Robert Knox in the Kandyan Kingdom And the various editions of KNOX’s Ceylon
Posted on July 1st, 2012

by Brendon Gooneratne Courtesy The Island


In 1681 Robert Knox published his book on Ceylon, the full title of which is an Historical Relation of the Island CEYLON in the East- Indies Together with an Account of the Detaining in Captivity the Author and diver other Englishmen now Living there, and of the AuthorƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Miraculous ESCAPE illustrated with Figures and a Map of the ISLAND by ROBERT KNOX a Captive there near Twenty Years.

KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s book was published in London, and printed by Richard Chiswell, Printer to the ROYAL SOCIETY, whose printing establishment seems to have been located conveniently near a public house, for its address is given as ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”the Rose and Crown in St. PaulƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Church-yardƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. The year of publication was 1681. It consisted of 189 pp. + 3 pp., embellished with 17 Copper Plate engravings on 15 Plates, and a Folding Map. Substantial in size (a Folio volume of which the dimensions were 30 X 15 cms ), it carried a message from the author in an ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”Epistle DedicatoryƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢, dated March 18, 1681, which informed his readers:

I have writ nothing but either what I am assured of by my own personal knowledge to be true, and wherein I have born (sic) a great and sad share, or what I have received from the Inhabitants themselves of such things as are commonly known to be true among them.

The portrait of Knox engraved by Richard White in 1693 for a projected second edition is sometimes found bound with copies of the first edition.

Robert Knox is considered by many to have been ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”the most sympathetic and percipient observer of traditional Sinhalese society at a time when its structure and form were still alive and pulsatingƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. His book was praised by Sir Christopher Wren for its ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”great Truth and IntegrityƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢.

Knox was born in London in 1641, the son of a seafaring Englishman, Captain Robert Knox, and a GodƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…”fearing and extraordinarily pious mother, Abigail Knox nee Bonnell. He had an elder sister, Abigail, and a younger brother, James. At the age of 14 he went to sea for the first time on his fatherƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s new ship, the Ann, trading along the Indian coast. He returned to London in 1657 to find that his mother had died the previous year. He had already taken to the sea as a calling, despite his fatherƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s early protestations , and the refitted Ann, under the English East India Company, sailed on 21 January 1658. On the conclusion of this trading venture in India which lasted over a year, the Ann, preparing to return , lost its main mast in a cyclone off the coast of South India at Masulipatam on 19 November 1659. Repairs could only be effected from the tall and strong trees on the East coast of Ceylon to which the Ann limped with difficulty. During their stay of between 3-4 months in Kottiyar Bay, Knox, together with his father and sixteen members of the crew, were taken prisoner by Tennekoon Dissawe representing the King of Kandy, the redoubtable King Rajasinha 11. (So much, incidentally for the claims to the traditional Tamil lands of Trincomalee as propounded by the LTTE). He was removed to Kandy in April 1660.

How Knox employed his time ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”during a lonesome and dragging confinement of nineteen and a half yearsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ is now, in the words of H. A. I. Goonetileke, PeradeniyaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s late and eminent librarian, a story of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”fortitude, reliance, exemplary self-discipline and resourceƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. His -beloved father died on 9 February 1661 and Knox who was only twenty years old at the time remained on the island for another 18 years, living in 4 different villages close to Kandy before escaping from the last, Eladetta, on 22 September 1679. During his sojourn in the Kandyan Kingdom, he avoided any personal liaison with local women, and frowned on such liaisons by his fellow-captives. Obviously his entreaties fell on deaf ears, because most of his companions became involved with local women and continued to live with them even after Knox himself left Kandy. With Stephen Rutland, his companion, Knox arrived at the Dutch fort of Arippu on the north-western coast of Ceylon on 18 October 1679. He was taken from Colombo by the Dutch to Batavia arriving on 15 January 1680, and started his homeward voyage on the Caesar, arriving in England in September 1680, almost 23 years after he had left the country on that ill-fated expedition with his father.

He began to write his book on that voyage home from Batavia and gives the reasons for desiring to set down the record of his wondrous excursion into the interior landscape of Sinhalese society, as having been there: to give thanks to God for his deliverance from captivity, to inform his family and their friends of what had become of his father, and to exercise his writing hand since he had had no access to pen or paper during his 19-year sojourn in Ceylon. Knox was one of the first Europeans to have lived for so long in the Kandyan Kingdom and one of very few to have escaped from there to write anything of it. His astonishing memory and attention to detail were most remarkable and added to the flavour of the story.

This first and most renowned book on Ceylon in the English language, was duly published in August 1681 and became an instant success in KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s lifetime. Plans for a second edition were afoot a few years before Knox died on 19 June 1720 at the ripe old age of nearly 80.

