Robert Knox (1641 – 1720) was an English sea captain who worked for the British East India Company and spent almost two decades in what is now Sri Lanka after being held captive there. He was the son of another sea captain, also named Robert Knox, who accompanied him to the East and died in Sri Lanka. Knox Jr. wrote about his adventures and stay in Sri Lanka in a book titled 'A Historical Relation of Ceylon' (1681).

H.A.J. Hulugalle wrote in “Ceylon of the Early Travellers”: “Knox lived in the Kandyan kingdom for nearly twenty years the life of a villager. He built himself a modest house and cultivated a garden, ate the food of the country, and for a living peddled knitted caps when he was lending paddy to his fellow villagers at fifty per cent interest. He also raised chickens, goats and hogs while his companions in captivity distilled arrack and ran taverns. He spoke Sinhalese fluently, and when the time came for him to set down his impressions he was able to paint a faithful picture of the country and the people among whom he lived. He says: "I have writ nothing but either what I am assured of by my own personal knowledge to be true... or what I have received from the inhabitants themselves of such things as are commonly known to be true among them." Describing the King’s palace, he says: "I will not adventure to declare further the contents of his treasuries, lest I may be guilty of a mistake." [Source: “Ceylon of the Early Travellers” by H.A.J. Hulugalle, 1965]

Though born in England, Robert Knox was probably of Scottish descent. He went to sea at fourteen and did not have higher education. "In time of my childhood" he writes, "I was chiefly 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 children to teach the knowledge of God and to love fear and serve Him in our youths". Of his schooling, he says that "when I was grown big enough I was sent to a boarding school at Roehampton, to Dr. James Fleetwood (my father then dwelling at Wimbledon in Surrey) who since was Bishop of Worcester."

Robert Knox Arrives in Sri Lanka

Robert Knox, Jr. and his father Robert Knox, Sr. set sail with a group of sailors on the ship 'Anne' from in London on January 21, 1658. The group was on trade missions to East Indies under the British East India Company. After a voyage of about one year and nine months, the ship encountered stormy weather along the Coromandel Coast and Bay of Bengal. The ship's mast and sails were damaged. [Source: Gamini Punchihewa, Sunday Times]

The Anne was on a voyage from Madras to Pondicherry when it was forced to land near Kottiar Bay (estuary of Mahaweli Ganga, Trincomalee) on November 19, 1659. Knox wrote: "being on the road of Matlipatan...happened such a storm, that in it several ships were forced to cut out main mast by the board, which so disabled the ship that she could not proceed in her voyage." Orders were received from Madras that the ship should take in some cloth and go to Trincomalee, there to trade while a new mast was fitted.” [Source: “Ceylon of the Early Travellers” by H.A.J. Hulugalle, 1965]

When King Rajasinghe II of Kandy (1629-1687 A.D.) heard of their arrival he sent them gifts and invited them to come ashore. They were received by the Disawe (high-ranking official) of the district. But later, while Robert Knox Sr., was resting under a tamarind tree the king's men took him captive. Later the tree where Robert Knox Sr. was captured was marked with a memorial tablet saying:"This is the Whiteman's tree under which Robert Knox, captain of the ship 'Anne' was captured".

H.A.J. Hulugalle wrote in “Ceylon of the Early Travellers”: “The commander of the ship was Knox’s father and Robert, who was nineteen years of age, was of the ship’s company. While ashore, together with fourteen others of the crew, they were taken prisoner by Raja Sinha’s men and removed inland.”

Most of Knox's sailors were put to work knitting garments or engaging in animal husbandry, poultry or growing rice. Some distilled arrack. Robert Knox Jr. became a money lender like the Afghans of old in Ceylon. He gave not money, but rice with 50 percent interest charged on it. Some sailors were mobilized into the king’s armed forces. Among them was Richard Varhan who was appointed commander of the king's 970 soldiers' regiment. A few intermarried and settled down there.

Death of Knox’s Father

King Rajasinghe ordered the separation of the crew. Knox and his father were kept for some time in a village called 'Bonder-Coos-Watte (modern Bandara Koswatta close to Wariyapola in the North Central Province). They lived in "an open house, having only a roof but no walls" Robert Knox, Sr. contacted malaria and died in February 1666 at Bandara Koswatte.

