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Sunday, 22 March 2015





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More on Robert Knox

Perhaps no other western writer has fascinated Sri Lankan readers so much as Robert Knox, an Englishman said to be of Scottish descent born to a sailor of 'the county of Suffolke" in England who at the time the drama unfolded was a sailor in the East India company which was made the only trading company under Cromwellian Republicanism.

And what was the drama? Not very dramatic though. No romance nor lustful dealings for our hero was of a very unattractive personality according to contemporary writers. But a mania for distant sea travel ran in his blood and he pleaded with his father to take him along when his father put to sea his new by built ship Anne to trade in the East Indies in 1658.

Building ships? Yes. The family was very affluent. In fact to use Knox's own words, "We (the family) had no affliction and lived without want". As the 17 or 18-year-old lad ran behind buffaloes in a land turned into a prison house in the far off island of Ceylon to earn his living during Rajasinghe 11's reign and later took to knitting caps while the despotic monarch sat on Lanka's throne the youth would have often thought of those happy far off days in Suffolk.

Robert Knox-seems to have been very affectionate to his little maid

Knox's mental framework is indeed worth examining for he did manage to come back home, but in his book nor in his autobiography remains a trace of self pity, except perhaps when his father, a ship captain dies after a bout of malaria in Bandara Koswatte in Hotcourly (Hathara Korale) and he is forced to bury him single handed. That too is not self pity but pity for his father.

I am not sure whether attempts have been made to dissect the causes that led to Knox's resilience and stability of mind in the melee of these terribly adverse circumstances, stable enough to store voluminous data to compile one of the most famous travel books of the world. But I for one, feel that one of the main factors was his piety, a factor much understated by writers, East and West. And who was responsible for this "faith in God?" His mother, Abigail Bonnel. Robert Knox'a primary education had been handled by her.

Knox himself writes of her, "In the time of my childhood I was chiefly brought up under the education of my mother, my father being generally at sea ... She was a woman of extraordinary piety. God was in all her thoughts ........It was always her practice to set me to read the Bible or some other Godly book always earnestly exhorting us to the fear of God'.

Remote terrain

In fact she had handed him the "Practice of piety" and "It was in my pocket when taken there". And almost miraculously Knox in that far off remote terrain of Lanka was handed a copy of a Bible by a Sinhala man in exchange for a few coins. It can be concluded that till Knox came away in a Dutch ship after a terrible trek from the interior to a North Western coastal city, Arippu by name, always carried the books in his pocket.

The surfeit of religion imbibed in him perhaps was also responsible for his aversion to women, making him almost misogynist. As years dragged on and the reigning king, Rasingh Deiyo seems in no mood to give up his game of maintaining his "Human Zoo" or menagerie in the highlands Knox decided to live in some degree of comfort in his captive state.

With the money got from trading caps as an itinerant peddler and also by accruing interest on loaned money ("the clever businessman that he was") he bought land in picturesque Eladatte, North of Kandy and set up house.

Though he invited friends to his house, most of them white skinned captives like him, he forbade married men coming in for their wives can cause trouble. Remember all these were village women,ethnically Sinhala to whose charms those White men who set sail in the Anne had succumbed after realising that escape was impossible.

One by one they all married and settled down, but not Robert Knox. Armed with his Bible and aided by his closest pal, Stephen Rutland. Together they planned and plotted to take a Northward course to reach the sea.


One fact that has got obscured in Knox's life at Eladatte, was that he kept a maid. A little girl. God whom he revered intensely on his mother's initiative had somehow seen to it that not only would he one day write the best source book on an island in the Indian ocean, but that he plan for his future should he die here in old age. But Knox was still comparatively young, about 39 years, yet he planned well for old age in this stranded land, by adopting a sweet girl called Lucea to look after him.

She, as her name implies, could be the daughter of a mixed marriage that the upcountry villages was getting famous for. Here it must be noted for sake of clarity that Rajasinghe ii's bondage of foreigners was of a peculiar kind. The bonded were free to move anywhere within the Kandyan kingdom and even marriages with locals seem to have gone unnoticed.

Knox seems to have been very affectionate to his little maid.

And after he left the island he handed over documents bequeathing his Eladatte house and the surrounding land to her. In the Tercentenary of Robert Knox, is a marginal note that Knox had made in his own writing in his autobiography which runs as follows.


"This girl, Lucea, was seven years old. I came away. Had her three years. By a written will left her all that I possessed there". He had despite the long distance followed what happened to her. The adigar had seized all that property from the king but on the production of Knox's documents the land had been restored to her. The news had been conveyed to him by two other "escapees". The world is certainly small even in those days minus air travel and other sophisticated modes of communication.

As an aftermath I cannot refrain from relating this incident that may carry a psychic touch. My family was then living at Gampola. I had dropped my ID Card in a Kandy Gampola bus and a week later got a letter from a person with Eladatte address that the ID is with him. "Would I come and get it".

I made a dash for it next day itself for life in Sri Lanka minus an ID has become a nightmare. Even your next door neighbour fails to acknowledge you without it. The good Samaritan who had found the ID himself was a teacher and offering me a cup of tea deigned to have a chat with me.

By this time due to my own obsession with Robert Knox whose story is so uplifting to sagged spirits I had riveted my attention to the fact that he had once lived here. I asked the teacher about it. He was in the blues about any Knox but intimated to me that the female in that house once while digging the garden had found some foreign coins.

I managed to corner her while her children were busy urinating all over the garden. She had forgotten all about the coins but tried to find them for me but could not.

"Have you heard about one Lucea? I asked determined not to give up. I harboured a fat hope that she would say that she was Lucea's descendent and inherited this land from her.

But all what the woman. distracted by her children said was, "Lucea? I have never seen her"

"Fat head," I swallowed that part. "How can you see her for she lived here some 400 years ago" was all I said to this other mother running behind her children in that beautiful valley of Eladatte whose fame has now gone into oblivion.


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