His long and extraordinary captivity did not deter him at the age of 40 from undertaking at least 5 more voyages to the East in the service of the East India Company: ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”showing the flag, commerce, slave trading, and congenial exploits of piracy and plunder were natural concomitants of the expansion of European dominance in Asia and AfricaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ as one writer has described such employment. It was significant and surprising that Knox participated in the slave trade, considering his own incarceration in Kandy for nearly 20 years.

He concluded his last voyage when he was 60 years of age and for the next twenty years till his death settled in Wimbledon writing and ruminating on a life over which he had no reason to doubt the benign influence of his God. But, his grand encounter with the Island of Ceylon and its people remained the high-water mark of his career and imagination, and growing public interest in his book was to sustain him in his later years.

Knox stated in his autobiography:

My booke of Ceylon hath found such acceptance of this present generation that all the bookes that were printed are bought up & many more would have bin bought if were to be had.

He lived long enough to bask in the well-deserved popularity of his book, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”it being ye the onely thing will keepe my name in memory in ye worldƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢.

KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Ceylon was pirated in Europe. Various editions appeared in German in 1689, Dutch in 1692, French in 1693 ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” the last in Lyon and in Amsterdam within 13 years of the first English edition. They appeared in thick 4to, 8vo and even 12 mo editions in one and in 2 volumes. I have, in a lifetime of collecting Antiquarian Books on Ceylon, acquired all these editions including Sir James Emerson TennentƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s own copy of the 1681 Folio edition, and even PhilalethesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s own copy, inscribed “To Mr. John Smith M.P. with Mr FellowesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Kind Regards”. The latter, incidentally confirmed the identity of the anonymous author of the History of Ceylon published in 1817. My wife and I wrote a joint article on this remarkable coincidence, published in the Vidyodaya Journal of Arts, Science and Letters in 1971, that proved beyond any doubt ( of which there was quite a bit at the time) who the author was who wrote under the nom-de-plume ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”PhilalethesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. The book was a discovery among other books I had bought in an antiquarian bookshop in London in 1967: having been acquainted with the controversy surrounding the authorship of the book I was overjoyed at this chance discovery.

KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s book appeared about the same time as John BunyanƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s The PilgrimƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Progress, which was a religious book. About the same time there also appeared Daniel DefoeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Robinson Crusoe. They both portrayed the strong line of Protestant thinking of the period. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s adventure was evidently right down DefoeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s street of fiction, fuelled as his imagination was by exploits of travel in far-flung landsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢. Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, a year before Knox died, and Captain Singleton (in which KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s tale was condensed, and the intrepid pirate even cast ashore on the island), in the following year. The debt of Defoe to Knox has been well described by E. F. C. Ludowyk and A. W. Secord.

“It is fascinating to chart the sustained interest in KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s work in his lifetime and after, and the continuing influence he was to have on writers after Defoe, though in a different way altogether. Beginning with British designs on the island, and its eventual capture and complete subjugation in 1815, future overlords and later compatriots were introduced to a people and country little known, through the work of Knox, and relied for their information and insights on his memorable summation of the Sinhalese ethos and character and his equally impressive and living picture of their daily life and occupationsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢.

Beginning with soldiers like Robert Percival in 1803, religious men like James Cordiner in 1807, scientists like John Davy in 1821 and missionaries like W. M. Harvard (also in 1821), the valuable work of Knox began to be pillaged in the attempt to furnish nineteenth-century readers of all sorts with delineations of the new jewel in the ever-expanding crown of Empire. The process continued throughout the century in later writings of authors like Jonathan Forbes (1841), Henry Marshall( 1846), Charles Pridham (1849), H.C. Sirr (l850), Sir George Barrow (1857) and the imperious Sir James Emerson Tennent (1859). After 1817, authors were greatly assisted by the first English reprint of the complete text of Knox by ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”PhilalethesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ (i.e. Rev. Robert Fellowes) in that year.

In 1900 KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s long-lost manuscript autobiography was found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the inter-leaved copy of the book with KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s additional notes for a second edition were later found in the British Museum Library in 1925. The first was edited in 1911 by James Ryan, a member of the Ceylon Civil Service, and published by James MacLehose and Sons in Glasgow. This edition, now exceedingly rare, survives as the only complete publication of the important Knox autobiography.

The interleaved copy was finally worked on by J. H .O. Paulusz and appeared in print in 1989.

ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”There is little doubt that the publication of the first edition of KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s curious and remarkable book in 1681 with blessings ofƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ the Royal Society and the approbation of his employers, the East India Company, proved an immediate and popular success. The author, however, sailed away as Master of the Tonquin Merchant on a two-year voyage to the Far East, almost as soon as the book was published, with a copy of the first edition provided by his publisher, Richard Chiswell, in his personal luggage. On his return at the end of August 1683 he found himself famous. Among his readers had been King Charles 11 and a letter from his cousin James Bonnell to John Strype dated l2 December 1683 refers to his interview with the King himself, a rare honour indeed.