"The evening before his death", writes Knox, "he called men to come near his bedside, and to sit down by him, at which time I had a strong fever upon me. This done, he told me that he sensibly felt his life departing from him; and was assured that this night God would deliver him out of his captivity, and that he never thought in all his lifetime, that death could be so easy and welcome to any man, as God had it to him, and the joys he felt in himself he wanted utterance to me." [Source: “Ceylon of the Early Travellers” by H.A.J. Hulugalle, 1965]

Knox laid his father’s body in the grave which he helped to dig. Robert was plagued with fever and his only comfort in his loneliness were the two books he had brought with him from the ship, "A Practice of Piety" and "The Practice of Christianity". He continued to live at Bandaracoswatte and had a village boy to cook his food. "I had read my two books so often over", he says, "that I had them almost by heart. For my custom was after dinner to take a book and go into the fields and sit under a tree, reading and meditating until evening; excepting the day when my ague came, and then I could scarce hold up my head. Often have I prayed, as Elijah under the juniper tree, that God would take away my life, for it was a burden to me."

Shortly after this Knox was able to acquire a copy of the Bible in English. "It chanced as I was fishing", he writes, "an old man passed by, and seeing me, asked of my boy, if I could read in a book. He answered, Yes. The reason I asked, said the old man, is because I have one I got when the Portuguese left Colombo, and if your master please to buy it, I will sell it him." Knox spent a sleepless night wondering whether he would be able to clinch the bargain as his own funds were low at the time. Next day the old man accepted a cap knitted by him in payment for the Bible. The purchase undoubtedly made a great difference to Knox’s peace of mind. Constant readings of the King James version enabled him to develop the prose style which makes his book so readable.

Knox on the King of Sri Lanka and His Ambassadors

H.A.J. Hulugalle wrote in “Ceylon of the Early Travellers”: Knox had no racial prejudice. He does not attempt to exalt a way of life or form of government that he did not find in Ceylon. He is not concerned to preach a gospel although he was sustained in his captivity by a deep religious faith. Frequently robbed and exploited by his Kandyan neighbours, he bore them no grudge. Harassed and held in captivity by Raja Sinha II, he is anxious to give that old tyrant his due. [Source: “Ceylon of the Early Travellers” by H.A.J. Hulugalle, 1965]

The King loved animals, was a good swimmer and horseman, did not persecute Christians although he was not free from some of the vices of the Roman emperors. His mother was a Catholic, his father an ex-Buddhist priest and his wife, from whom he lived apart, a Hindu. Raja Sinha was a firm and able ruler or he could not have kept his crown for fifty two years. He was fighting or negotiating with the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Danes at various times. The fact that he was able to set one against the other and preserve his kingdom intact shows that he was a match for them as a shrewd tactician. As he grew older he became disillusioned and whimsical. Having aided the Dutch to dislodge the Portuguese he complained that he had "given pepper and got ginger." He detained and even imprisoned the European ambassadors, and sometimes played strange tricks on them.

One of the Dutch ambassadors he kept at a village not far from his palace at Hanguranketa. "During which time," writes Knox, "a Chingulay and his wife falls out, and she being discontented with her husband, to escape from him flies to this ambassador’s house for shelter. The woman being somewhat beautiful, he fell greatly in love with her. And to obtain her, he sent to the King, and proffered him his service, if he would permit him to enjoy her company. Which the King was very willing and glad to do, having now obtained that which he had long aimed at, to get him into his service.

"Hereupon the King sent him word that he granted his desire, and withal sent to both of them rich apparel, and to her many jewels and bracelets of gold and silver. Suddenly after, there was a great house prepared for them in the city, furnished with all kinds of furniture out of the King’s treasure, and at his proper cost and charges. Which being finished, he was brought away from his mountain into it. But from henceforward he never saw his wife more, according to the customs of the court". Dignitaries in the King’s service were not allowed to bring their wives to live in the city! But this was not the end of the ambassador’s troubles. A letter was intercepted from him to the Dutch government. Saying that " he serves me for fear and them for love", the King ordered his execution, which was duly carried out.

