discourse, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, the imaginary and the real, trauma, travelogue, unusual people, world events & processes

One response to “Revisiting Robert Knox’s Experiences in the Kandyan Kingdom in the 17th Century

  1. Ana Jung

    Knox’s book may be read online at Project Gutenberg and I expect it did cause a quite a Sensation in its time.

    The King of Kandy certainly sounds like a Real Handful! :::

    Thus he often deals with those, whose Children are his Attendants. I mentioned before, that young Men of the best Families in the Land, are sought out to wait upon the King in his Court. These after they have served here some small time, and have as it were but seen the Court, and known his Customs and Manners, he requiteth them by cutting off their Heads, and putting them into their Bellies: other faults none do know. Heretofore, as it is reported, he was not so Cruel, but now none escapes, that serves in his Palace. Then he recruits his Slain out of the Countries, by giving Orders to his Dissava’s or Governors to send him others to Court. Whither they go like an Ox to the Slaughter, but with far more heavy hearts. For both they and their Parents full well know what end the King’s honorable Service will bring them to. Howbeit there is no remedy…


    Once to try the hearts of his Attendants, and to see what they would do; being in the Water a swimming, he feigned himself to be in extremity, and near Drowning, and cryed out for help; upon which two young Men more venturous and forward than the rest, immediately made way and came to his help: who taking hold of his Body brought him safe to Land. At which he seemed to be very glad. Putting on his Cloaths he went to his Palace: then he demanded to know who and which they were that had holpen him out of the Water. They, supposing by his Speech it was to give them a reward for the good Service they had so lately done him, answered, We were they. Whereupon he Commands to call such a great Man. (For it is they whom he appoints always to see Execution done by their Soldiers.) To whom he gave Command, saying, Take both these, and lead them to such a place, and cut off their Heads, who dared to presume to lay their hands on my Person, and did not prostrate themselves rather that I might lay my hand on them for my relief and safety. And accordingly they were Executed…

Leave a Reply