By 1693 four pirated imprints had appeared in German, Dutch and French, and in 1705 John Harris paid KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s narrative the deserved accolade of including it in digest form in the first edition of his massive compilation of-travels ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬…” HarrisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Voyages as it is called. PinkertonƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Voyages later reprinted it from HarrisƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Voyages.

Accompanying this paper is the, title page of the first edition and the title pages of the pirated editions in German, Dutch and French.

I trust I have done justice to this most remarkable book on Ceylon, which remains one of the great source studies on 17th century Ceylon.


That Robert Knox never met or had an audience with King Rajasinha II of Kandy is very clear from his not mentioning such an event in his detailed book. This is also clear from his portrait of King Rajasinha II in quasi – Western dress as an Eastern potentate wearing a doubloon. This is in direct contrast to the sketch of Vimala Dharma Suriya, which is portrayed in Joris Van SpilbergenƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s book, Voyage to the East Indies in 1602 and the book was published in 1605 when he was commissioned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to call over on his voyage and somehow meet the then King of Kandy, Vimala Dharma Suriya and forge a pact with him to oust the Portuguese from Ceylon. He met the King who even promised him that he and his wife would lift bricks and stones to establish a fort to get rid of the Portuguese from Ceylon.

In that book there is a superb sketch of Vimala Dharma Suriya and Joris Van Spilbergen side by side, which shows very clearly the attire and dress that Vimala Dharma Suriya wore – which was distinctly Kandyan, in contrast to the dress depicted in KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s book for Rajasinha II. This is obviously because SpilbergenƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s artist who must have accompanied him when he met the King, depicted it accurately.


Robert Knox displayed no racial discrimination against the Kandyans with whom he lived with for 19 years. Unlike his later activities after escaping from Ceylon, when he went capturing Africans from the West coast of Africa in a slaving ship. This feeling was common amongst Europeans of the period who thought that these African “savages”, as they labelled them, were akin to apes and belonged to a lower strata of human beings.


Recently it has emerged that Knox adopted a 3 year old Sinhalese Kandyan girl named LUCEA of mixed parentage with an English father. He taught her both his religion and that of the Kandyans, and also both languages. He left a prosperous estate to her when he left her and escaped.

He mentions his intention in adopting her as to have some companion when he gets old in Kandy. He had accepted the real possibility of living out his life in Kandy. He never cohabited with any Kandyan woman and resolutely led a celibate life. He also encouraged his fellow European prisoners in the Kandyan Kingdom to follow his example but a number of them did not and lived with Kandyan women leaving many children. When he finally escaped from the Kandyan Kingdom he left all his legal possessions including his house to this girl who was then 7 years old.

Knox heard from another Englishman who also had excaped from Kandy once he returned to England that some Adigar had seized the property that he left behind for Lucea but that it was eventually restored to her.


Katherine Frank in her book on ” CRUSOE: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox and the creation of a myth” mentioned the extracts taken by Defoe from the Knox edition, in the construction of his book ROBINSON CRUSOE. So, did Professor Lyn Ludowyk, former Professor of English at Peradeniya who seemed convinced that Defoe had taken incidents out of KnoxƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s life into his book.

But it was very plausible that Defoe took evidence from the book on Alexander Selkirk which called the description ,” the real Robinson Crusoe” on the title page of the book published in 1835, describing the life of Selkirk who was a castaway in the Juan Fernandez Islands off Chile for 4 years. He was immortalized by the English poet, William Cowper , where he is described as follows:

I am monarch of all I survey

My right there is none to dispute

From the centre all round to the sea.

I am lord of the fowl and the brute.

O Solitude! where are the charms

That sages have seen in thy face?

Better dwell in the midst of alarms

Than reign in this horrible place.

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One Response to “Robert Knox in the Kandyan Kingdom And the various editions of KNOX’s Ceylon”

  1. Fran Diaz Says:

    Thank you, Mr Brendon Gooneratne for this write up on Robert Knox and his book on Ceylon. I read the book many years ago, and you have inspired me to read it again.

    I was truly glad to read the writings in the various Appendices, particularly that “Knox heard from another Englishman who also had excaped from Kandy once he returned to England that some Adigar had seized the property that he left behind for Lucea but that it was eventually restored to her”, which shows that ultimately honor reigned in the Kingdom of Kandy.

    It is possible that Knox served in a slave ship as that was the most lucrative trade of that time in the British Empire. I saw a film called “An Honorable Trade” set in Britain at those times where a young woman who owned a slave ship falls in love with her black slave ‘manager’ who liaised between her and the slaves.

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