“Raja Sinha liked to have his ambassadors around him. "The King careth not that any should talk with ambassadors, but himself, with whom he taketh great delight to have conference, and to see them brought before him in fine apparel, their swords by their side, with great state and honour, and that the ambassadors may see and take notice of the greatness of His Majesty. And after they have been there some time, he gives them both men and handsome young maids, to attend and also to accompany them: often causing them to be brought into his presence to see his sports and pastimes, and not caring to send them away; but in a very familiar manner entertaining discourse with them."

We have in Knox’s work probably the best portrait in the round of a Kandyan king — "all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything as you see", as Oliver Cromwell wanted in the portrait which Sir Peter Lely was painting of him. Knox was, however, shrewd enough to keep his distance from the King, or he might have shared the fate of some of his compatriots who were closer to the throne.

Robert Knox Moves to Legundeniya

Knox Jr. and his companions were allowed to stay in villages chosen by the king and allowed to roam around the area. After his father's tragic death, Knox shifted to a place called Handpanadara (modern Deyaladha Amuna Pattuwa), south east of Kegalle (present village Etiriyagala). There he stayed for two years from 1664-1666 earning his living - by knitting caps and other garments. From Bandara Coswatte, like a wanderer of no fixed abode, Robert Knox, on the orders of the king shifted to Legundeniya in the Kandy District about seven miles from Gampola accompanied by his comrades John Loveland, John Marry, and William Bay. They lived there for three years from 1667-70 A.D.

In his book 'A Historical Relation of Ceylon' Robert Knox gives his impressions of Legundeniya. "We all four were brought up together into a town on the top of a mountain called Legundeniya, where I and my fellow Bachelor, John Loveland lived together in one house. For by this time, not many people as we, that single man, but seeing so little hopes, despaired of their liberty, and had taken wives or bedfellows. At our first coming into the town, we were very much dismayed, it being one of the most dismal places, I have set upon that Land. It stand alone upon on the top of a mountain and no other town near it and about four to five houses in it".

In the village there is a stone memorial erected in 1908 with the words: "Here lived A.D. 1667-70, Robert Knox, John Loveland, John Barry, and William Bay".

Knox in Eladetta

Next Knox moved on to Eladetta, not far from Kandy, just six or seven miles away on the road to Daulagala. Robert Knox in his book 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon', describes Eladetta thus:- ".. It lies some ten miles to the southwards of the city of Cande in the country of Oudaneu ra in the town of Elledat." Eladetta Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Karunaratne, a Police Sergeant who had retired in 1977 after serving the Police Department for 34 years, has a house on part of the land where Robert Knox and his companions had lived and put up a house. A stone memorial of Knox lies within the grounds of Mr. Karunaratne's house by the roadside. The memorial was initially placed on the other side of the road, opposite his house but after road widening, it was re-erected at his request on his own land close to the roadway. He has given permission to the local authorities to have this stone memorial enclosed as a protective measure by putting up a small wall or some sort of railing around it.

While he was digging a pit in his garden in 1975, Mr. Karunaratne unearthed an object resembling a badge made of brass or other metal with an insignia. The inscription on it reads "Quofas Et Gloria Duccant". This badge also has a moulding of a cannon mounted on wheels which he surmised could have been the emblem of Knox's ship, 'Anne' (on which the whole crew had set sail from London) and perhaps would have been the emblem embossed on the cap worn by the captain of the ship, Captain Knox. Among the other memorabilia he had unearthed were some pieces of broken crockery and some Dutch coins.

In his book, Robert Knox makes mention of the land he had bought to put up his house at Eladetta for five and twenty Lares (that is about five dollars). He writes, "....the terms of purchase being concluded on between us, a writing made upon a leaf in a manner witnessed by seven or eight men of the best."

Robert Knox worked a paddyfield close to where he and his companions had stayed at Eladetta. Knox described this 'corn' field and the water spout thus: "... it being a point of land standing, into a corn field that corn fields were on the three sides of it and just before my door a little corn ground belonging thereto, and very well watered in ground besides eight Cocker-nut Trees."

