That wanderer among the Kandyan hills
This writer 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.
Thirteen miles off Gampola, past sprawling tea estates nestling in
the lap of luxuriantly foliaged mountains, lies Legundeniya. Here, the
carpet of Lanka's history 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
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
"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
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
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.