Robert Knox

Ancient Ceylon’s most famous British Captive

Robert Knox, Snr. and his son Robert Knox, Jr. with their merry band of sailors boarded the ship ‘Anne’ in London on January 21, 1658. They were to sail to Persia on trade missions to the East Indies under the British East India Company. 

They suffered the loss of the ship’s mast in a storm along the Coromandel Coast and Bay of Bengal on 19 November 1659, forcing them to anchor the ship at Koddiyar Bay (more correctly Koddiyar or Cottiar), in Trincomalee, South of Trincomalee (estuary of Mahaweli Ganga, Trincomalee) Ceylon.

Adjacent land south of this  bay was known as Kottiar according the great chronicle Mahawamsa and Chulawamsa and this was a Sinhalese dominated area at the time and was under the control of Kandyan King.  Today this area is called Kinnia, Muttur and Sampoor.

The Konxes found the locals friendly and started repairs to the ship with the support of the locals. The ship was docked for months and the word reached the Kandyan King Rajasingha II (1,629-1,687 A.D.) of the foreign ship docked for months at the Koddiyar bay.

The King became suspicious and sent a Disawa to inquire. The Englishmen were arrogant and did not treat the Disawa with due respect to an officer of the crown. Disawe arrested a few Englishmen and by some indirect means made the ship’s captain Robert Knox (Sr.) to come ashore.

Captain Knox came ashore and was waiting for the Disawa in the shade of a large tamarind tree when he was arrested. His son Robert Knox (Jnr.) and 16 others were also arrested and taken to Kandy. The ship was impounded.

Ship crew was forbidden from leaving the kingdom, but they were treated fairly leniently; the younger Knox was able to establish himself as a farmer, moneylender and pedlar. Both men suffered severely from malaria.

The senior Knox died of malaria in 1,661 after a long illness. Robert Knox (Jr.) remained a captive of the king until he eventually escaped with one companion, Stephen Rutland, after nineteen years in 1,680 to the Dutch fort at Arippu. The Dutch transported him to Batavia (now Jakarta), from where he was able to return home on an English vessel, the “Caesar” in September 1680.

During the voyage Knox wrote the manuscript of An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon, an account of his experiences in Ceylon, which was published in 1,681. The book was accompanied by engravings showing the inhabitants, their customs and agricultural techniques.

Read the “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon” eBook

It attracted widespread interest at the time and made Knox internationally famous, influencing Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as well as sparking a friendship with Robert Hooke of the Royal Society. It is one of the earliest and most detailed European accounts of life on Ceylon and is today seen as an invaluable record of the island in the 17th century.

This is a four (4) minute audio review of Robert Knox’s “An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon” book.

Englishmen who governed Ceylon from the 1,790s were proud of Robert Knox and they started looking for the tamarind tree under which Knox was arrested.

In 1,893 the tree was found, identified and a tombstone was set up to commemorate Knox’s arrest under that tree. The tombstone states


AD 1660

When the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance was passed in 1937 the tree was declared a protected tree, along with two others. Unfortunately this tree was destroyed by the floods of 1957 and the cyclone in 1964.

The stone tablet that stood near the foot of the tree was taken to the Colombo National Museum to be preserved for posterity. But a sapling of the original tree survives today at the same place where the stone tablet was.

Credit – Amazing Lanka, Lankapura, Lanka Library, Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg

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