Robert Knox hated marriage and did not allow his companions to tie the knot. If anyone did so, he had to leave Knox's house forthwith. So while at Eladetta, his only companion was Stephen Ruthland who also remained like Knox - a bachelor. Two other comrades, Roger Couhd and Ralph Knight married Sinhalese girls of the village and left his house.

He did not take a woman of the country for wife, as many of the European captives did. He never forgot that he was the Captain’s son. When he had his own house and garden at Eladetta, near Kandy, he entertained the English prisoners and their wives at Christmas, Easter and other festivals. He adopted the child of a mixed marriage and left his property to the girl, whose name was Lucea.

Knox also mentions a little girl in his book. A girl called Lucea (of a mixed marriage of his own countryman) who had looked after him in the house with affection and devotion. It is also said in Knox's book, that after escaping from Eladetta, when he reached London, he had sent a note to Lucea through one of his countrymen living around Eladetta, that he wanted to bequeath his property and small estate to her.

Knox on Life in Sri Lanka

H.A.J. Hulugalle wrote in “Ceylon of the Early Travellers”: One reads Knox more for what he has to say about the lives and habits of the people than for the light he sheds on the government of the day which was an absolute monarchy. No writings by Sinhalese authors of the period can compare with Knox’s in accuracy, close observation and literary charm. What captured his interest was no doubt commonplace and obvious to them, and therefore not worthy of notice or comment. There were no diarists among them. The literary craft was practiced mainly by monks who were busy studying and writing commentaries on the sacred books. The poet sometimes took a bird’s-eye view of city and landscape, but in general he let his imagination run riot and made the picture unreal. [Source: “Ceylon of the Early Travellers” by H.A.J. Hulugalle, 1965]

Knox wrote: "The inhabitants thereof are the chief and principal men: insomuch that it is a usual saying among them, that if they want a king, they may take any man, of either of these two counties (Udunuwara and Yatinuwara, around Kandy) from the plough, and wash the dirt off him, and he by reason of his quality is fit to be a king." And, "The Chingulays are naturally a people given to sloth and laziness: if they can but anyway live, they abhor to work; only what their necessities force them to, they do, that is, to get food and raiment. Yet in this I must a little vindicate them; for what indeed should they do with more than food and raiment, seeing as their estates increase, so do their taxes also."

Knox has much to say about food, raiment and the superstitions of the people. "They take great notice in a morning at their first going out who appears in their sight and if they see a white man, or a big-bellied woman, they hold it fortunate; and to see decrepit or deformed people, as unfortunate". "Neither man nor woman wears shoes or stockings, that being a royal dress, and only for the King himself."

A people are sometimes judged by their proverbs. Here are three from Knox’s collection of Kandyan proverbs:
"A beggar and a trader cannot be lost. Because they are never cut out of the way."
"The ague is nothing, but the headache is all."
"To lend another makes him become an enemy."

Robert Knox Escapes from Sri Lanka

It was from Eladetta that Captain Robert Knox and his only companion, Stephen Ruthland made their final escape in 1679 through Anuradhapura. They trekked along the banks of Malwatu Oya-then Dutch territory. They reached the Dutch Fort at Arpu on October 16,1679, after being captive in the Kandyan Kingdom for nearly nineteen long years. From there they set sail to England via Mannar and Batavia. Knox reached London in September, 1680, when he was 40 years old.

H.A.J. Hulugalle wrote in “Ceylon of the Early Travellers”: “After nineteen years, six months and seven days of captivity, Knox and his friend Stephen Rutland escaped to territory held by the Dutch where the people were surprised to see "white men in Chingulay habit." Knox had no qualms about leaving the Kandyan kingdom. The Dutch authorities treated Knox graciously, and he accompanied the Governor, Ryckloff van Goens Jr. to Batavia, sitting at his table at meals during the voyage. [Source: “Ceylon of the Early Travellers” by H.A.J. Hulugalle, 1965]

Returning to England he completed his book with the help of his cousin, the Rev. John Strype. The Court of the East India Company sanctioned its publication and the Royal Society sponsored it. The book was an immediate success when it was published in 1681 by Richard Chiswell of London. Dutch, German and French translations followed.

