A forgotten mother who inspired a great book
Another International Women’s Day has come and gone. Talking about
expired events and eulogising them could be compared to locking stables
after the horses have fled. But that is not a fitting simile. No stables
need be locked in this instance for here is paying homage to a genre of
humans forgotten for a good segment of world history. Better describe
women’s services to the family as those “Taken for granted” than
Actually, women's inspirational force that pulsates a husband’s,
son’s or a brother’s energy and enterprise has been overlooked for
years, nay, even centuries. Perhaps it is fair to quote one exception
where annals give due credit to Vihara Maha Devi for the national
awakening activities of her son, Gemunu that laid the foundations of a
Generally, however, rarely have hosannas been sung to mothers much
hinged to the service of training their offspring along a praiseworthy
path. This truth struck me when the past few days that included the
International Women’s Day, I got trapped in a great book, “A Historical
Relation of Ceylon” and penned by even a greater writer named Robert
Knox, a name very familiar to us.
Where does the mother-figure come in here? Did the mother encourage
her adolescent son to stop his public school education and take to the
high seas on a voyage that ended in tragedy? That was far from her
But once the father died in the wilds of Hathara Korale due to the
quizzical whims of the then reigning Lankan monarch leaving the youth to
fend for himself in a strange land it was the background created by his
mother that saved him from complete extinction.
At least that was what I felt when reading Knox’s autobiographical
Here is Knox himself. “In the time of my childhood I was chiefly
brought 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, her children to teach the knowledge of God and to love, fear and
serve him in our youths.“
He goes on to wax on his mother by stating that she always got the
children to read the Bible or some other godly book, exhorting them to
live in love of God and being faithful to Him. Private morning and
evening prayers were a must.
It was as though the mother was telescoping into the dark years that
lay ahead for her eldest son and preparing him for them. In fact she had
given him the book, The Practice of Piety.” Knox writes, “This book was
in my pocket when taken there,”
There? Where? That is Ceylon that was going to be one hell-hole for
father and son.
The most miserable incident during the famous author’s captive state
was when his father after four months of suffering from Malaria died in
Hathara Korale, in the remote village of Bandara Koswatte and he had to
bury him alone. When he asked for help from the villagers they had
callously only supplied him with a long rope to drag his corpse to the
This extreme lack of sympathy in Buddhist villagers is almost
incredible and can only be explained by the surmise that the country was
in a very degenerated state morally and otherwise due to the constant
But Knox’s strong religious background steadied him and made him go
on, even ending up as a sort of capitalist lending money to the poor
farmers around. Very strangely he becomes the owner of a Bible too, a
local handing him one. The man himself had got it from a Portuguese.
It is rather surprising that Knox does not conjecture that his mother
played some supernatural role in sending it to him, for it is an English
medium Bible too.
These religious literature mostly handed by his mother, fashioned not
only his way of living but even his way of writing, one can safely
assert. Scholars contend that some passages, especially the one that is
woven around his father’s death smacks of the literary style of the
For that was his only literary source. He lived not only in the
highlands of a distant island but also as a captive moved among what can
be called “the lowest in society”, very uneducated. Knox himself makes a
wrong statement that “the Chingualay learning was very low”.
In the ship that finally took him back home, he asks for pen and
paper from the ship captain to be reassured that he can still write to
check whether he had really come back from the dead.
And when he begins his notes on the island that trapped him for
nearly 20 years, “swallowing up the prime of his life,” both due to the
religious literature that his mother had handed to him plus the sense of
moral values that the good woman had instilled in him, he always sticks
to the truth. No exaggerations. Even no unjust criticisms of his
captors. That is what makes the book great.
The Royal Society of London almost immediately took a liking to his
notes due to the truthful nature of the facts. The only lie that has
entered the book is that his captor, Rajasinghe Deiyo killed his son.
But that had been hearsay and the son had succeeded him after his death
which news Knox had heard while on his way back in Bantam and he hastens
to correct it in his autobiographical notes.
If one were to go ahead with the influence that propelled Robert
Knox, can his aversion to females too be a result of his preoccupation
with religious literature alone? He seems to have loved only his mother
and Lucea, the daughter of a mixed marriage that he adopted to look
after him, if he were he to grow old in the captive land.
He endowed her well, after he left our shores, gifting to her his
house and estate at Eladatte and sending the will through sea vessels in
those far off days when communication was so difficult.
Was his mother, now in heaven, the inspiration for all his good
deeds? But ironically his aversion to the female species continued and
he had repelled the advances of many a female in his society to marry
For Knox when he left our island was still 39 years, having begun his
captivity at 17 years of age. But the sales of his book, even going into
further editions and translations to other languages and his career as a
ship captain again had made him very prosperous.
Robert Knox’s life, thus, is certainly very strange and full of
pathos, especially in the earlier stages beginning with the misadventure
of shooting his brother on the eye and then years later culminating with
a rare abduction by an Asian monarch,who was a blend of eccentricity and
But one beautiful factor in his life remains, that is his love for
his mother and the respect for the literature she bestowed on him,
leading to one of the best books ever written, travel or otherwise.
Mothers, then as now, they stand so majestic as monuments of inspiration
to their offspring.