The effect of Knox’s book was far-reaching. Professor E. F. C. Ludowyk says that "a great deal of what Defoe must have read in Knox goes into Crusoe, and the story of Alexander Selkirk added something to the amalgam of which Crusoe was compounded." The philosopher John Locke wrote that a reading of Knox’s book disproves any notion that "absolute power purifies men’s blood and corrects the baseness of human nature."

We do not always realise what a great legacy Knox has left to Ceylon. For making this possible one can almost forgive Raja Sinha for detaining him for twenty years. Knox’s life on the seas was resumed after his liberation and before he retired he had made altogether seven trips to the East. He was near eighty when he died.

Robert Knox died in London on June 19, 1720, at the age of 79. "He was buried at Wimbledon Church five days after, possibly by the side of his mother who died in 1656." (quoted from the Introduction by Mr. Sarath Saparamadu to Robert Knox's book 'An Historical Relation of Ceylon' 1st edition 1958 -Tissara Prakasakayo, Dehiwela).

Knox, Robinson Crusoe and Cannabis

Captain Knox introduced Europe to cannabis (marijuana) and likely helped to inspire Daniel Defoe's famous novel Robinson Crusoe. Richard Boyle wrote in the Sunday Times: “Knox, who had experienced the pharmaceutical use of bhang in Ceylon, brought perhaps the first cannabis seeds and leaves to London in 1689.” His friend Robert Hooke — the famous scientist and influential member of the fledgling Royal Society — “not only tried to grow some plants, but gave a revolutionary lecture to members of the Royal Society, in which he praised the drug’s “efficacies”.”

According to the Royal Maritime Museum: Knox introduced Robert Hooke to exotic “specimens gathered on his travels. (The two men were close enough that Knox was at Hooke's deathbed in 1703 and organised the brilliant but difficult man's burial.) These specimens famously included 'a strange intoxicating herb like hemp'. Hooke spoke to the Royal Society of it in December 1689, resulting in the first detailed English description of cannabis. He suggested that it might have curative properties and reported that Knox 'has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho' possibly there may be of Laughter'. [Source: Royal Maritime Museum, June 25, 2012]

Also “the captain's experiences and writings may have influenced his contemporary Daniel Defoe's famous 1719 novel about a castaway, Robinson Crusoe, and his novel Captain Singleton of the following year (the same year that the real-life Captain of Ceylon died). Katherine Frank has written about the degree to which Knox may have influenced Defoe in her book “Crusoe: Daniel Defoe, Robert Knox And The Creation Of A Myth,” although some critics have suggested that she overemphasizes the connection. Whatever the truth about the captain and the novelist, the characteristics of Knox's own writing — clear idiomatic language, factual details, and a strong and self-sufficient 'hero' — are widely recognized to have contributed to the evolution of the English novel.

Andrew Robinson wrote in The Independent: “There is no direct evidence that Defoe ever met Knox, although they both moved in coffee-house circles in London. Nor did Knox mention that he read Robinson Crusoe. But it is certain that Defoe read Knox's work – because he quoted, or more accurately plagiarised, long passages from the book in his novel Captain Singleton, published in 1720, the year of Knox's death. [Source: Andrew Robinson, The Independent June 16, 2011]

“In her skillful parallel retelling of the tumultuous lives of Defoe and Knox, Frank points to many similarities between Robinson Crusoe and Knox's Relation. Some are easy to spot, for instance the Bible both Knox and Crusoe stumble upon, and their method of baking bread. Others are more debatable. I especially like the idea that the solitary footprint in the sand that disturbs Crusoe's peace of mind may have been Defoe's transformation of the lines of footprints in the sand of a Ceylon riverbank, running backwards and forwards, made by the escaping Knox and his companion to confuse pursuers. Influence and creativity often occur in just such a mysterious manner.

“There is, however, a serious difficulty in awarding Knox the starring role in the creation of Crusoe. For Knox "went native" in Ceylon and was very curious about the place and the people; whereas Crusoe is determined to remould an uninhabited island into a home fit for an Englishman. Moreover, to quote Frank, the two men view captivity differently: "Where Knox saw loss, Defoe glimpsed a new beckoning life ahead." But if Crusoe's thesis is not proven, the book captures the vigour, toughness, cruelty, romance and excitement of late 17th-century England and its early imperial adventures.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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